U.S. Alpine team’s struggles continue in women’s super-G

It is perhaps an unfair measure, but it is also the U.S. Ski Team’s most recent standard for itself: Four years ago in Whistler, B.C., led by a trio of stars skiing their best at precisely the right time, the American Alpine racers ripped through the first five races at the Vancouver Olympics, earning an astonishing seven medals en route to an eight-medal Games.

Saturday morning, on another pleasant, sunny day at the Rosa Khutor Alpine Center, the halfway point of the Sochi Games came and went with little more than a whimper from the Americans. There were medals everywhere, and accomplishments piling up — gold for Austria’s Anna Fenninger, who was joined by teammate Nicole Hosp, whose bronze was her second medal here. Throw in Germany’s Maria Hoefl-Riesch, whose silver was the fourth medal of her Olympic career, and there was plenty of room for joy.

“My happiness was huge,” Hoefl-Riesch said.

So the celebration is on, but for others. With five races to go, the Americans have only Julia Mancuso’s bronze medal in the super combined, and they now face an uncertain final week of competition. When Mancuso — in her fourth Olympics, the veteran of the women’s team — finished her super-G Saturday, her shoulders slumped. She finished eighth.

“It was definitely disappointing,” Mancuso said.

That is in keeping with the United States’ spotty record. Thus far, Mancuso looked like a favorite in the women’s downhill but finished eighth. Either Ted Ligety or Bode Miller — or both — could have medaled in super combined but didn’t. Miller established himself as the favorite in the men’s downhill only to slip to eighth.

“I think there’s definitely some disappointments,” Mancuso said. “Like for sure the downhill, I wanted to have a better a race, and Bode for sure wanted to do better. But it’s hard. There’s really only three spots where you can get a medal, and there’s tons of skiers out here who can really step it up and have their best races.”

Still, asked if the output from Vancouver was too much to expect, too high a standard, Patrick Riml, the Alpine director for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, said immediately, “No,” even as he recognized the arduousness of the task.

“It’s very difficult to achieve,” Riml said. “It was difficult in Vancouver. It’s challenging, challenging to win eight medals.”

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Winter speed demons (and curlers, too)

There is, for sure, room for context. Given the team the Americans brought here and the way several members were skiing, a replication of Vancouver was unlikely. In 2010, Lindsey Vonn was the best female ski racer in the world, and she took gold in the downhill and bronze in the super-G. Four years ago, Miller was 32, an age in which a skier could still be expected to be on the edge of his prime, and he had the best Olympics for any American skier in history — gold in the super combined, silver in the super-G, bronze in the downhill.

And Mancuso was clearly inspired by the moment, following Vonn for silver in the downhill, beating her for silver in the super combined. Add a surprise bronze from Andrew Weibrecht in super-G, and there was never a better Olympics for the Americans.

Now, Vonn is back in the United States after a series of knee injuries, offering analysis on NBC rather than performance on the mountain. Miller is 36 and coming off a year in which he did not ski as he recovered from knee surgery. Mancuso’s reputation as a big-game racer was enhanced by her courageous bronze in the super combined, but her results this season — just three top-10 finishes across all disciplines — did not portend a pile of medals.

Yet the Americans’ goals have not changed.

“We probably expected a little bit more, to be honest,” Riml said.

Five events remain, and the Americans likely will be favored to win medals in two of them: Ligety in Wednesday’s men’s giant slalom and Mikaela Shiffrin, the 18-year-old who would be the betting favorite in Friday’s women’s slalom.

Weibrecht, Miller and Ligety will all race in Sunday’s super-G, but Weibrecht hasn’t been on a World Cup podium since his medal four years ago. Miller was second in the most recent super-G, but he has struggled to ski aggressively on the soft snow of the Caucasus Mountains, which has contributed to several costly mistakes. Ligety won the super-G at last year’s world championships, but he has finished fifth and 31st in two of those races this season.

“I think a lot of people are maybe disappointed almost because it seems like the U.S. is just ‘USA equals gold,’ ” Shiffrin said Saturday.

Shiffrin has finished on the podium in two out of her four World Cup giant slaloms this year, and she could be a contender Tuesday in that event. She said she has watched each of the Olympic races on television thus far, and she has taken the performances as “a learning lesson.” Shiffrin’s slalom gold at the world championships last year was one of five the United States took in Schladming, Austria — to go with three golds from Ligety and a bronze from Mancuso — performances that thus far haven’t been replicated at the Olympics.

“I think part of it for the U.S. is that they’re just trying to find a way to get in the mental game,” Shiffrin said. “Coming off of such a great season last year, they’re all the best skiers in the world. I truly believe that, and I watch ski racing with a very critical eye. And I know our team.

“Sometimes on race day, especially at the Olympics, it’s hard for the best skier or the fastest skier to actually win. It’s easier for the ones who people think they don’t have a chance.”

Yet there have, too, been favorites who have come through here. Hoefl-Riesch leads the overall World Cup standings, has two medals here, and is a threat for more. Fenninger is third in those standings, and burst through with the first Olympic medal of her career.

“Today, it’s the best day of my life,” Fenninger said.

For a beaming Fenninger, that was clearly the case. For the U.S. team, whether such days come will be revealed over the next week.

“The Games aren’t over yet,” Riml said. “We’re halfway through, and we have some strong performers and some good events coming up.”

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Keys to the skis

Barry Svrluga is the national baseball writer for The Washington Post.
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Russia 2 11 3 35
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