Downhill divas | AspenTimes.com

Downhill divas

Jon Maletz
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Julia Mancuso, of the United States, races down the course for the fastest time in first training run for the Lake Louise World Cup women's downhill ski race in Lake Louise, Alberta on Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2007. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Frank Gunn)

Vail skier Lindsey Vonn basked in the glow of a post-training run endorphin rush, squinting and grinning in the brilliant sunshine as she unfastened her boot buckles at the bottom of Keystone’s Star Fire.

The 23-year-old’s megawatt smile dissipated, however, when she was asked to recount her experiences racing on Aspen Mountain.

“It’s depressing to come to Aspen and do my worst events,” Vonn (formerly Kildow) said Nov. 8. She married former Olympian skier Thomas Vonn in September. “I’m always like ‘Crap, this sucks’ … I never felt as though I got the opportunity to show what I can do.”

She’ll have that chance Friday, when “America’s Downhill” ” an event as profoundly tied to the town’s identity as its silver-mining roots ” makes its much-anticipated return to Aspen.

Ajax has not hosted a World Cup downhill since 1995. It’s been nearly two decades since women have barreled down the famed 2-mile-long test of wills on Ruthie’s.

It may have been worth the wait. A pair of 23-year-olds with personalities as dynamic as their World Cup overall title potential lead this year’s speed-happy American female contingent. They provide many reasons to believe the home course is finally suited for the home team.

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Such was the scene ski pioneer and Aspenite Bob Beattie envisioned when, in 1967, he helped lay the foundation for what would become the modern-day World Cup.

“When I was with the ski team in the 1960s, the one thing I felt was that, for us to have a good program, we had to have races here in the United States,” said Beattie, a former U.S. coach. “If you’re going to be good, you have to have the home people behind you. This is a big part of it. … I’m expecting big things out of them.”

So, too, is the United States Ski and Snowboard Association, which fought for years to secure high-speed, high-excitement races on home soil. Friday’s downhill, which precedes a super G on Dec. 8 and a slalom Dec. 9, could prove to be a seminal moment for the team and the sport on the domestic front, USSA vice president of communications Tom Kelly surmised.

“It’s a big showcase opportunity for us ” both for the sport and the athletes on the U.S. ski Team,” Kelly wrote in an e-mail to The Aspen Times. “Obviously there is great strength in downhill with Lindsey Vonn and Julia Mancuso. And downhill is alpine ski racing’s signature event with high speeds and on-the-edge excitement all the way down the course. That’s why it’s been so important for us at the USSA to work with the FIS [International Ski Federation] to get this event on the calendar in Aspen.”

America’s hopes rest on the steady skis of Mancuso and Vonn, two skiers who have quickly distinguished themselves as two of the sport’s elite.

Mancuso burst onto the scene at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Italy when she won gold in the giant slalom. The Olympic Valley, Calif., native further cemented herself as a major World Cup contender after a 2006-07 campaign replete with four victories, a U.S. women’s record five consecutive World Cup podiums, and a third-place finish in the overall standings.

She was second to Austria’s Renate Götschl in the final downhill standings; Vonn was third. Vonn, a Minnesota native who relocated to Vail, has notched three World Cup victories in each of the last two seasons.

Vonn excelled on the biggest of stages last season, earning silvers in downhill and super G at the World Championships in Are, Sweden. She finished sixth in the overall despite having her season cut one month short because of a knee injury.

“I’m feeling more comfortable and confident every year,” she said. “I know I say this every year, but I think I’m stronger than I’ve ever been before.”

And so, it seems, is the ski team. In addition to Mancuso and Vonn ” the new faces of American skiing a strong supporting cast is beginning to emerge. Among them is Stacey Cook, a fourth-place finisher at last season’s Lake Louise downhill, and Kaylin Richardson, who, in Vonn’s absence, won last year’s national downhill title.

“I came from really small hills, but I would go to summer camps with my club team and they would have a speed session, so I’d go pretty fast there,” said Richardson, a Minnesota native. “I always liked going fast, so I think early on the coaches saw that I had potential … As I grew older, whenever I had an opportunity, I was skiing speed and I always really liked it. … Even if I didn’t do that well, there’d always be little glimpses of maybe brilliance.”

Futility, not brilliance, aptly describes the U.S. women’s performance in Aspen in recent years. In what has been the team’s only World Cup stop on home soil each of the last few years, U.S. skiers have been noticeably absent from the top of leader boards. Mancuso’s 10th-place finish in the 2006 giant slalom was the team’s lone top 10 in two years here.

Two Americans finished in the top 25 in 2005’s giant slalom ” one less than the number who didn’t complete the first run. Retired skier Kristina Koznick was the last American to find the podium; she finished third in slalom in both 2000 and 2004.

As results indicate, America’s latest crop of female racers has excelled in speed events more than technical events. And while the impressive performances keep piling up, finding an explanation for the disparity has proven elusive.

“The thing about technical races is that it’s tough to be consistent,” Koznick recently told The Vail Daily. “In speed events, if you’re good, you’re good.”

Cook offered another possible reason.

“A lot of it has to do with where you’re brought up,” the Truckee, Calif., native said. “There’s a big crop of Austrians who grow up focusing on the technical aspects. Western skiers are more used to doing speed than technical. It’s what we learned to do first.”

“U.S. women have very strong personalities, and they’re tough,” Beattie added. “I think they enjoy speed. They migrate to the downhill.”

So, too, did Aspen. The town first hosted sanctioned races in 1938, two years after renowned Swiss skier Andre Roch designed Aspen Mountain’s first ski run.

The World Cup first stopped here in 1968 when Billy Kidd of Stowe, Vt., took home the Roch Cup. Nearly 3,000 turned out to view the spectacle, according to the Aspen Skiing Co. To this day, it remains one of the largest crowds ever recorded.

And while the course has changed through the years (Ruthie’s Run first staged races in 1954), the town’s connection with the sport has never wavered.

Ski fans consistently turned out in droves to support skiing’s best. Aspenites have even offered their homes to competitors during events.

American success on Aspen Mountain has been significant. Legend Phil Mahre outdueled Sweden’s Ingemar Stenmark to capture giant slalom titles in both 1981 and 1983. In 1984, Olympic gold medalist Bill Johnson reached speeds of 75 mph as he barreled down Aztec en route to the downhill crown.

AJ Kitt held the downhill lead in both 1993 and 1995, but was the victim of circumstance; FIS officials called off the race in 1993 after a large rut developed on the course and again in 1995 because of heavy snow.

It was the last time the downhill was held in Aspen ” until this year. Beattie is grateful the sport’s pre-eminent race is returning.

“Downhill is the sport of skiing,” he said. “A lot of people come for the slalom, but there’s nothing like the downhill. It’s very exciting. I’ll be the best cheerleader they have out there. … Old coaches never die, they just stand at the bottom.

“This course has got a lot of things going for it. It’s great that the U.S. Ski Team got this done.”

The reason for the gap between downhills is based on scheduling and multiple resorts vying for a few precious race dates each season. It’s nothing new. Aspen most recently went 12 years ” from 1988 until 2000 ” without hosting a women’s World Cup event. As former Aspen Skiing Co. Vice President John Norton pointed out in a February 1999 edition of The Aspen Times, “Everybody wants a race. Nobody is saying ‘Here, take mine.'”

Because of Aspen’s recent track record with strong early-season snow conditions (at least when compared to Europe), Skico Vice President of Sales and Communications John Rigney and the USSA agreed to make a push for a downhill if they could secure a December race date.

“We’ve been talking about it for a couple of years, trying to decided what it would take to pull it off,” Rigney told The Aspen Times in June. “There’s a lot of financial risk involved, certainly in the early season, but with the history we’ve got and the crew we have, we felt that if we were given a December opportunity, we’d go for it.”

They did just that. The strategy paid off; In late May at the FIS calendar meetings in Slovenia, an Aspen women’s downhill ” the first in 19 years and first in the U.S. since the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City ” was scheduled.

“It’s really awesome. I’ve never raced a downhill in the U.S., so it’s cool to be able to do that,” Mancuso said. “I’ve never raced that downhill at Aspen, but super G has always been good for me there. … Hopefully I can just come off my results from last year and put together some good runs and rip it.”

The American women now have their chance to replicate the performance of their male counterparts, who have made themselves right at home 90 miles away at Beaver Creek. An American man has won the famed Birds of Prey downhill each of the past four seasons; Bode Miller won in 2006 and 2004, and teammate Daron Rahlves accomplished the feat in 2003 and 2005.

Optimism abounds. Of Mancuso’s and Vonn’s 35 combined World Cup podiums, 31 have come in speed events (super G, downhill and the super combined).

The team should be a confident bunch when they arrive in Aspen. They’ll compete in a downhill in Lake Louise, Alberta, the week before. Vonn has won there each of the last three seasons.

After her 2004 win, Vonn took second in the next downhill. After her win in 2005, she won the next race in the discipline. And after her win in 2006? She took third in the ensuing downhill while Mancuso finished atop the podium. No matter. Vonn won the downhill the next day.

“Aspen top to bottom is a technical course. It’s very challenging ” I can picture that already,” women’s downhill and super G coach Alex Hoedlemoser said. “It should be really great for us. Lindsey and Julia are so strong that every course suits them.

“Our goal is we have to be on the podium and win those races. Everything has to come together and there’s luck involved, but we’re definitely ready. We want to show the home crowd what we’re about, and that there’s something out there.”

Vonn, the U.S. Ski Team and the Skico are hoping Americans strike gold in this old mining town next weekend. And they’re hoping America’s young athletes help revive an old tradition.

“Everything is coming so quickly, but I feel like I’m ready,” Vonn said. “This is a good opportunity to show what I’ve got to the American public.”

Jon Maletz’s e-mail address is jmaletz@aspentimes.com.