Julia Mancuso competes in the women's downhill at the world cup on Jan. 11, 2014 in Altenmarkt, Austria.
When Lindsey Vonn announced that she would not compete at the Sochi Olympic Winter Games, Team USA fans may have let out a collective sigh. For many, she was the face of the 2014 Games.
But Vonn’s absence does not mean that the U.S. women’s alpine skiing team will be out of contention in the speed events — downhill and super-G — where Vonn has dominated. As U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association CEO Bill Marolt pointed out, the U.S. has a strong team that’s prepared to challenge for the medals, “with five athletes who have achieved world cup podiums and a seasoned veteran in Julia Mancuso who has won three Olympic medals in her career.”
In fact, Mancuso has won more Olympic medals — a gold and two silvers — than any other U.S. female skier. The 29-year-old from Squaw Valley, Calif., has also won five world championship medals (as many as Vonn), including a bronze in super-G in 2013.
An admitted big-event skier, Mancuso has had a frustrating season so far this year; her best result is 12th in giant slalom. But she had a similarly frustrating season leading up to the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games. Through mid-January 2010, her best results were a couple of 10th places. Then in Vancouver, she won Olympic silver medals in downhill and super combined.
As former U.S. Ski Team member and Universal Sports analyst Steve Porino said of Mancuso’s medal chances in Sochi: “We would be stupid to count her out.”
“I grew up in Squaw Valley (host of the 1960 Olympic Winter Games) only knowing about big competitions,” Mancuso said after earning the super-G bronze medal at world championships last February. “I didn’t know there was such a thing as a world cup. That always gave the Olympic Games and world championships a really special place in my competitiveness. Those were the races I wanted to do well at.”
“Julia’s phenomenal in that way, she rises to those occasions,” added Caroline Lalive, a two-time Olympian and one of Mancuso’s former teammates. “She thrives in that kind of high pressure situation.”
But in the world cups leading up to the Sochi Games, Lalive hopes her former teammate can improve her results so another Olympic medal is “not such a long shot.”
The other women on the U.S. speed team also have a shot at the Olympic podium. Last year was a dream season for the team, with six U.S. women stepping onto world cup podiums in downhills and super-Gs. With Sochi coming up, they have yet to find that same momentum this season.
“The Olympic year always adds a different element that you don’t always have in a normal world cup season because everyone is trying to qualify,” said Lalive. “I think some people succumb to the pressure and other people rise to it.”
Leanne Smith has what Porino calls “medal-worthy” skiing. The 26-year-old from New Hampshire earned two world cup podiums last season, but her best finish so far this winter is sixth in super-G. Porino senses that Smith doesn’t believe in the speed she has so tends to take risks. The risks can then lead to mistakes that knock her out of contention.
“She needs to find that place where she believes,” he added.
U.S. coaches were unavailable to add their perspectives.
Stacey Cook and Laurenne Ross will likely round out the women’s speed team in Sochi (Alice McKennis is foregoing a shot at her second Olympic team to focus on rehabbing her knee after an injury last March). Cook scored two second-place finishes — behind Vonn — at the opening world cup downhills last season and said it was all about attitude.
“I had this attitude where I [said], ‘I know I can do this, it’s just time to just do it,’” she explained. “I felt like it was my time, and I was capable of doing it and was sick of not doing it.”
Lalive, who now coaches U12 skiers in Steamboat Springs, Colo., and follows her former teammates, says Cook has been doing great and is “working into her own.”
“As far as these girls winning a medal, I think anything is possible,” said Lalive. “I would never ever discount somebody.”
But she added, “You want to look at how well they can rise to the occasion or deal with higher stress situations and their past results in those big events.”
Mancuso fits the bill perfectly.
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Should the U.S. women’s alpine team fail to medal in downhill or super-G in the first week of the Sochi Games, Team USA still has plenty of medal favorites (assuming they are named to the team on January 27). In the first medal competition of the 2014 Olympic Winter Games — men’s slopestyle — Shaun White and Chas Guldemond expect to be going for gold in the sport’s debut.
That evening, Hannah Kearney wants to become the first freestyle skier ever to defend an Olympic gold medal.
The second day of Olympic competition (not including qualifiers the day before the Opening Ceremony), four-time Winter X Games gold medalist Jamie Anderson is a strong favorite to win women’s slopestyle in snowboarding. And in men’s downhill, Bode Miller is a perennial favorite.
Later in the first week, the U.S. women’s cross-country skiing team could win its first medal ever. Overall world cup sprint champion Kikkan Randall will compete in the women’s freestyle sprint, her signature event. The Nordic women have two more excellent medal chances in the 4x5-kilometer team event and team sprint, classic technique. They have finished third in two world cup relays in the past year, and Randall and Jessie Diggins are the reigning team sprint world champions, though in the freestyle technique. The cross-country women are a model of teamwork on the FIS World Cup tour and with a healthy sense of fun (wearing striped socks and glittery face paint in the relays), could steal the show in Sochi.
Snowboarding’s halfpipe competitions also highlight the first week of Olympic competition in Sochi. Shaun White could pull out his new double cork 1440 (four revolutions) as he aims for his third consecutive Olympic gold medal.
Six of Team USA’s top figure skaters will join together in the first-ever Olympic team event, consisting of one woman, one man, one pairs team and an ice dance couple. The U.S. earned gold at the 2013 World Team Trophy, which has a similar format to the team event.
Sarah Hendrickson has not been on snow since August, but the reigning ski jumping world champion will still attempt to make the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team and capture the first women’s ski jumping gold medal.
Similar to Shaun White, Shani Davis is another athlete going for the three-peat in Sochi, after earning gold in the 1,000-meter long track speedskating event in both Torino and Vancouver.
Tim Burke is the United States’ best shot for its first Olympic medal in biathlon after earning silver in the 20-kilometer at last year’s world championship.
In women’s halfpipe, the U.S. could sweep the podium. Kelly Clark, with over 60 career wins, is looking for her third Olympic medal. With three more Olympic qualifiers to come, it’s difficult to predict who else will be on the U.S. team.
Noelle Pikus-Pace is a favorite to win the U.S. women’s second Olympic gold medal in skeleton. Matt Antoine has recently appeared as a medal threat on the men’s side, with three world cup medals this season.
During Week 2 of the Sochi Games, the U.S. has strong medal chances in:
Alpine skiing: Ted Ligety is the best giant slalom skier in the world. Anything but gold will be a disappointment. Mikaela Shiffrin has proven she can podium in GS and, if she can bear the Olympic pressure that she may feel with Vonn out of the Games, has a great shot at a slalom gold medal.
Bobsled: The U.S. women have a goal to sweep the podium in Sochi, and Elana Meyers, Jamie Greubel, and Jazmine Fenlator have all made the world cup podium this season. Steven Holcomb is shooting for double gold in two-man and four-man bobsled. And both Nick Cunningham and Cory Butner, in their BMW of North America two-man bobsleds, have made the world cup podium this year.
Figure skating: Meryl Davis and Charlie White are expected to earn Team USA’s first gold medal in ice dancing.
Freeskiing: David Wise, Aaron Blunck, Devin Logan and others who qualify are looking to medal in halfpipe skiing’s Olympic debut.
Ice hockey: Both the U.S. women’s and men’s teams are hoping for redemption in Sochi after taking silver medals in Vancouver.
Nordic combined: The combiners of Billy Demong, Bryan and Taylor Fletcher, and Todd Lodwick are looking particularly strong in the team relay.
Long track speedskating: Shani Davis owns two Olympic silver medals in the 1,500-meter, and is hoping to finally take gold in Sochi. Heather Richardson and Brittany Bowe are both medal threats in the 1,000 and 1,500-meter races. Bowe is the 1,000-meter world record holder, Richardson is the reigning world sprint champion and they’ve earned a combined 16 world cup medals this season.
Short track speedskating: As the 500-meter world-record holder, J.R. Celski could upgrade his two Vancouver bronze medals to Sochi gold. Team USA is also looking particularly strong in the 5,000-meter relay, earning three world cup medals this season.
By February 23, when the torch goes out in Sochi, one — or more — of these athletes may have become the face of the Winter Games.
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.