Women’s team plays peekaboo when it comes to leadership | AspenTimes.com

Women’s team plays peekaboo when it comes to leadership

Picabo Street’s retirement has left observers of the U.S. Women’s Ski Team struggling to declare a clear-cut successor as the leader.

But coaches predict the heir apparent will emerge early this season and could come as soon as Friday’s super G race in Aspen or the slalom on Saturday.

“Obviously it’s going to be a big change this year with the retirement of Picabo,” said Jesse Hunt, alpine director for the U.S. Ski Team. “It remains to be seen who will set the pace.”

Leadership is, in large part, the role of the coaches, said Hunt. But the racers provide what he called the “spiritual” leadership of the team.

And leadership is most often defined by top finishes. In that regard, the U.S. women’s team has lots of potential. It’s time for them to translate that potential into success on the slopes, the coaches say.

“We’re going to see who comes to race Friday,” said Jim Tracy, head coach for the women’s downhill and super G teams. “I’ve got some pretty high expectations.”

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No fewer than four racers in the speed events have the potential to take over Street’s role as a leader, according to Tracy.

“Kirsten Clark is really the one,” he said, noting that she started evolving as a leader last season even before Street retired. “She’s got some podiums. She won [a downhill race] a couple of years ago.”

Three other racers are right behind Clark in the potential department, Tracy continued. They are Caroline Lalive, Aspen native Katie Monahan and Jonna Mendes.

“It could be any one of those four,” said Tracy.

Clark, 25, grabbed her first super G podium last season by finishing third at St. Moritz, Switzerland. She logged five top-10 finishes in various races in 2002 and won a downhill the previous season. She also finished ninth in the super G at the World Championships in 2001.

The Olympics saw her slide to 14 in the super G and 12 in the downhill.

The Aspen race, the first speed event of the season, could be to her liking. Clark likes a more technical course that has a lot of turns, according to Tracy.

“There’s not a downhill or super G where she can’t be on the podium, any of ?em out there,” he said.

The versatile Lalive is also facing high expectations because of a strong history of finishing on the podium. Last season she snagged second in a World Cup downhill and third in a super G but was frustrated by failing to finish in three Olympic races.

Tracy said the 23-year-old’s podium finishes were no fluke.

“She definitely has the credibility to take over that leadership role if it comes her way,” said Tracy.

He expects Aspen’s Monahan to build off a “solid” performance last season ? her first back after missing two campaigns due to surgery on her right knee. She placed 17th in the Olympic super G and in a World Cup super G race last season.

Before her injury, the 30-year-old Monahan flashed her potential with a third-place finish in a 1999 super G at St. Moritz.

Rounding out the four

some that Tracy said should produce a leader is Mendes, another 23-year-old who has two World Juniors silver medals in the downhill to her credit.

The American with the highest leadership potential in the technical events isn’t a member of the U.S. Ski Team. Kristina Koznick is racing again this season as an independent due to a training dispute with the U.S. Ski Team.

Although only 21 years old, Koznick won a World Cup slalom last season and finished second in slalom standings. She was favored to win a slalom medal in the Olympics but disqualified on the first run.

In her absence from the team, Sarah Schleper of Vail has the best chance of emerging as a leader. Although she didn’t finish on the podium last season, she did have six top-10 finishes in slalom and finished 10th overall in the slalom.

The knock on her last season was she had good second runs but usually after she trailed so badly after the first run that she had little chance of finishing among the elite.

Schleper, 23, awarded believers in a slalom race in Park City last Saturday. She was fourth after the first run but slipped to sixth after the second run. Koznick finished a disappointing 18th.

[Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com]

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