World Cup preview: High hopes for the U.S. women | AspenTimes.com

World Cup preview: High hopes for the U.S. women

Nate Peterson

Basalt High School students Katie Gruen, left, and Dayle Duran show their spirit for the American women during World Cup slaloms last year on Aspen Mountain. The strength of the U.S. women this year may give local fans more to cheer about. (Aspen Times/Mark Fox)

An investment.” A “transitional year.” A “strange” Olympics. Mention the performance of the American women’s alpine team at the 2002 Winter Games to a U.S. Ski Team official and you are guaranteed to get a carefully worded response.What you won’t get is the admission that the Salt Lake City Winter Games were a disappointment. One of the biggest story lines of those Olympics was Picabo Street’s quest to win one final medal following a downhill silver in Lillehammer in 1994 and a surprise gold in super G at the 1998 Nagano Olympics.But Street’s curtain call didn’t include any podiums. America’s favorite Chapstick spokeswoman finished a forgettable 16th in the downhill, and then retired.Her teammates didn’t fare any better. The highest finish for an American woman in alpine skiing was a sixth place in the combined (downhill and slalom) from Vail’s Lindsey Kildow – an unheard-of 17-year-old who wasn’t expected to do much.

“There weren’t a lot of expectations there,” said Tom Kelly, vice president of marketing for the United States Ski and Snowboard Association. “The Olympics in ’02 were a strange one, particularly for the women, because you had a lot of young kids who had never been there before, then you had some veterans like Picabo. She had her shot, but it didn’t happen.”As the world prepares for the Turin Games in Italy this February, the expectations have drastically changed.The United States took home a national record 34 medals in the 2002 games, but only two – a pair of silvers for Bode Miller – came in alpine skiing.A similar result won’t suffice in 2006. Not after all the progress made by American alpine skiers at the World Cup level in the last four years. The American women who will arrive in Aspen this week for three days of racing have emerged from the shadow of the fiercely competitive, easily likable Street. During an interview near the close of the World Cup season last year, Street herself admitted that her retirement was a blessing in disguise for the team. More than anything, she said, it forced her former teammates to step up. In Street’s absence, the American women’s team has gone from being the sixth-best in the world to the second-best. Last year in the Nations Cup – the alpine competition that combines points from both men’s and women’s teams – the United States moved into second behind the powerful Austrian team after finishing third in the previous two seasons.Miller’s magical run to the men’s overall title was the most talked about story of the 2004-05 World Cup season, but behind the Bode hype was the little-known fact that even without Miller’s points, the U.S. would have still finished second. That achievement rests almost entirely on the success of the American women, Kelly said.”The women’s team has some pretty significant depth right now, more than the men’s team” he said. “Last year, having five or six girls in the top 15 on a fairly regular basis in World Cups, that was a pretty incredible accomplishment.”

Since former University of Colorado athletic director Bill Marolt took over as USSA president in 1996, the organization has eyed the 2006 Olympic Games as a defining moment for American skiing and snowboarding. Marolt’s vision from the beginning was to turn the United States into the world’s foremost skiing and snowboarding power – a goal that many considered unattainable. The “Best in the World” motto that USSA unveiled publicly in 2000 was a source of amusement for some European team officials. But no one seems to be laughing now. Not after last season, when Miller stole the coveted overall title from the Austrians and freestyler Jeremy Bloom ran away with his second moguls title and the women’s team enjoyed unprecedented success.However, Kelly said, the validity of the “Best in the World” title still hinges on how the Americans perform in Turin in February.He wouldn’t comment on the projected medal goal for the women in this year’s Winter Games, but did say USSA officials believe the Turin Olympics could represent the culmination of a lot of hard work for America’s female ski racers. “All we can say is that we’re prepared, we’re confident, and we’re at a point where we can achieve our goals,” Kelly said. “We’ll see what happens come February, but as we go into this season, it’s not unrealistic what we’re setting out to do.”And why is success at the Olympics more significant than American skiers accomplishments at the World Cup level during the previous three non-Olympics years?”The American public measures things with the Olympics,” Kelly answered. “If you look at a typical World Cup race, a couple million Americans are going to watch it. A typical Olympic race, 80 million Americans will watch and a total of 180 million-plus Americans will watch skiing and snowboarding in the Olympics as a whole.”

Forecasting which female American alpine racers, if any, will bring home a medal from Turin this February is about as reliable as predicting the daily weather in Colorado. There’s a big difference between one Olympic race and sustained success in the grueling five-month World Cup circuit.Case in point: Street’s gold in Nagano marked the first time she’d ever won a super G race.Throw in an assortment of subplots involving the supposed contenders on this year’s team, and the forecast gets murkier. America’s medal hopes might hinge on how well the 21-year-old Kildow – now the star of the women’s team – is getting along with her estranged father when February rolls around. Or whether vets like Kirsten Clark, Caroline Lalive, Jonna Mendes and Kristina Koznick have one last great race left in them.As for indicators from this week as to what’s going to happen in Turin, good luck.

Last year the lone American to earn a podium spot in Aspen was Koznick, who finished third in the final slalom on Aspen Mountain. Otherwise, the rest of the American contingent was blanked on home snow.The two giants on the women’s World Cup circuit – Sweden’s Anja Paerson and Croatia’s Janica Kostelic – each dominated here, en route to a one-two finish in the 2004-05 women’s overall. Kostelic won the first slalom and finished third in the final slalom. Paerson was second in both slaloms. There was a surprise, but it didn’t come from an American skier. Finland’s Tanja Poutianinen emerged as the front-runner in the overall race with wins in one of the two Aspen slaloms and another win in the giant slalom. Later in the season, Poutianinen was overtaken in the overall, but did manage to win the individual titles in slalom and giant slalom, edging out Paerson in the former and Kostelic in the latter. If there is one skier on the U.S. team who Street sees as a threat to surpass her Olympic accomplishments, it’s Kildow. Last season marked a coming-out party of sorts for the four-event skier who grew up racing for Ski Club Vail. Kildow won the downhill in Lake Louise, Alberta, at the start of the season, then went on to record five more top-three finishes.”I hope she beats every record that I ever set,” Street said. “She’s really competitive with herself, and she gets mad when she doesn’t do well, just like me. That’s genetically in her and that’s never going to go away. That and the love for the fall line are what sets her apart.”The only disappointments in Kildow’s breakout season were two fourth-place finishes at the World Championships in Bormio, Italy. Behind the scenes, Kildow was struggling with the presence of her father, Alan, who arrived in Bormio after she expressly asked him not to come. In an interview with The Denver Post, Kildow said the constant pressure from her father, a former ski racer himself, has at times led her to falter. She is no longer on speaking terms with him as she heads into this Olympic year.

“I didn’t know when exactly to tell people about this problem, but what I don’t want is it to be a big explosion during the Olympics,” Kildow told the Post last month at Copper Mountain. “I’ve said it, and I’m not going to say it again.”Hopefully, family drama won’t topple Kildow’s hopes of becoming the next “Picabo.””When she takes care of her personal stuff, she’ll be unstoppable,” Street added. “That’s the only thing holding her back. Once she figures that out, watch out.”

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Kildow isn’t the only with a side story. Koznick, 30, plans to retire from ski racing at the end of this season, but only after one final shot at an elusive Olymic medal.The former junior skiing prodigy from Minnesota is the best American female slalom skier since former overall winner Tamara McKinney, but the Olympics have brought nothing but dissatisfaction.She missed the Lillehammer Games in 1994 with a knee injury. In Nagano in 1998, she skied off the course in the slalom. She was a forgettable 17th in Utah in 2002. A medal would be vindication for those disappointments, but that’s not all. It would also justify a parting of ways with the U.S. Ski Team in 1999 – a split that stemmed from a long-running dispute about training regimens. Since the split, Koznick has funded her skiing career on her own. Regardless of what happens, Koznick said she is happy to go out on her own terms.”Even if you told me right now that I had to be done, I would say I’m proud of what I’ve done,” said Koznick in a recent interview with The Aspen Times. “[The Turin slalom] is being held on a hill where I have won a World Cup and finished third, so it’s a good hill for me … Hopefully the third time is the charm.”It’s a similar script for Lalive, Clark, Mendes and technical specialist Sarah Schleper of Vail. The foursome has 42 years of World Cup racing between them, but no Olympic medals to show for it. With the window of opportunity closing quickly, Kelly said he’s not counting out anyone.”They’re all competitors still,” he said. “Any of those girls can be on the podium in Aspen. They’re so strong and there are so many of them. We have never had that depth. Now, it’s not on the shoulders of any one person.”Second case in point: Schleper, after nine seasons on the U.S. Ski Team, won the first World Cup race of her career in slalom at World Cup Finals in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, last year. Schleper, who recently had back surgery in Austria, will not compete in Aspen, but she hopes to return to earn an Olympic team spot.

Lalive, a four-event skier from Steamboat Springs, has battled back from 13 surgeries in her career. Clark came back last season after a violent crash in Austria put her out for the final six weeks of the 2003-04 season. Mendes, of South Lake Tahoe, Calif., has struggled to match the form of her early years, but refuses to give up on a lifelong goal.”Any athlete in an Olympic sport will tell you they want a medal,” said Mendes in a recent interview with the Vail Daily. “It’s one of the hardest challenges out there. So few people in the world are able to get an Olympic medal. It is really, really hard to do. I’ve been working so long and so hard at this, that this is what I want. I want a medal. That’s what I’m here for.”There’s also the possibility that one of the younger racers on the Alpine A Team – aside from Kildow – could step up between now and February.Julia Mancuso, a 21-year-old from Olympic Valley, Calif., is the one name that surfaces most. While Kildow was consistently finishing in the top three last year on the World Cup circuit, Mancuso quietly nabbed five top-five finishes. She also won two bronze medals at the World Championships.As Kelly stated, things are coming together nicely with Turin on the horizon.”Now you have the two really young girls, Julia Mancuso and Lindsey Kildow, who are both 21, and they’re both mature World Cup racers,” Kelly said. “Lindsey’s won a World Cup. Julia’s won two World Championship medals. They’ve got great experience.”The road to Turin runs through Aspen this week. Stay tuned.Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is npeterson@aspentimes.com

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