Vail Daily column: Regaining the golden touch

Tom Kelly
Behind the Gold
Lindsey Vonn, center, celebrates her first place finish on the podium with teammate and second-place finisher Stacey Cook, left, and third-place finisher and teammate Julia Mancuso following the women's World Cup downhill ski race in Lake Louise, Alberta, on Dec. 6.

New U.S. Ski Team women’s speed coach Stef Abplanalp sat the front of the room in the Chateau Lake Louise and looked out at the assembled group of nine athletes. His message was simple. “You had a good summer and fall of preparation. Now you’re ready to race. This week you need to show everyone that you really are the best speed team in the world!”

A year earlier, those athletes sat in the very same room, looks of bewilderment on their faces. This was a group that had dominated women’s downhill for several years. But suddenly that speed was gone.

Two years ago — even missing Lindsey Vonn for the latter half of the season — the women’s speed team had 31 top-10 finishes including 16 podiums and six wins. Last season, a total of 10 top-10s — no podiums — a dramatic change for the half-dozen athletes who had each proven their value.

A Comfort Zone

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Lake Louise has historically been good to the U.S. Ski Team. Two years ago, Lindsey Vonn swept all three races — each time with a U.S. teammate at her side in second. It’s a comfort zone for U.S. athletes who grew up racing NorAms on the rolling pitch in the Banff National Park.

But a year ago, it betrayed them and set the scene for a tough season. Now, it was time to get it back.

There was a decidedly different feeling in Lake Louise. You could see it in their faces — a look of confidence. And you really saw it on the hill in downhill training. It was just training, but every athlete attacked the course to find that confidence once again. They had to find that touch, once again, that had taken them as a team to become the best women’s speed team in the world.

And they found it — solid opening day training runs from Stacey Cook, Julia Mancuso, Laurenne Ross and Lindsey Vonn. And punctuating the afternoon was the run of Alice McKennis. Like Vonn, Alice went through multiple knee surgeries. She came to Lake Louise fearful of whether she could regain the skills that won her a World Cup in St. Anton two years earlier. She punched into second, tears of joy filling her goggles as she knew she was back.

As the week went on, the confidence grew. In Friday’s downhill opener, it was Laurenne Ross’ turn to lead. The 26-year-old from Bend, Oregon, still faced demons from a horrific crash there in 2011. Two seasons ago, she was second in Garmisch. But last year she couldn’t find the touch. On opening day, she led four Americans into the top eight, finishing fourth.

Then came Saturday.

‘It’s An Awesome Day’

All week you could see this was a team that was ready to win. The fact that the U.S. Ski Team came away with a victory in Lake Louise was no surprise. But the reality that three women would sweep wasn’t on anyone’s mind. But it symbolized what this group of athletes was about. It was a team.

Anchored by Lindsey Vonn’s 60th World Cup win, Stacey Cook and Julia Mancuso combined to record the first-ever American sweep in FIS Alpine World Cup history! Ross was close behind in sixth — eight top-10s in two races, more than the total output from 2014.

“I always thought this was something possible with our team,” said Cook. “I really wanted to be a part of it when it happened. Sometimes I get intimidated by the thought of racing the whole world. Today, I tried to keep it within our team. I just went out there and I knew that there is so much talent in this group, so I felt like I was just racing against them.”

“The new team dynamic has made us take a step back and not make training so serious,” said Mancuso. “We save all that energy and all those good things we learn while training for race day.

“It’s cool because both of the girls on the podium with me are my age. We’re all the same age—born in ’84—and we’re veterans of the World Cup. We’ve all been working very hard and I’ve grown up with both of them.

“It’s an awesome day!”

One of the most experienced communications professionals in skiing, Tom Kelly is a veteran of eight Olympics and serves as vice president of communications for the Park City-based U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. This column first appeared in the Park Record in Park City, Utah.

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