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The new guy: Marco Odermatt is the Next Big Thing in skiing

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It's like how Lindsey Vonn was inspired by Picabo Street when she met her idol as a 9-year-old kid at an autograph-signing session: When he was 10, Marco Odermatt won a junior race and benefitted from the coveted first-place prize — a day of skiing with his idol, Swiss downhill great Didier Cuche.

"Didier was my one and only idol and I always looked up to him and cheered him every race and was really emotionally connected to him," Odermatt, Alpine skiing's breakout star entering the Beijing Olympics, said in a recent interview. "When he won I was the happiest kid and when he didn't (win) I cried sometimes at home."

Odermatt won the junior race three times, each resulting with the chance to ski with Cuche, who holds the record with five downhill wins on the feared Streif course in Kitzbühel, Austria.

"I was very nervous meeting him and didn't talk much," Odermatt said. "But just the whole period with him and looking up to him, that was the big thing for me."

Flash forward a dozen years and Odermatt is still baby-faced at 24 but he's leading the overall World Cup standings and fulfilling the promise seen when he won five gold medals at the junior world championships in 2018.

He's a legitimate medal threat in three events at next month's Beijing Games: giant slalom, super-G and downhill.

"For sure a medal will be the goal," Odermatt said, while acknowledging this his bigger aim for this season is to win the overall World Cup title after finishing second behind Alexis Pinturault last year.

Odermatt has been downright dominant in giant slalom, winning four of the five World Cup races this season. He's also won two super-Gs recently and finished second in the three toughest downhills: in Bormio, Italy; Wengen, Switzerland; and Kitzbühel.

"It's a lot of pressure on him. He's got a lot of sponsors. Right from the start," retired Swiss racer turned TV analyst Marc Berthod said, adding that Odermatt has a "champion's mindset. Others struggle or are nervous and struggle in the races; he can always handle that."

With his modest personality and origins from the small canton of Nidwalden in central Switzerland, the blonde-haired Odermatt — his nickname is "Odi" — is quintessentially Swiss.

Away from skiing, he enjoys attending Swiss wrestling festivals — a sort of medieval version of the sport contested on sawdust.

"It's a great Swiss tradition," Odermatt said. "It's great to watch, amazing atmosphere and a good party after."

His main summer hobby is boating.

"I live near a lake," Odermatt explained. "I don't have a boat yet but I have the boat license and some friends have a boat, so we are a lot on the lake in summer."

Unlike many elite skiers, Odermatt doesn't have a private team. He relies fully on the Swiss squad and even uses Swiss skis made by Stöckli, a relatively small manufacturer compared to the bigger Austrian brands that sponsor most of the top racers.

"They are doing everything for me and everything works perfectly with them," said Odermatt, who has had the same ski technician, Chris Lödler, for six years — stretching back to his junior days.

Technically sound in giant slalom, Odermatt's racing style in the speed events of super-G and downhill is a bit more unconventional.

"He's still developing as a skier," American racer Ryan Cochran-Siegle said. "Technically he is able to put a lot of risk out there, which other guys, when they ski that way, it usually doesn't pay off. But for him, he seems to be agile enough to kind of sneak through."

Cochran-Siegle pointed to Odermatt's super-G win in Beaver Creek, Colorado, last month — when the Swiss racer was able to correct his trajectory mid-air over the final jump and narrowly clear the last two gates — as an example of what makes him so talented.

"You need that as a super-G skier to kind of ski to your limit and push that and that's how you do well," Cochran-Siegle said, comparing him to greats like Hermann Maier and Bode Miller — two of Cuche's contemporaries.

Standing 6 feet (1.83 meters) tall, Odermatt looks nothing like his idol. At 5-foot-8 (1.74 meters), Cuche was compact and more muscular.

"I didn't try to ski like (Cuche). I just tried to ski," Odermatt said. "He's totally a different kind of skier. … I stayed on my (path) and tried to do the technique the way I do."

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More AP Winter Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/winter-olympics and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Andrew Dampf is at https://twitter.com/AndrewDampf

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