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    Wednesday, February 18, 1998

    Bergoust worked hard for world record

     IIZUNA KOGEN, Japan (AP) -- Eric Bergoust looks the part.
     He sports two rings through his left ear, a goatee and mutton chop sideburns that he jokes are "swooshes that Nike pays me $500,000 to wear."
     But Bergoust is more than a freestyle beatnik with attitude.
     This is a guy who put in 13 years of hard work and sacrifice, diving off chimneys to practice somersaults, scraping for dollars to pay for training and overcoming crashes, broken bones and other adversity.
     This is a guy who bangs up his ribs in a spectacular training crash just before the Olympic final, and, barely able to breathe, sucks it up and hits the highest-scoring jump total in history.
     This is a guy who deserves a gold medal for perseverance as much as for the twisting back flips that earned him the gold in men's aerials.
     "It's been a huge challenge," he said. "The thing I'm most proud of is how hard it was to achieve."
     What Bergoust achieved Wednesday was a world-record score of 255.64 points for the gold -- joining fellow American Nikki Stone, who nailed both her somersaults to top the women's field with 193.00 points.
     Added to Jonny Moseley's victory in men's moguls last week, their efforts gave the United States three of its five gold medals so far in the Nagano Games.
     Bergoust, 28, of Missoula, Mont., got hooked on aerials when he saw a World Cup event on television in 1985. For practice, he threw himself off the chimney of his parents' farmhouse, landing on a pile of mattresses.
     Bergoust and his two brothers performed tumbling and trampolining exhibitions to raise money for his budding freestyle career.
     "It took me three years to raise enough money to buy a $400 used car and a tent and drive to Lake Placid when I was 18," he said. "I was a skinny little dork then. But I just took more jumps than anybody else. I just trained harder than anybody for 10 years."
     Success came slowly.
     "I didn't land (a jump) for three years," he said. "But I just loved to jump. I had faith and determination I would figure it out someday."
     Bergoust pressed on, finishing seventh in Lillehammer in 1994 and winning a number of World Cup events. But he suffered a back injury that sidelined him for the 1995 season, and broke his collarbone last year.
     So when Bergoust crashed in training just before the final Wednesday (Tuesday night EST), it could have been the final setback.
     "It's the worst crash I've had in two years," he said. "I landed on my chest. As I rolled to the bottom of the hill, I wasn't sure I'd be able to jump."
     Bergoust's ribs were so sore he couldn't take a deep breath. But that wasn't about to stop him after putting in 13 years of his life for this moment.
     "I jump for fun but I wasn't competing for fun today," he said. "I wanted to get first or crash. So I went big."
     On his first jump, Bergoust nailed a near perfect "quad" -- or quadruple twisting back somersault. The judges awarded him 133.05 points -- the highest total for any single jump in the sport.
     He hit another quad for 122.59 points on his second jump, bringing his combined total to a record 255.64.
     "The hardest thing is to keep having faith when you fail," he said. "Failure is a good thing. It only makes you stronger."
     It's also been a long climb for the 26-year-old Stone, of Westborough, Mass.
     She nearly retired after failing to qualify for the final in Lillehammer. Then she suffered a series of injuries, including a debilitating disc ailment in her back.
     "A year and a half ago, I was the most miserable person you've ever met," Stone said. "Doctors were telling me I'd never jump again and I was believing them."
     Bergoust and Stone plan to eep jumping and take their sport to a new level with harder and harder tricks.
     "We wantto do five twists next," Bergoust said. "The men have been doing four for 10 years now. I believe five can be done. It will just take a couple years of training to figure out how to do it."
     Count on Bergoust to find a way.