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TWO-SPORT STAR IS READY TO BLOOM.

Byline: STEVE DILBECK

TURIN, Italy - This is the end, and the beginning. And then again, maybe not.

It could just be a continuation, a bright moment in a singular career. Or a memorable farewell before chasing after his first love.

All Jeremy Bloom can be certain of is he will be a medal favorite in the men's freestyle moguls Wednesday at the 2006 Winter Olympics.

Which could signal the end to his career as a professional skier.

``It could, and it couldn't,'' Bloom said. ``It could be my last ski event. And if so I would walk away with a huge smile on my face when it comes to skiing. I feel very fortunate to be able to have the experiences I've had. This opportunity here is incredible.

``But I look forward to immediately after this putting my heart and my passion into something that in my opinion was taken from me.''

Yeah, there still is that. Bloom is the rarest of two-sport stars, or at least he used to be until the NCAA ruled the Colorado wide receiver ineligible for life for accepting endorsement money for skiing.

Bloom fought that in court and lost, one of the few setbacks he has experienced in recent years.

Otherwise, he has been on some kind of roll. He made the 2002 Olympic team and placed ninth. Media interest in his unusual sports crossover, coupled with photogenic looks, brought him major attention.

And endorsements and fame and money. Sports Illustrated for Women named him one of the ``Sexiest Men in Sports.''

All seemed good, until the NCAA came calling, ending his career at Colorado after two seasons.

That did enable Bloom to concentrate on his skiing, and even if a secondary choice, there never was a doubt about his ability on the slopes.

Jeff Wintersteen, the U.S. team's sixth-year coach, remembers clearly the first time he saw the teenager attack a mountain.

``One run and I'm saying, 'Who is this kid?' '' Wintersteen said. ``He was starting at 80 percent. I was sold on football on that first run.''

If Wintersteen had no problem with Bloom as a two-sport star, neither did the University of Colorado.

Though only 5-feet-9, Bloom is blazing fast. As a freshman in 2002, he caught a 94-yard touchdown pass - longest in school history. He returned his first punt 75 yards for a TD.

Bloom credits football for helping him raise the level of his skiing and believes that gives him a greater edge here than having previous Olympic experience.

``When I look back on the last three years the thing that has helped me the most to this point is football,'' he said. ``It's a very similar to all of this about every week. Eighty-thousand people, playing in front of pressure.''

Something has worked well. In 2003, he was the World Cup champion in dual moguls and took the silver in moguls. Last year, he was the overall World Cup champion, with a record-tying six World Cup victories.

He and teammate Toby Dawson, Australia's Dale Begg-Smith and Finland's Janne Lahtela are the medal favorites in Turin.

Bloom, the son of a Colorado ski instructor, could have walked away from skiing after winning the 2005 title to concentrate on football, but the call of another Olympics proved too strong.

``I love to ski, I love to compete,'' he said. ``For me, there really isn't a bigger honor than to represent our country in the Olympics and walk in the opening ceremony.

``I think a lot of that gets lost in our celebrity-crazed culture and the constant desire to win. It's really not about who finishes first but the experience and the camaraderie. We get to be around so many athletes from different countries who give most of their lives, not for money and not really for glory, but because they love to do it.

``It's a really incredible feeling. That was a big draw for me to come back. And two-time Olympian sounds pretty cool, too.''

After carving up Turin, Bloom will quickly turn his focus to the combine for likely NFL draft picks.

Bloom has had precious little time to hone his football skills while preparing for Italy. And there would seem to be underwhelming interest in a 5-9 wide receiver who hasn't played football for two years.

``I think anything is possible,'' he said. ``I feel like I had a lot of success at the University of Colorado in the two years I put limited time into the sport. A lot will depend on the combine, a lot will depend on my individual workouts with teams. And then comes April 29th.''

That would be the NFL's draft day. He could go as a second-day pick, some team willing to gamble on his speed and ability to return punts.

``I wouldn't overlook his chances at making it in the NFL and neither would his teammates,'' Wintersteen said.

Bloom is used to doubters, most of whom become converts. He also has competed against several college players who now have successful careers. He said a popular video game ranked Giants cornerback Will Allen as one of the fastest players in the NFL.

``And I beat Will Allen in a 100-yard dash in a superstars' competition in 2003,'' he said. ``And (Carolina Panthers wideout) Steve Smith is 5-9, so I don't want to hear about my height.''

For now, his focus is on freestyle skiing, not that experience at returning punts will provide much benefit when he enters the starting gate.

``There's not much like returning a punt,'' he said. ``I know no one is running to take my head off here.''

He just doesn't know if Wednesday will signal the end of his life as a professional skier and the beginning as a professional football player.

CAPTION(S):

photo

Photo:

Jeremy Bloom will compete in the freestyle moguls in Turin next week, then will head to Indianapolis for the NFL combine.

Kim Jae-Hwan/Getty Images
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 10, 2006
Words:995
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