Even without Vonn, US speed team looks strong

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— While most cameras were turned on Olympic downhill champ Lindsey Vonn this week after she bowed out of the Nature Valley Raptor World Cup Races with a partially torn ACL, the rest of the U.S. women’s speed team quietly continued on with what they hope will be another record season.

Despite two notable team members missing — Vonn and Alice McKennis, who has been recovering from a fractured tibia since last winter season — the U.S. still boasts one of the strongest teams in years. McKennis is expected to be back and skiing sometime this season, though exactly when is up in the air. Vonn also hopes to compete in the Olympics and said in an interview with Matt Lauer on the “Today” show Wednesday morning that she plans to get on skis later this week and wants to race next weekend in Lake Louise, Alberta.

American skiing comes of age

Still, when it comes to who will represent the United States come February, coaches have some serious talent to choose from. As U.S. Ski Team member and giant-slalom gold medalist Julia Mancuso said, the season goes on.

“We’re definitely missing two of our teammates, which always kind of sucks, especially because all of us are in the top 15, and we had a big presence last year. But we can’t wait for our entire team to be back,” she said.

Last season, the men’s and women’s U.S. Ski Team made some serious noise in the world standings. As a whole, the team won five FIS Alpine World Ski Championships medals to become the first non-European country to win the nations medal standings. In World Cup results, the women’s speed team placed all six athletes on the podium, four for the first time, and won the nation’s standings for downhill for the fourth straight season.

“If you look at the results we had last year, every single one of (the women’s World Cup team) was on the podium. We have a very, very strong speed team,” said women’s head coach Alex Hoedlmoser. “With the depth, it’s pretty much amazing. Right now we’re missing those two who can be on the podium all the time, but the quality of the team is still there.”

Besides Mancuso, there’s two-time Olympian and downhill veteran Stacey Cook, downhill podium regular Leanne Smith and up-and-comer Laurenne Ross, who didn’t go to the World Championships last year but took a second in the downhill at last year’s World Cup Finals. Of course, on the technical side, don’t forget slalom wonder Mikaela Shriffin.

Spots for Sochi

At the Sochi Olympics, the U.S. can start four women in each event. Mancuso and Cook are likely shoo-ins for the speed events. There could be three or four skiers vying for the two remaining spots, and that’s not even including Vonn if she returns in time.

Hoedlmoser said that it’s likely the U.S. will bring six or seven athletes to the Olympics for each event and decide during training runs who will compete. The next generation of American speedsters looks promising, as well. The crop of young up-and-comers includes Julia Ford, Jacqueline Wiles, Anna Marno, Katie Ryan and Katharine Irwin.

This creates an interesting dynamic on a team where everyone is doing so well that it’s hard to get an Olympic spot, but team members said every person has a mature understanding of the situation.

“Of course you’re bummed (if you don’t get a spot), but in ski racing if you miss out, that’s your own fault, you can’t blame anyone else,” Mancuso said. “Everyone’s really embraced that, and we know that. If you’re the fastest, you’ll race.”

For fans, that means there’s a lot to look forward to for the Winter Olympics.

“It’s very exciting,” Hoedlmoser said. “I’ve been with this team now for 17 years, and I’ve seen it all. At some point, we were one injury away from not having a team, and we started building up from scratch. Now, we have a very strong team.”

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