(L-R) Top row: Laurenne Ross, Lindsey Vonn, Alice McKennis; Bottom: Stacey Cook, Leanne Smith, Julia Mancuso
The first women’s FIS World Cup downhill of the 2014 season kicks off on the new Raptor course at Beaver Creek, Colo., the day after Thanksgiving. The downhill was supposed to be Lindsey Vonn’s first race since she tore up her right knee last February at the 2013 FIS Alpine Ski World Championships. Then in a training crash last week, she strained her reconstructed knee and partially tore the ACL. Her status is now wait and see.
“Rehab is going well, and I am working as hard as I can to race in Lake Louise in a few weeks,” wrote Vonn on Facebook, then added, “PS: don't worry guys, this is only a temporary setback. Nothing will keep me from picking myself back up and continuing to fight for my dreams. #sochi2014 #whenyoufallgetbackup #notstopping #workinghard.”
But the U.S. women’s alpine team can make headlines even without Vonn. Julia Mancuso is a favorite, especially in the super-G on Saturday. The 29-year-old three-time Olympic medalist stood on the world cup super-G podium four times last season and finished second overall in super-G standings. She also took home the super-G bronze medal at the 2013 world championships.
Then there are the four other headliners on the U.S. women’s alpine speed team — Stacey Cook, Alice McKennis, Laurenne Ross and Leanne Smith. Last season, all six women who race the speed events (downhill and super-G) stood on the world cup podium at least once and were all ranked in the top 20.
This season, all six will be gunning for spots on the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team. Only four athletes can enter each alpine race in the Olympic Winter Games, and any alpine skier with a top-three world cup finish this season is nominated to the team, unless the U.S. has more than three athletes with a podium finish in the event. For complete selection procedures, click here.
As the women discovered last winter, what happens in the opening races could set the tone for the season — and the team’s confidence going to Sochi. In the opening world cup downhills last season, 2010 Olympian Stacey Cook got the team rolling with two second-place finishes.
“Seeing Stacey on the podium kind of set something off,” said McKennis, 24, a 2010 Olympian who won the St. Anton World Cup downhill last January. “It’s not just Lindsey and Julia who can do it. It got the ball rolling for everyone else.”
Two weeks later, Leanne Smith, 26 and also a 2010 Olympian, stepped onto her first world cup podium in the next downhill after saying to herself, “if [Stacey] can do it, I can definitely do it.”
Smith made the podium again in January, finishing third in Cortina, Italy, behind winner Vonn.
For Laurenne Ross, 25, it was both a wonderful and tough year. She was thrilled to see her teammates do well but began putting pressure on herself to also reach the podium.
“I was stressing all the time,” said Ross, whose grandfather, Allan Purvis, won a gold medal at the 1952 Games playing ice hockey for Canada. On her arm is a tattoo that says “Raider,” the name of Purvis’ fishing boat.
“I felt like I was the one who hadn’t done it yet, and I knew I could,” Ross continued. “For some reason, there was just something in my way.”
After world championships, she tried to let go and said, “Whatever, if it’s not my turn, it’s not my turn. It’ll come someday.”
A week later, she finished second in the Garmisch-Partenkirchen World Cup downhill.
For most of the women on the team, their success last season was about more than confidence earned from seeing teammates do well. The team’s chemistry brought out the best in everyone — a surprising amount of camaraderie in an individual sport.
“There’s a really solid understanding in the role that we play with each other,” said Cook. “All the girls understand that if something goes wrong or right, it’s not somebody else’s fault. Someone makes the Olympic team over me, it’s not their fault; it’s something I did or didn’t do. When everyone has that understanding, it takes a lot of the negativity out of the team.”
They also have fun off the hill. Led by Ross, a talented musician who travels with her guitar, the U.S. women’s speed team formed an impromptu band two years ago. Ross has been teaching Cook how to play guitar, and Smith often joins them singing — Ross says Smith has an amazing voice, which Smith denies. Mancuso joins on ukulele when she can.
As for McKennis, she claims that she is not good at singing so instead harmonizes. Vonn joins sometimes too, said McKennis, but then laughed and added, “She’s more on my level, just harmonizing.”
“When we all get together, it’s hilarious,” she added.
Last season, a reporter for FIS’ website videoed Ross, Mancuso, McKennis, Cook and Smith playing songs like Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” and Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know.”
“She’s the really good musician,” says Mancuso as she points at Ross in the video. “The rest of us, we’re just learning and trying to be good like her.”
Later in the video, Mancuso jokes that she, Smith and McKennis are “band aids.”
The U.S. women’s team chemistry did not go unnoticed on the tour last year.
“With four athletes in the top 10 of the downhill standings so far this season, the U.S. speed team is dominating the game,” wrote the FIS reporter last February. “The team atmosphere is actually amazing and part of the success.”
Currently, there is no new video evidence documenting the band’s new songs. The latest online video shows Cook trying to play guitar wearing Go USA fan mittens while McKennis looks on skeptically.
As for six women going for four spots on the Olympic downhill roster, none of them seem worried about the competitive tension affecting the team’s bond.
“I always feel that when it comes down to a situation like that, certainly there are people who are disappointed,” said McKennis. “But at the same time, I think we all realize that there’s a reason why these people are racing and this person isn’t. The people who are racing have earned it.”
Starting on Friday at Beaver Creek, Mancuso, Cook, Smith and Ross will turn their focus to making world cup podiums — and earning a trip to Sochi. McKennis is still recovering from shattering her tibial plateau in her right knee last March. Already training on snow, she hopes to race in a few more weeks.
“You just have to keep your head down and keep chugging, doing your thing, your process on the hill, proving your skiing, and being mentally ready and confident, and everything should fall into place,” said Smith. “Whatever you do in your skiing will determine whether you go or not. You can’t take anything personally.”
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.