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Go For The Gold: Leanne Smith

Go For The Gold

Leanne Smith
Leanne Smith skis during Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup women's downhill training on Jan. 26, 2012 in St.Moritz, Switzerland.

BY PEGGY SHINN I JAN. 08, 2013

On December 14, 2012, in a weather-shortened World Cup downhill in Val d’Isere, France, Leanne Smith did something she had never done before. The U.S. Ski Team veteran made the World Cup podium, finishing second — and downhill isn’t even her strongest discipline. Her best World Cup results have come in super G.

“Lately, I’ve been feeling a lot more confident in super G,” she explained after the race. “But I know that I have speed in downhill, and any day can be your day.”

Smith, 25, has had speed going downhill since she started skiing at Mt. Cranmore in her hometown of North Conway, N.H. The small town sits in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, and Cranmore, a bump of a ski area made famous by legendary Austrian ski instructor Hannes Schneider (who brought his Arlberg technique there in 1939), rises right from the streets of downtown.

Her father was a groomer at Cranmore, so Smith started skiing at age 6.

“She was a real cute fire plug of a kid,” said T.O. Currier, one of her first coaches. “She wore glasses, thick glasses, and she always needed someone to clean both her glasses and goggles before races because she would get so excited, they would fog up."

Smith remembers trying to keep up with the boys and not really caring about authority.

“I was always getting yelled at for not putting the [chairlift’s safety] bar down and for straight-lining from top to bottom,” she said laughing.

One Thanksgiving when Smith was 9, she was skiing at Cranmore with her dad and older sister, Laurel. On one of the mountain’s steepest trails, Smith realized that she could catch air off a bump in the middle of the trail if she was going fast enough.

“Dad, watch this!” she yelled as she pointed her skis straight downhill.

She flew so high off the bump that she crashed hard and broke a leg and tore knee ligaments. But she was back for more the following season.

One of her early coaches, Tyler Palmer, saw Smith’s potential immediately — and perhaps a bit of himself in her as well. Palmer, the first U.S. man to win a World Cup in Europe and a 1972 Olympian, coached Smith until she was about 12.

“She was not as technically solid as a Lindsey Vonn,” he said. “More like me, she’s a power skier, not a finesse skier. But she had a clock in her head, and she was always trying to go a little faster.”

But Smith did not stand out at Cranmore. Many of her teammates were fast too. She was “in the pack but not extraordinary,” said Currier.

“At Cranmore at that time, we were always sending kids to Topolino and Whistler,” said Curt Bartlett, then director of the Cranmore race program, referring to the two top junior races in the world (Trofeo Topolino in Italy and the Whistler Cup in Canada). “We were used to that standard.”

Smith strove to compete with her peers — such as Abbi and Jenny Lathrop, twins who became NCAA All-Americans, and Jenny also made the U.S. Ski Team.

 Ace Tarberry, Leanne Smith, Tyler Palmer
(L-R) U.S. Ski Team member Ace Tarberry, Leanne Smith, and 1972
Olympian Tyler Palmer at Mt. Cranmore in June 2011 at the Damon
O'Neal Fundraiser. (credit: Stefi Reed Hastings Photo)

Unlike the Lathrops and other top racers, Smith did not attend a ski racing academy. She stayed home and attended Kennett High School in North Conway.

“I think having a normal high school adolescence is really important,” she said. “A lot of ski racers haven’t done that. I think they missed out.”

After graduating from Kennett in 2005, she hoped to race for the University of Vermont ski team but was turned her down. Instead, she attended the University of New Hampshire, where she was consistently in the top five, often beating UVM skiers.

Smith left UNH after her freshman year to train with another local ski team, the Mt. Washington Valley Ski Team, and the U.S. development team, and again her “I’ll-show-them” attitude served as a motivator. That winter, she won the overall NorAm title. This result earned her a spot on the U.S. Ski Team and a World Cup start.

The following December (2007), she finished 23rd in her first World Cup — very respectable for a rookie. Since then, she has raced in 76 World Cups and finished in the top 30 in over half of them. But she struggled to break into the top 10. She made the 2010 Olympic team in super G and super combined, finishing 18th and 21st, respectively.

Last Christmas, Smith skied at Cranmore with the young racers while she was home on a World Cup break. She was sitting in a building by the racecourse when the former race director Curt Bartlett walked in. They chatted for a while, then Smith said, “You know Curt, I know I’m fast, I know I’m going to break through.”
Twelve months later, she did, making the final leap onto the podium in the Val d’Isere downhill. Smith finished 16/100ths behind Swiss star Lara Gut, who has eight World Cup podiums on her resume. Lindsey Vonn crashed.

Asked what led to improved results, Palmer, whom Smith calls a mentor, thinks injuries kept her from breaking onto the top 10 earlier — like a fall in a 2009 World Cup downhill that caused her to tear an ACL. For the past year she has been healthy.

Smith credits her success to a return to fundamentals. Under professional ski instructor Mike Rogan, whom the U.S. Ski Team recently hired as a skills coach, she got back to basics.

“I really have him to thank over the last couple of seasons,” said Smith. “He’s really opened it up to me as far as technique and basic fundamentals of skiing. It’s just been a lot of work, drills, and really feeling confident with my platform.”

And yet again, Smith’s teammates are pushing her. With four different U.S. teammates on the podium in speed races so far this year — Smith, Vonn, Stacey Cook, and Julia Mancuso — she says it helps everyone on the team know that World Cup hardware is within reach.

“To have a team that’s so deep and cares so much about each other’s success, pushing each other day in and day out, whether it’s in the gym or training or racing, it’s a great feeling,” she said, “I couldn’t ask for a better time to be on the ski team.

“Hopefully you'll see more of me now.”

Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.