New faces could emerge for U.S. at Aspen Winternational | AspenTimes.com

New faces could emerge for U.S. at Aspen Winternational

Jon MaletzThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado

Hailey Duke, USA, competes in the Australia New Zealand Cup Slalom Women FIS race at Coronet Peak, August 17, 2010. Photo Michael Thomas

ASPEN – Lindsey Vonn and Julia Mancuso have garnered much attention – both on and off the snow.Vonn is ski racing’s brightest star. The 26-year-old from Vail has won the last three World Cup Overall titles and is the winningest U.S. skier in history.She picked up an ESPY for best female athlete in July and even appeared on “Law & Order.” She has graced the pages of Sports Illustrated, Vogue and Maxim and recently dressed up as Sharon Stone to re-create a classic scene from “Basic Instinct” for the cover of ESPN The Magazine. Teammate Mancuso is a striking three-time Olympic medalist. The 26-year-old Californian bared it all for ESPN’s Body Issue, has developed her own lingerie line and has enough Facebook friends and Twitter followers to fill a football stadium.Together, the duo is the female face of the U.S. Ski Team. And they, along with four-time Olympian Sarah Schleper, likely are the home nation’s best bet for a rare podium finish in today’s and Sunday’s Aspen Winternational.The rest of a talented contingent of American technical skiers competing on Aspen Mountain this weekend understandably have been overshadowed.At least for now.Many believe this crop of relative unknowns is poised to make its mark on the World Cup this season – and beyond.”We have a really good group of younger athletes,” C Team member Kiley Staples told a room full of grade-schoolers Tuesday during an assembly in Aspen. “Lindsey, Julia and Sarah are great people that we all look up to, so we have a lot to live up to. I think we’re up for the challenge.”Added B Team member Hailey Duke in a recent interview: “[Vonn and Mancuso] have earned [the notoriety]. They’ve gone out and done it. It’s cool to have friends and teammates out there on magazines and out in the open – that’s only helping us more. I think we’re ready to join them.”Just three seasons ago, Duke, a 25-year-old from Boise, Idaho, was toiling on the Europa Cup circuit. She was competing in remote places like Banskos, Bulgaria, and Soldeu, Andorra, far from the World Cup spotlight. “We were out in the fields in the middle of nowhere,” Duke said of one such race in an interview with The Aspen Times in November 2008. “A farmer came over to the lift and told us ‘good luck.’ He was the only person there.”Duke, a former competitive taekwondo athlete who refers to herself as a “late bloomer,” slowly has worked her way up the rankings ever since. She logged her first World Cup points in 2008’s slalom in Aspen and one month later finished eighth – her best result to date – in a slalom in Semmering, Austria. Those efforts helped Duke qualify for 2009’s World Ski Championships in Val D’Isere, France.While 2009-2010 largely was a disappointment, Duke did score points in four World Cup races and secure a spot on the Olympic team. She finished 30th in slalom at Whistler.”Each season seems to be climbing more and more,” said Duke, who will compete in Sunday’s slalom. “I have more and more experience under my belt. Last season wasn’t quite what I had in mind, but I’ve made some changes and I know what I’m capable of.”Now I have basically as much experience as you can get, and I really have nothing to lose. I’m expecting podiums [this year], not just for me but for other girls.”One of those teammates is Megan McJames, a 23-year-old B Team member from Park City, Utah. She burst onto the scene in 2006, winning the NorAm overall, super G and giant slalom titles. She made her first World Cup start in Aspen in November 2006 and joined Duke on the U.S.’s 2009 World Championships and 2010 Winter Olympics squads.She has yet to break through at the highest level, however; McJames’ 38 World Cup starts to date have produced just two Top 20 finishes. She did not qualify for a second run in Nov. 13’s season-opening slalom in Levi, Finland. Vonn (sixth place) was the lone American to score points.”I’m working through some of the mistakes I had the last couple races. I know what they are,” McJames said last week. “The key is just from my start position having to charge and be aggressive. … It’s a matter of getting the nerves ironed out on race day and putting it down.”Between the speed and tech teams, a lot of girls are coming up that haven’t broken through yet. We have amazing talent and now we have to try to take that next step at the highest level of racing. For me, I’ve got to keep skiing. The results will come.”Duke echoed those sentiments.”I’m confident. My skiing is definitely there, it’s just a matter of putting two runs together,” she said. “I’m definitely going in the right direction even if the numbers don’t show it. I’m not worried.”As far as ultimate goals, I think my mom would love to be on ‘Law & Order’ more than me, but I’d like to be on the podium consistently and get some globes. This could be the year. It will be the year.”The U.S. will be buoyed by the return of Resi Stiegler in Sunday’s slalom. The Jackson Hole, Wyo. native, whose career has been derailed by injuries, will be making her first start in more than a year – and first in Aspen since 2007, when she finished eighth in slalom. The 25-year-old has logged 15 Top 10 finishes on the World Cup circuit.Other Americans competing this weekend are: Staples, a C Team member from Park City, Utah who wrapped up her 2009-2010 season with four consecutive FIS slalom wins; Conway, N.H.’s Leanne Smith, a 2010 Olympian who is working her way back from an ACL injury sustained last season, and; Klamath Falls, Ore.’s Laurenne Ross, who is looking to build on her second-place finish in GS at March’s U.S. Championships.jmaletz@aspentimes.com