Women of U.S. Ski Team struggle in World Cup event at Beaver Creek


Winner Lara Gut of Switzerland is flanked by runnerup Anna Fenninger of Austria, left, and third-place finisher Nicole Hosp of Austria on the podium after the initial World Cup women’s super-G of the season in Beaver Creek, Colo. (Alexis Boichard/Agence Zoom/Getty Images)
November 30, 2013

For the better part of a decade, the U.S. Ski Team’s slogan has been “Best in the World.” The motto, at various times, has been mocked for being nothing more than bravado and, alternately, accepted as the truth. It sets a tone, though, wherever the American athletes go, nowhere more than when they race on home soil, which they do so rarely.

But on another perfect Colorado day, the American women’s Alpine team again struggled Saturday. It is the nature of ski racing because one catch of an edge or one slightly off-line turn can ruin a race, such fine-tuning at 70 mph. The results from Saturday’s super-G, though, were at best disappointing: none of six Americans better than 23rd. In two days here — the first speed races of the World Cup season — no American has been better than 19th.

Right now, the best in the world is Switzerland’s Lara Gut, who followed up her victory in Friday’s downhill with a dominant win in the super-G, one in which she badly caught an edge near the top of the course yet won by more than nine-tenths of a second. After Elisabeth Goergl was disqualified for improper ski equipment, her Austrian teammates Anna Fenninger and Nicole Hosp wound up taking second and third places, respectively.

The Americans are merely trying to regroup.

“Sucking’s not part of the plan,” said Stacey Cook, who was 19th in the downhill and 28th in the super-G. “But I think that we just have to believe in our ability, and I think we’ve proved all prep period that we are ready. It just happened to not come together this weekend. . . .

“Our team generally takes our 30 minutes where we want to yell at everyone, and sometimes we do. But we leave it at those 30 minutes, then move on. That’s all we can do. Dwelling on it is not something that’s going to help.”

There are expected to be brighter days ahead, perhaps as early as Sunday, when Mikaela Shiffrin — the 18-year-old who is the American team’s brightest young hope — makes her debut for the weekend in a giant slalom (though slalom is by far her strongest discipline). Next week, the women’s World Cup moves to Lake Louise, Alberta, where four-time overall champion Lindsey Vonn is hoping to return from a knee injury suffered Nov. 19 on a track she adores.

Vonn hasn’t raced since her Feb. 5 crash at the world championships, when she originally shredded her right knee. She has 59 race wins, second most all time. Her absence here turns the focus to her teammates, who regardless of what they do seem to be struggling by comparison.

“With our group in particular [fans] have to understand that it’s all part of the journey,” Cook said. “None of us are these superhuman athletes like Lindsey has been in the past. We are all learners. We’re all builders.”

That includes 29-year-old Julia Mancuso, who actually has more Olympic medals (three) than her longtime rival Vonn (two). Super-G, skiing’s second-fastest discipline, is Mancuso’s best event; she was second in the season-long standings a year ago with four top-three finishes in six events.

Saturday, though, she was off from the start, more than a second behind Gut’s pace at the top of the course and unable to catch up. She finished 29th and through a U.S. Ski Team spokesman declined to speak with reporters afterward.

“She’s an incredible athlete,” said teammate Leanne Smith, the top American, in 23rd. “She’s going to come back. She’s trying to figure out some stuff [with her equipment]. That happens. Ski racing is the hardest sport I have ever, ever come in contact with. I think that that’s important to understand.”

Gut, as much as anyone, understands it. At 22, she already has enormous disappointment behind her after a crash in 2009 left her out of the 2010 Olympics.

“From one day to the other, I couldn’t move anymore,” Gut said. “It’s just normal for me to have my body working and do everything that I wanted. I just wanted to stand up, and I couldn’t and felt just lost.”

Lost, for the moment, describes the Americans. When Mancuso crossed the finish line, one of the public address announcers — who alternate their time between describing the action and pumping up the crowd — asked the other, “How’s the crowd reacting to that?”

The other, standing in the grandstand, responded through his microphone, “You guys want some free stuff?!” and he hurled T-shirts to the spectators. On a weekend that, to this point, has been lost for the American women, Tom Petty’s “American Girl” thumped through the speakers, yet there was nothing for which to cheer.

“Just because we had a bad weekend here — or some may say a bad weekend, I suppose,” Smith said. “I call it a learning experience. You’re not going to kick ass every single weekend, right? I think it’s going to be good for us. We’re going to get back into our game, our head game.”

Barry Svrluga is the national baseball writer for The Washington Post.
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