All downhill from here? U.S. women struggling without Vonn
Less than five weeks before the Sochi Olympics downhill, the U.S. women’s Alpine ski team is still trying to click into gear.
Going into Saturday’s World Cup race in Austria, the team is looking for its first top-10 result of the season in downhill — a sharp contrast to last year, when six American speed skiers reached the podium at least once.
"Last year, they pushed themselves to a different level," coach Alex Hoedlmoser said. "This year we are not there yet but we know why we are not there yet. We targeted those areas and it is going to be better."
Results, however, won’t easily improve without Lindsey Vonn, who has curtailed her brief season to undergo surgery again on her injured right knee and will miss the Olympics.
A five-time World Cup downhill champion and 2010 Olympic gold medalist, Vonn has been the standout performer of the team for a long time.
Julia Mancuso, runner-up to her teammate in the downhill at the Vancouver Games, said they’re missing Vonn not just for her results but also for inspiration.
"Lindsey is so consistent," Mancuso said. "So knowing that someone from the U.S. team will always be good, helps the team. … Having a good, positive environment, people winning, it all helps the team spirit. I am sure we are missing that a little."
Struggling with the aftermath of two torn ligaments, Vonn started in just four of the seven World Cup speed races before being forced to sit out the rest of the season.
Still, her best results — 11th in downhill and fifth in super-G, both in Lake Louise — are unmatched by any of her teammates.
Leanne Smith finished sixth in the same super-G but no American was a threat to the winner in any race.
Stacey Cook’s best result in downhill this season is 12th, for Smith it’s 14th, for Mancuso 20th and for Laurenne Ross 22nd.
Coming back from a shattered right leg, Alice McKennis came 43rd in Val d’Isere. Like Vonn, she is going to miss the Olympics.
"She had such a tough injury last year, she is not going to be ready," said Hoedlmoser, adding that McKennis won’t race in Austria this weekend either.
Still, Hoedlmoser is confident that results will improve soon.
"We have still some girls that can be on the podium," he said. "We prepare them like we would have prepared if Lindsey would have been around. So there is not really any changes. … We have still a strong team and we get them as ready as possible."
Asked about the reasons for his team being collectively out-of-form, Hoedlmoser said, without elaborating, "there has been some internal stuff that we know that happened and that we don’t really want to present to everybody."
According to Mancuso, "it’s really hard to explain" what the team has been going through.
"Everyone has been skiing really well, it’s just a matter of doing it in the races," Mancuso said. "It’s really something that is hard to put your finger on. Sometimes when you get off track, it’s hard to get back on."
Despite Vonn’s and McKennis’ injuries, the team spirit has been as good as last season, Cook said.
"As a team we are the same, win or lose, and that’s something that has helped us get better and better," Cook said. "We kind of keep our own mindset in our own little group, it’s pretty positive and fun and the results will come."
Cook, runner-up to Vonn in two consecutive downhills last season, said the impact of the champion’s absence shouldn’t be overrated.
"We miss her, we wish her well, but it’s also a part of the sport," Cook said. "Everyone has gone through (injuries)."
Even if the results don’t reflect it, Cook feels her skiing has improved. For her, it’s not just about winning.
"I am old enough that I can look at smaller things than just results," Cook said. "There has just been a few races that it hasn’t come together but I am so confident in the way I am skiing. My super-G is better than it ever has been. There is a lot of positives and you want them to come together at the right time."
With the Feb. 12 downhill and Feb. 15 super-G in Sochi looming, Hoedlmoser avoids panicking.
"They are skiing well," he said. "Now it’s just time to punch in some results, to get some confidence back, dial in the equipment, do the last pieces in that direction. I think we’re all going to be OK."