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    Sunday, February 8, 1998

    'Old Ladies' in a young woman's sport

     YAMANOUCHI, Japan (AP) -- Sondra Van Ert and Betsy Shaw are not your typical Betty Boards.
     The term -- lingo for female snowboarders -- conjures up images of teen-age Valley Girls.
     But Van Ert and Shaw are 30-something "old ladies" with a serious mission: winning the first ever women's gold medal in the new Olympic sport of snowboarding.
     Van Ert, 33, and Shaw, 32, are half of the U.S. women's team entered for the giant slalom race at Mount Yakebitai on Monday (Sunday night EST). The other Americans are Rosey Fletcher, 22, and Lisa Kosglow, 24.
     With the American men shut out of the podium in the giant slalom, the women were looking to produce the first U.S. medals of the Nagano Games.
     France's Karine Ruby, winner of six straight World Cup races this season, came in as the favorite. But all four Americans were considered medal contenders.
     "I think we're gonna kick some real butt here," said Fletcher, a bubbly Alaskan with a raven tattoo on her right shoulder.
     Getting to the Olympics has been a long and circuitous journey for Van Ert and Shaw.
     Von Ert, of Ketchum, Idaho, skied for the U.S. Alpine team for three seasons. After reconstructive surgery on her right knee, she took up snowboarding in 1989. She was 25.
     "I took one run, tumbled all the way down and I was hooked," she said. "I loved the feeling of the sharp turn, the perfect carve that I had never been able to achieve on skis. Plus, powder was the ultimate on a snowboard. I felt completely free, as if I were just floating down the slope."
     Van Ert was the only woman to win two medals at both the 1996 and 1997 World Championships. She won the gold in the GS at last year's worlds in Italy.
     Like Van Ert, Shaw took up skiing at age 3. She also tried racing, but switched to snowboarding in 1988 at age 23. She's been one of the most successful U.S. riders of the 1990s.
     Shaw, of East Dorset, Vt., recalls aspiring to compete in the Olympics -- as a figure skater.
     "I remember as a little kid watching Dorothy Hamill win something or other," she said. "I remember getting caught up in the hype. I immediately went out and tried skating on the pond in our backyard. I fell a lot. I still can't skate very well."
     While the wome prepared for their first medal event, the men marked snowboarding's Olympic debut with a rousing coming-out party.
     As thousands of Japanese fans cheered enthusiastically, blew tiny horns and did the wave, Canada's Ross Rebagliati shredded his way through heavy fog on the second run to win the men's giant slalom.
     Italy's Thomas Prugger took the silver and Switzerland's Ueli Kestenholz got the bronze.
     Rebagliati, 26, dedicated the victory to Canadian snowboard buddy Geoff Leidal, nicknamed "Lumpy," who was killed in an avalanche last month in British Columbia.
     "This one's for Lumpy," Rebagliati said, choking up.