BODE MILLER, TONY BENSHOOF AND APOLO OHNO
SKIING, LUGE, SPEED SKATING
Last year, Bode Miller, 28, won the overall World Cup ti tle, the first American in 22 years to do that. This year, his all-or-nothing style has dropped him down in the pack on the international circuit. But no one expects that will derail the outspoken Miller from making a se rious showing in all alpine disciplines.
Tony Benshoof may do what no American man has ever done: reach the podium in luge. The 30-year-old who holds the Guinness World Record for fastest slider (86.6 mph) has finished in the top three in four World Cup events this season.
In short-track speed skating, there's Apolo Ohno and then there's everyone in his rearview mirror. Ohno, 23, won silver and gold medals in 2002, and will likely add to his total as he anchors the U.S. squad by skating three distances in Italy.
In what is generally regarded as the most promising class of rookies in LPGA Tour history, Ai Miyazato is certainly the most intriguing.
While we have watched oth ers such as Michelle Wie and Morgan Pressel grow up playing major champi onships from an early age, Miyazato has already evolved into a champion, an 11-time winner on the women's tour in Japan.
Now the 20-year-old from Okinawa is ready to take on her biggest challenge - the LPGA Tour.
With a resounding and re cord-breaking 12-stroke victory at the tour's Qual ifying School earlier this month, the 5-foot-1 Miyaza to served notice that she is more than ready to take on the other femme phenoms, such as 16-year-old Wie, 17-year-old Pressel and 18-year-old Paula Creamer, who as a rookie last sea son finished second on the money list to Hall of Famer Annika Sorenstam.
"Firstly, I want to be seeded [ranked]," Miyazato said re cently at a packed news conference at an airport in Narita, after returning from Q-school in Daytona Beach, Fla. "Then, if I have a chance, I will go out to win."
Sania Mirza, 19, made histo ry on the pro tennis tour this season and is expected to make more in 2006.
Mirza is 34th in the WTA Tour's year-end rankings - the highest any Indian woman has ever been ranked.
And during this season in which she beat two top 10 players, she became the first women's player from India to reach the fourth round of a Grand Slam tournament.
The last time an Indian man or woman made it that far was 1987. But as popular as she is becoming as a tennis player, she is even more popular as a symbol for In dian women.
Mirza has been described as a warrior princess on the court and a rock star off it.
In tennis, her forehand has been compared to Steffi Graf's.
Off court, she has become a symbol for what is possible among a new generation.
She reads the Quran and prays five times a day. She also wears torn jeans and listens to hip-hop artist Emi nem.
"I just hope five years from now or seven years from now, we have a lot more tennis players out there - and not only one woman [from India] competing," she said.
MARTIN TRUEX JR.
Martin Truex Jr. has excelled in every auto racing series in which he has competed since age 11. So why should that change this season when he steps up to a full-time ride in the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series and runs for Rookie of the Year?
"I hope it can be a smooth transition," Truex, 25, said this month from Orlando, Fla., where he picked up the Busch Series championship trophy for the second consecutive year.
"But we've got a little to work on. The setups will be obviously different because of the different weight in the car. And the horsepower will be different."
Though Truex will be competing against a deep rookie field that includes Reed Sorenson, Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer and J.J. Yeley, he does have a head start.
He ran seven races for his car owner, Dale Earnhardt Inc. In those races he had one top-10 finish.
A native of New Jersey, Truex broke into NASCAR by driving in the Busch North Series for his family-owned team in 2000. In 2003, Dale Earnhardt Jr. gave him a chance in the top Busch Series with his newly formed team, Chance 2.
The next year, Truex won the title. This season, driving for DEI, he won it again.
"I don't have any expectations going into the Cup program," Truex said.
A year ago, T.J. Ford didn't know if he was ever going to play basketball again.
An All-American at Texas who was the top draft pick of the Milwaukee Bucks in 2003, Ford was seriously injured 55 games into his rookie season, suffering a bruised spinal cord that temporarily caused him to lose feeling in his limbs.
Receiving a diagnosis of spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal column, Ford was told that he risked permanent paralysis if he played basketball, lifted weights or even ran again.
Through an intense rehabilitation process, he returned to the court last summer and to the NBA this season. He resumed his role as the team's starting point guard.