SALT LAKE CITY -- One is a soldier, taking time off to ski and shoot for gold. Another was Ohio Firefighter of the Year in 1999, now ready to slide headfirst down an ice chute at 80 mph. A third was in New York when the World Trade Center was attacked.
Biathlete Kristina Sabasteanski, skeleton racer Lea Ann Parsley and figure skater Todd Eldredge all have links to the events of Sept. 11 and the patriotic outpouring that followed.
On Friday night, before 3 billion viewers worldwide, they and five U.S. Olympic teammates will help carry the torn and tattered flag from ground zero into the opening ceremony of the Winter Games.
''It's pretty special for me to do this,'' said Mark Grimmette, a three-time Olympian in luge who also was picked for the honor guard. ''It's very emotional. To be representing all the athletes by carrying that flag will be a very special moment.''
Other athletes chosen by their teammates were ice hockey gold medalist Angela Ruggiero, curler Stacy Liapis, speedskater Derek Parra and snowboarder Chris Klug, who is back at the games after a liver transplant.
They will carry the flag, the only one flying at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, in a special procession. It will enter the stadium before the parade of athletes and be held on the field while the national anthem is played, the U.S. Olympic Committee said Thursday.
But plans to raise the flag, which was buried in the rubble of ground zero for three days, while ''The Star-Spangled Banner'' is played were scrapped Thursday. Port Authority police Officers Tony Scannella and Frank Accardi, who brought the flag to Salt Lake City, went to Rice-Eccles Stadium and afterward Salt Lake organizers said the delicate flag could not take the stress of flying on the pole.
The USOC also said that its official flag for the ceremony would now be the one carried into the stadium by short-track speedskater Amy Peterson at the head of the U.S. team.
Scannella and Accardi showed USOC president Sandy Baldwin the flag when they arrived Wednesday night, opening the triangular wooden container that holds the precious banner.
''It made me burst into tears,'' she said.
The procession was arranged in a compromise with the International Olympic Committee, which originally turned down a USOC proposal to carry the flag into the ceremony.
Sabasteanski, from Standish, Maine, is a member of the Army's WCAP program, which helps world-class athletes in the military continue their training.
''When I heard, I was speechless. It is a huge thrill,'' Sabasteanski said. ''As a member of the military, everyone calls us heroes. But those people in New York and overseas serving our country, are the real heroes.
''We are merely representing those who died and all those people fighting the war against terror.''
Parsley won firefighter of the year honors for her work in Granville, Ohio. She was sixth in the 2000-01 skeleton World Cup season standings.
Eldredge, from Lake Angelus, Mich., a five-time national champion, was in New York on Sept. 11 and had to drive back to Michigan when airlines were grounded.
''It is awesome, just a great honor,'' Eldredge said. ''It doesn't represent just the Americans in the World Trade Center, but all the people there, everybody who was involved.''
The ground zero flag will be one of three American flags carried into the stadium. There also will be the one that is raised on the pole beside the Olympic flame and the one carried by Peterson.
Together, the flags and the U.S. team will be the focus of the start of what USOC officials hope is their most successful Winter Games without turning into America's Games.
''I hope the people chanting 'U-S-A! U-S-A!' support the other countries,'' said Jim Shea, a skeleton racer who will take the athletes' oath on behalf of all 2,800 competitors at the ceremony.
Shea's grandfather, speedskater Jack Shea, took the athletes' oath at the 1932 Winter Games in the family's home of Lake Placid, N.Y., and his father, Jim Sr., was an Olympic skier in 1964, making the Shea family the first to produce three generations of Olympic athletes.
The death of his 91-year-old grandfather in a car crash last month will make Friday night's ceremony all the more special, Shea said.
''My grandfather told me about the Olympics, about all that they meant,'' he said. ''It's not about bringing home medals. It's about respecting the competition and bringing that home.''
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