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    Sunday, February 22, 1998

    For U.S., they've become the Women's Olympics

     NAGANO, Japan (AP) -- Forget the disinterested, chair-breaking men's hockey team. Its only medal was for underachievement.
     Tommy Moe? A no-go in Nagano. So were bobsledder Brian Shimer, luger Wendel Suckow and the Alpine ski team, all of whom got nothing for a long trip to Japan.
     Who did the heavy lifting for the U.S. team at the Winter Olympics?
     They won four of the six golds and eight of the 13 American medals. Take those away and the United States would have had its worst Winter Games since the six-medal disaster at Calgary in 1988. Instead, it matched the best U.S. finish ever, at the 1994 Games at Lillehammer.
     U.S. Olympic Committee executive director Dick Schultz said America's ability to put together formidable women's teams and individual performers "goes back to the school and college programs we have back in the States, things like Title IX."
     Although the legislation forced colleges to upgrade their women's sports programs, they still attract small crowds in most communities and campuses. But whenever a gold medal is draped around the neck of athletes like figure skater Tara Lipinski or hockey player Cammi Granato or softball star Dot Richardson or skiier Picabo Street, thousands more U.S. schoolgirls become motivated not to be just watch, but play.
     Fittingly, Granato carried the U.S. flag in the closing ceremonies Sunday, and the women's hockey team will be pictured on limited-edition Wheaties boxes beginning March 2.
     "I know I'm going to drive into a gas station, and somebody is going to say, 'Hey, you're on the Wheaties box!' " forward Karyn Bye said. "And I'm going to say, 'I know it. Do you believe it!"'
     Women already drive the Olympic TV ratings; soon they may be driving the U.S. medal count. In Atlanta, they contributed 13 golds to America's overall domination. The question already being asked around the USOC offices is how long it will take the rest of the world to catch up.
     "If you're going on the medal count, yes, it's a substantial edge," Schultz said. "I'm really pleased with the success and the increase in medals, though I don't see how we can iprove on our results in Atlanta."
     The hockey team was an unlikely candidate to wind up on a cereal box, given the pre-games buildup for the men's hockey team, treet, Michelle Kwan vs. Lipinski, and, later, the impossibly upbeat Jonny Moseley's gold medal in moguls.
     But its unrehearsed enthusiasm, sheer joy of participation and team-must-come-first attitude were too enthralling and unforced to be ignored, much as the softball stars of 1996 gained a big following despite limited TV exposure.
     Nobody knew the women's hockey team three weeks ago. Now, nobody can forget them.
     "We won the gold medal, we did David Letterman's Top Ten list, now, this," defenseman Vicki Movsessian said. "It was a great Olympics, a great ending. It's what every kid in America wants to do, and it happened to us."