U.S. women’s Alpine skiing team looks to new faces without Lindsey Vonn

It is a shame for any competition, Olympic or otherwise, to be defined by who is not here rather than who is, but it is true in so many sports. When Tiger Woods doesn’t enter a golf tournament, the energy and attention is diminished. When the Lakers play without Kobe Bryant, the result gets stamped with an asterisk.

And when Lindsey Vonn misses an Olympics — what with all her appearances in People and Vogue, all her walks down red carpets, not to mention all her World Cup victories — fewer heads turn, fewer televisions click on.

So here come the women of the U.S. Alpine ski team, at the Sochi Olympics to compete without Vonn. This group, which will begin competition in Monday’s super combined, includes three-time Olympic medalist Julia Mancuso, a threat to add to her total here. It includes 18-year-old Mikaela Shiffrin, who will first race Feb. 18 and is a favorite in the slalom three days later.

But to begin the competition, there’s no escaping that Vonn, the most accomplished ski racer in American history, is stateside, recovering from a series of knee injuries. Healthy and in top form, she would be a threat to win medals in four events. At home, she will appear on NBC, an analyst not an athlete, leaving her teammates to up the American medal count on their own.

“We definitely miss Lindsey,” said Mancuso, Vonn’s contemporary and competitor since they were adolescents. “She’s a big presence on our team, and she’s always the one to beat. So you definitely feel that she’s not here.”

Mancuso, 29, is more than capable of performing whether Vonn is around or not. Four years ago in Vancouver, she won silver in the combined — which adds together the times from one downhill run and one slalom run — and she has on her résumé both a silver in the downhill from those Games as well as a gold in the giant slalom four years earlier in Turin.

Vonn’s absence, though, has an impact on the dynamics of the women’s team. Because she has won four World Cup overall titles and 59 races to go along with her two Olympic medals from 2010 — gold in the downhill and bronze in the super-G — she casts a real shadow, for better or worse.

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Mountains of the Olympics

With Vonn trying to work her way back from last February’s crash, in which she tore two knee ligaments, the entire women’s team got off to a slow start last fall. Other than Shiffrin, who has not even arrived in Russia yet, no American women have finished in the top three of a World Cup event this season.

“We didn’t start the season ideally at all,” said veteran Stacey Cook, one of four Americans entered in Monday’s super combined. “It’s not exactly what we had planned. But I think experience helped us pull out of it. I think across the board, our results weren’t showing on paper, but none of us ever stopped believing that we were fast.”

Vonn eventually tweaked her injured knee while training in November, returned to racing in December, suffered another crash in which she tore another ligament — and announced in January she would undergo surgery and miss the Olympics.

“They just haven’t caught the swing since Lindsey said, ‘Okay, you guys run with it,’ ” said two-time Olympic medalist Picabo Street. “Right now, they’re saying, ‘Okay, we got to go.’ ”

Twenty years ago, Street famously had a tense relationship with her most talented contemporary, Hilary Lindh, so she knows something of team dynamics. Vonn’s presence, she said, can dictate how other racers behave.

“Honestly, when you have someone as good as Lindsey on your team, there’s kind of this respect and this loyalty thing, and you don’t really want to step on her toes and whatnot,” Street said. “You have to kind of get [ticked off] to want to beat her, but she doesn’t treat you the way to make you [ticked off], so you can’t get there yourself. So it leads to an interesting situation.”

When Vonn went down, more attention fell to others. Mancuso, now at her fourth Olympics and with more medals than Vonn, can handle that part. But she made an equipment change prior to the season — going to a bigger boot — and when the results didn’t come, she began to doubt the tactic. When she finished 20th in a downhill and 29th in a super-G on Thanksgiving weekend in Beaver Creek, Colo., she felt lost.

“What really happened, in a nutshell, is I let a bad result question what I’m doing, and I let it get in my head, and then I just started making bad decisions,” Mancuso said. “. . . It was a number of things, and I blamed it on maybe switching boots and it being not the right decision. Every race was something different. I was always questioning. I was never confident.”

Cook, who four years ago was taken by helicopter off the Olympic slopes in Whistler, B.C., following a crash, was perhaps most impacted by Vonn’s departure.

“Stacey really kind of liked kind of easing up underneath her, not having to be on the spot as much, letting Lindsey take that spotlight,” Street said. “If you watch last year, she went,” and Street raised her hand up, “and ended up right there.”

The best performances of Cook’s career came in December 2012 at Lake Louise, Alberta, where she was second in a pair of downhills — both times to Vonn.

“As soon as Lindsey went out,” Street said, and she whistled down, “she eased back off it. Like, ‘Ooh, maybe not.’ . . . Stacey needs to wrap her head around the fact that she deserves this.”

The entire team has, by now, had plenty of time to wrap their heads around Vonn’s absence. Monday, they will race the combined, in which Mancuso is the only remote medal threat. But Wednesday comes the downhill, and the competition will begin to take shape. For the American women, will it be defined by who is here or who is not?

Barry Svrluga covers the Washington Redskins and golf.
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