U.S. women enjoy home hill advantage
ASPEN, Colorado ” Julia Mancuso swooped into the finish area at the bottom of Aspen Mountain early Friday morning in typical fashion, an entrance announced by the scraping of ski edges and a roostertail of flying snow.
Aspen, meanwhile, was still waking up. The only onlookers to catch a glimpse of the Olympic giant slalom champion in her signature baby-blue helmet were a handful of curious construction workers on their way to put up scaffolding for a nearby Jumbotron.
Mancuso and the rest of the women of the U.S. alpine team are hoping for a bigger crowd a week from Friday when the 40th anniversary of World Cup racing in Aspen kicks off with the Winternational giant slalom.
“We’re just trying to keep this ski dream alive, so we’re thankful that Aspen welcomes us,” Mancuso, 24, said with a sly grin before heading back up the hill for more training runs. “It’s good to be here.”
For one day, at least.
With the Winternational course all but ready to go, local chief of race Jim Hancock invited the U.S. women to Aspen for an exclusive day of training. The contingent ran giant slalom in the morning, then switched to their slalom skis just before noon while coaches reset the course.
“Having the opportunity to come train on it gives you a little advantage,” said Trevor Wagner, the technical coach for the women’s alpine team.
“It’s a difficult hill, so it’s nice to get used to the terrain,” added Mancuso. “It’s always different on race day, but it’s good to get the training in on a long course.”
Schlepper getting ready
Allowing a home country to train exclusively on a course before other international teams get a crack at it is common practice on the World Cup circuit. International Ski Federation rules stipulate that such training is fair game for home teams, as long as it is at least five days before race day.
Wagner pointed out that Finland’s women’s team had exclusive training sessions on its slalom course in Levi ” the previous stop on the World Cup circuit ” and the extra runs paid off. Three Finnish skiers finished in the top 30, including one in the top 10.
The winner of the Nov. 15 race was defending World Cup overall champion Lindsey Vonn, of Vail, whose status for Aspen remains in question. The 24-year-old took a tumble Wednesday during a super-G training run at Copper Mountain and suffered a bone bruise to her left knee. She is expected to be re-evaluated by doctors Monday.
In Vonn’s absence, her teammates forged on with their preparations for the Winternational.
The focus Friday was to get a feel for the winding Aspen course, skiers and coach said.
“The first couple of runs, they’re just getting a feel and checking things out,” Wagner said. “They’re being smart with their line. As the day went on, they started charging more and more. It’s a good hill. Just to ski on it, once you get comfortable with the terrain and the speed changes, then you’re good.”
Vonn’s friend and fellow Ski Club Vail alumna Sarah Schleper said the course’s feel will change considerably when course crews inject it with water in the coming week to get it up to World Cup specifications. Friday’s runs were simply to get comfortable with the terrain changes and the surroundings.
“I had a good couple of runs,” said Schleper, who is returning to World Cup racing this season after a two-year hiatus to heal from injuries and give birth to her son, Federico Gaxiola. “Just feeling out things, getting back into GS again. We’ve been focused on slalom since Levi. It’s been fun to get back on the GS boards and feel it out. My times are pretty good.
“It’s nothing more than a confidence boost to come over here and race early.”
Mancuso was enjoying the warm Aspen weather after a couple of chilling days at Copper Mountain. She arrived in Colorado after a sojourn at her home in Maui and the temperature change was “kind of a shock.”
Aside from a few loose rocks ” or “floaters,” as Mancuso called them ” the course on Friday looked good, she said. She was appreciative of the effort put forth by local course workers to have a track suitable for training more than a week out from race day.
“I think we’re a little pain in the ass just being here, so, it’s nice of them to let us come train,” she said. “I wish we could stay longer.”
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Jeff Shiffrin, with his wife, Eileen, made the Vail area their home decades ago, and together raised Mikaela and Taylor Shiffrin, who was a member of the two-time NCAA Champion University of Denver Ski Team.