Getting to know the U.S. Ski Team

The Americans are dominating the women’s World Cup speed

Everybody knows of Lindsey Vonn, the overall downhill champion the last five World Cup crystal globes. But the rest of the American roster is starting to turn heads on the downhill, too. Enlarge photo

Giovannie Auletta/Associated Press file photo

Everybody knows of Lindsey Vonn, the overall downhill champion the last five World Cup crystal globes. But the rest of the American roster is starting to turn heads on the downhill, too.

CORTINA D’AMPEZZO, Italy

Most people know of Lindsey Vonn and Julia Mancuso and maybe recently heard of American teen skiing sensation Mikaela Shiffrin.

But who are these other U.S. women finishing atop the podium on the World Cup circuit?

Downhillers Stacey Cook, Leanne Smith and Alice McKennis each are in the middle of breakout seasons. They’ve had so much success that for the first time in recent memory, coaches will have a tough time selecting the four starters for the downhill at next month’s world championships.

Vonn leads the World Cup downhill standings, Cook is second, McKennis fourth, Smith sixth, Mancuso 11th and Laurenne Ross 21st. Of those six, only four get to start the worlds downhill Feb. 10 in Schladming, Austria.

“It’s going to be very difficult,” longtime speed coach Chip White said. “It’s better than squabbling over someone who’s 30th place. It’s definitely a problem, but it’s a good problem.”

While Vonn’s five victories this season all have come in speed events, she hasn’t been alone on the podium.

Cook finished second behind Vonn in the opening two downhills of the season in Lake Louise, Alberta. Smith was second in Val d’Isère, France, last month and showed it wasn’t a fluke with a third-place result in Cortina last weekend. McKennis had the biggest breakthrough of all, winning the challenging downhill this month in St. Anton, Austria.

All three skiers never before had finished on the podium.

Add two podium finishes for Mancuso in super-G, that’s 12 podiums overall for the speed team. In the country downhill standings, the Americans hold a massive 441-point lead over Switzerland.

Ross, one of the newest members of the team, also has podium potential, as evidenced by her fourth-place finish in a super-G in Tarvisio two seasons ago and a fifth-place result in St. Anton when McKennis won.

It’s clear the U.S. women are the best speed team in the world, and the transformation couldn’t have occurred at a better time – a year before the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

Naturally, the team has been asked repeatedly how it became so successful. Smith recounted a conversation the racers had in the team van recently on the subject. It started with some jokes, then got serious.

“First we were like, ‘We listen to Justin Bieber together, or we all sleep in one big bed every night, or we have these rituals.’ But, no,” Smith said. “There’s a lot of hard workers on this team. Everybody wants to help each other out and see each other do well.

“When you see a teammate come down and podium you say, ‘Hey, I can do that, too.’ When you see that with Lindsey and Julia every day, you watch them ski and see what they do, you can emulate that. Obviously, they’ve had a lot of success in the past so there’s a lot to be taken from them.

“It’s kind of nice to be on the U.S. Ski Team right now,” Smith said. “We’re having fun.”

According to White, it’s been a gradual building process to get to this point. He’s been with the team for 17 years and has worked together with head coach Alex Hoedlmoser for 16 years.

Vonn described White’s dedication by recounting how the coach kept working this season after accidentally cutting his finger off with a table saw.

“He had one hand all taped up, and he was still out there carrying gates around and wrenching in gates and working just as hard as he always does even though he was in excruciating pain,” said Vonn, winner of the last five World Cup downhill titles.

While European skiers go home between races, the U.S. team goes on the road for months at a time. Consequently, a family atmosphere develops.

Julia Mancuso is a household name around the women’s World Cup circuit, but American teammates such as Stacey Cook, Alice McKennis, Laurenne Ross and Leanne Smith are serving notice. Enlarge photo

Marco Trovati/Associated Press file photo

Julia Mancuso is a household name around the women’s World Cup circuit, but American teammates such as Stacey Cook, Alice McKennis, Laurenne Ross and Leanne Smith are serving notice.

American tennager Mikaela Shiffrin has joined USA stalwarts Julia Mancuso and Lindsey Vonn in the top 10 of this year’s overall World Cup standings, and she leads the slalom standings after seven races. Enlarge photo

Marco Trovati/Associated Press file photo

American tennager Mikaela Shiffrin has joined USA stalwarts Julia Mancuso and Lindsey Vonn in the top 10 of this year’s overall World Cup standings, and she leads the slalom standings after seven races.