Alessandro Trovati/Associated Press file photo
Alessandro Trovati/Associated Press file photo
SCHLADMING, Austria – One year from the Sochi Olympics, there’s no Lindsey Vonn or Bode Miller competing in the downhill at the World Championships.
They’re out of action with injuries – Vonn crashed and will need knee surgery, while Miller is recovering from surgery – but the U.S. Ski Team still has plenty of skiers capable of winning medals.
Start with Julia Mancuso. She already won a bronze in super-G, could be a threat in today’s super-combined and seeks her first podium of the season in Sunday’s women’s downhill.
Steven Nyman, from Sundance, Utah, grew up mowing Robert Redford’s lawn. He won the classic downhill in December in Val Gardena, Italy, after years of injuries and appears in top form for the men’s downhill Saturday.
“It’s all about building confidence, and this race here is the second biggest race we race,” Nyman said. “Especially being in Austria, there are going to be tons of fans and media. It’s a good warm-up for the Olympics.”
Skiing is the top sport in Austria, and some 50,000 fans are expected to descend on this small Alpine village for the men’s downhill Saturday.
Nyman will be joined by team captain Marco Sullivan – who earned his first podium finish in four years this season – Olympic super-G bronze medalist Andrew Weibrecht and emerging talent Travis Ganong of Squaw Valley, Calif.
Besides Mancuso, the women’s team will feature recent World Cup winner Alice McKennis, veteran Stacey Cook – who finished slightly behind Vonn twice earlier this season – and Leanne Smith, who also had two podium results in downhill this season.
The women’s team has been performing so well that Laurenne Ross, who posted a fifth-place result last month, likely won’t make the downhill squad, with only four spots available.
“There’s definitely some confident skiers on our team right now, and feeding off each other is a great environment to be in,” Smith said. “We’re all really excited for this weekend and the rest of the season.”
Cook was the top American in Thursday’s second training session in eighth.
“Everyone keeps saying this is a good downhill for me,” said Cook, the same age as Vonn and Mancuso at 28 but never has won a top-tier race. “I’m a good glider, and it’s pretty flat up top, and it’s got a lot of gliding.
“But then it has these tricky elements, and one thing that’s hard on this course is to make and keep speed,” Cook said. “It’s really hard to gain (speed) anywhere. You have to be really perfect, and that hasn’t been something I’ve been dominating this year in – perfection; I’ve been kind of wild.”
Even if she doesn’t win a medal here, Cook still has a lot to look forward to the rest of the season. With Vonn out after her season-ending crash in the super-G, Cook has a chance of winning the World Cup downhill title. So do McKennis and Smith.
The current standings read: Vonn 340 points, Cook 211, Tina Maze 189, McKennis 180, Anna Fennninger 179 and Smith 167. Three more World Cup downhills remain this season.
So it’s not like the team is about to slow down without Vonn.
“Lindsey is a huge part of our team, and we get a lot of our pace from her and a lot of knowledge and experience, but we’re also pretty independent girls as well,” Cook said. “As much as we’re friends on the team, we have that independent side, so we know how to take care of ourselves. We’ll miss her of course, and we wish her the best in recovery, but we also want to go after the same thing she was here for.”
Mancuso may have not made the downhill team if not for Vonn’s crash.
“I’m part of the downhill team, thanks and no thanks to Lindsey,” said Mancuso, who was going to visit Vonn on Thursday.
After the downhills, the men’s super-combined is scheduled for Monday, with American Ted Ligety aiming for another medal to follow up his super-G victory.
Without Miller, the Olympic champion in super-combined, the other U.S. starters likely will be junior world champion Ryan Cochran-Siegle of Starksboro, Vt., Tommy Biesemeyer of Keene, N.H., and Will Brandenburg of Spokane, Wash.
Biesemeyer finished 13th, and Cochran-Siegle was 15th in the super-G for their best career results to open their first championships.
For Biesemeyer it marked a strong return from a nasty fall in December in Bormio, Italy, that left him with a torn groin muscle and bruised kidney.
For Cochran-Siegle, it extended a family legacy. His mom, Barbara Ann Cochran, won Olympic gold in the slalom at the 1972 Winter Games, and his cousin, Jimmy Cochran, used to be a member of the U.S. team.
Biesemeyer had an early start number in the super-G and got to feel the big-race experience.
“I’ve never started inside the top 30,” he said. “Usually when I come down, people start to leave, so it was nice to come down with a crowd ready to bring on the winner. That was really cool. Being in front of over 30,000 people was an experience, and I hope there’s more days like that.”
Kerstin Joensson/Associated Press file photo