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TOM POWERS, St. Paul Pioneer Press, on FIRST-TIME OLYMPIANS:
SALT LAKE CITY _ Jerret "Speedy" Peterson, an aerial freestyle skier, couldn't stop grinning. Just 20, he is experiencing his first Olympics.
"I'm loving it! I'm loving it!" he kept telling interviewers. "I like attention."
A few moments later, Peterson again looked around at all the cameras and notepads.
"It's going to be kind of weird to be left all alone again in a couple of weeks," he said, his voice trailing off just a bit.
Just as quickly as the spotlight was turned on, it will be turned off. Many Winter Olympians soon will return to a life of near-anonymity as they either resume training or move on to the rest of their lives.
For 3 years, 11 months and 2 weeks, the public tends to ignore lugers, biathletes, speed skaters and others who compete in what we consider non-mainstream sports. Then the Olympics roll around and an entire nation instantaneously rallies behind these same athletes.
The national embrace is sudden, all encompassing and fleeting, lasting only until the final round of applause at the Closing Ceremony.
"I've definitely done more interviews in the last few days than I've done in the last three years," said Nick Sullivan, a luger from Oakdale, Minn. "Not a lot of people know about luge. I don't expect them to. But it's great to get some attention. Even if it's only for two weeks."
Many of them come to the Games well prepared for their time on the world stage. They bring stories to tell and experiences to share.
Nina Kemppel, a cross-country skier, told of how she was born in a Colorado canyon when her mother went into labor prematurely. Aerial skier Eric Bergoust, a gold medallist in Nagano, Japan, related how he used to jump off of the roof as a child. He also promised to tell the story of his most harrowing injury.
"I busted my collarbone in six places," he said. "It's pretty cool."
Jerret Peterson of Idaho, Bergoust's teammate, is telling all his friends about the free soda he gets in the Olympic Village.
"Free Coca-Cola!" Peterson says. "It's awesome."
But for some, the quick and dramatic public embrace can be traumatic.
"I train alone," said John Bauer, a cross-country skier from Duluth, Minn. "The huge outpouring of support is ... overwhelming."
When luger Adam Heidt competed in the Nagano Games, he was so stunned by the show of support that his performance may have suffered.
"It's funny,' he said, shaking his head. "People you've never seen in your life are yelling for you, yelling your name."
Kemppel is a four-time Olympian. Had she been born in, say, Oslo instead of the United States, she'd probably have her own statue in the town square.
Cross-country skiing is hugely popular in Norway, where Olympians are considered national heroes 365 days a year. Here, with few exceptions, the public rarely takes notice during non-Olympic years. Kemppel is among those who truly enjoy the short period of attention, if for no other reason than it breaks the monotony.
"This is a very solitary sport," she said. "Our motivation …