Fast ladies drop into Aspen | AspenTimes.com

Fast ladies drop into Aspen

Jon Maletz
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

First placed United States' Lindsey Vonn speeds down the course during an alpine ski, women's giant slalom in Soelden, Austria, Saturday, Oct. 22, 2011. (AP Photo/Shinichiro Tanaka)

ASPEN – Roland Pfeifer has been on the job less than a year, but that did not stop the U.S. Ski Team’s new women’s technical coach from making one bold prediction.

When asked earlier this week to assess the American contingent’s chances this weekend, when World Cup racing returns to Aspen Mountain, the Austrian proclaimed without hesitation: “Definitely, we’re going to be on the podium.”

“Lindsey [Vonn] and Julia [Mancuso] are going to be right up there, they’re going to do the podium,” said Pfeifer, who previously worked for Ski Austria feeder program Vorarlberg Ski Team.

“We are in good shape. I told the girls we are ready.”

Such a performance would erase six years of frustration for the host nation at Winternational, the lone U.S. stop on the women’s World Cup circuit. An American has not climbed the podium here since 2004, a span of 13 races.

A GS is slated for Saturday, and a slalom – the first of the World Cup season (races in Levi, Finland, were postponed earlier this month because of warm temperatures) – will follow Sunday.

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Last year, Mancuso (eighth in GS) and Vonn (eighth in slalom) logged the U.S.’s only top 10 finishes in Aspen. Vail’s Sarah Schleper wound up 18th in GS and Jackson Hole, Wyo.’s Resi Stiegler took 25th in slalom. The rest of the home team failed to qualify for a second run.

“Ski racing is an outdoor sport. So many things can happen,” Mancuso said Friday during an athlete roundtable at the St. Regis. “To win, you have to have everything kind of in your favor – the luck, the light, the perfect run. We’ve definitely in the last seven years had enough talent, but not everything has come together.”

Added Schleper: “It’s still kind of early in the season, and we’re not settled in. … This kind of race is not very consistent because of the terrain and the challenges of the hill. It can be anybody’s day any time. Maybe we’ve just been unlucky.”

Vonn knows that well. Since her two fourth-place finishes in 2008, the Vail resident and three-time World Cup overall champion has experienced her fair share of misfortune on the Strawpile course. She hit a rock and wound up 36th in the GS in 2009. In the same discipline last November, the 27-year-old appeared to lose her balance and skied off course just 31 seconds into her opening run.

She stormed past a group of reporters and exited the finish area afterward.

“Aspen’s a really challenging hill. From my perspective, it’s one of the most difficult on the World Cup tour,” Vonn said. “It’s just always coming at you – there’s never a moment when you can relax.

“I have a tough time with all the terrain changes here. When things are changing so quickly, it kind of gets hectic and you get that uncomfortable feeling that you’re not in control.”

Vonn was in control in the season-opening GS in Soelden, Austria. She picked up a .04-second victory over German Viktoria Rebensburg, becoming the first U.S. woman (and fifth overall) to notch wins in all five disciplines. Mancuso was 10th.

Vonn’s 42 World Cup victories are the most by any American in history.

“I’ve never come into Aspen with this much confidence,” she said. “Normally, Soelden doesn’t go that well, and I’m just struggling to find my way and do my best on home soil. That never seems to work out. … I’m definitely the most prepared and in the best position I’ve ever been in. Hopefully that translates into results.”

Vonn said she is gunning for a podium finish in GS and a top 10 in slalom. Achieving those results likely will hinge on her health; Vonn injured her back during training here Nov. 19.

“I just kind of got light off a roller, hit a compression funny and tweaked my back. I didn’t crash or anything,” Vonn said. “It feels better. It’s not perfect, but it definitely will get me through the weekend.

“The snow looks awesome – the conditions are absolutely perfect – and I felt good out there today. We’ll see what happens tomorrow.”

Pfeifer expects this weekend to be a fruitful one for the home team.

“Like in all races, they’ve got to just stay cool, be loose and ski unleashed,” he said. “I think we have a great chance.”

jmaletz@aspentimes.com