World Cup women’s downhill returns
ASPEN Finally, a home race best suited for the home team.For the first time since 1988, Aspen will host a World Cup women’s downhill – a boon for a U.S. women’s team that boasts two of the world’s top speed skiers in Julia Mancuso and Lindsey Kildow. “There’s nothing more exciting than being at home and winning at home,” said Jesse Hunt, the U.S. Ski Team’s alpine director. “It just brings a tremendous amount of excitement for the athletes and the program because we have the potential to win. We have a heck of a women’s speed team, so getting a women’s speed event at home is huge.”The Dec. 7 downhill on Aspen Mountain will precede a super G on Dec. 8 and a slalom Dec. 9 – a departure from recent Winternationals, almost entirely technical races. In the five times Aspen has hosted women’s races since 2000, the lone speed event was a women’s super G in December 2005. Vail was the most recent U.S. site to host a women’s World Cup downhill, in March 1997, during the World Cup Finals. Vail also had a women’s downhill during the 1999 World Alpine Championships – separate from the World Cup calendar – and Salt Lake City hosted a women’s downhill at the 2002 Olympic Games.
The longest of the four World Cup races and the most exciting, downhill is the hardest for organizers and course crews to pull off. Because of the risk factor (racers reach interstate speeds while tearing down the mountain on a sheet of hard-packed snow and ice), conditions have to meet standards for officials to give the go-ahead.A downhill race coupled with a super G in early December presents a considerable financial risk for the Aspen Skiing Co. and the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, said John Rigney, the Skico’s vice president of sales and events.He said both sides agreed to make a push for an early December date for speed events based on early-season snow conditions in recent years and the successful super G in 2005.”We’ve been talking about it for a couple of years, trying to decide what it would take to pull it off,” Rigney said. “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.” Tom Kelly, USSA vice president of marketing communications, said the risk could bring great rewards.
Mancuso and Kildow finished second and third, respectively, in the overall downhill standings last season. Kildow also won silver in super G at the FIS World Ski Championships at Åre, Sweden, in February, to go with two World Cup podiums in the discipline, and Mancuso added two super G podiums of her own.In Aspen, however, the duo – and the women’s team as a whole – has been mediocre. Last November, the highest finish for an American in two races – the giant slalom and slalom – was a seventh by Mancuso in GS. The last American woman to finish on the podium here was Kristina Koznick, who took bronze in slalom in 2004.”It’s a big push for us to get a downhill, but we feel good about it because obviously our team is really strong on the speed side right now,” Kelly said. “We have good strength across all disciplines right now, including in the technical events with up-and-comers like Resi Stiegler and Jessica Kelley, but with the proven success we have had from Julia and Lindsey, they’re going to be factors in that race.”The success of the men’s team in downhill at Beaver Creek – the only other U.S. World Cup stop – was also a factor. An American man has won the Birds of Prey downhill the past four years, with Bode Miller taking gold in 2004 and 2006, and Daron Rahlves winning in 2003 and 2005.”We have a special group of women racers right now,” Rigney said. “The opportunity to have U.S. women on the podium on home soil is exciting for everyone involved. We’ve seen what’s happened at Birds of Prey, and if we can replicate that in Aspen, that would be awesome.”
The International Ski Federation’s calendar changes yearly, and Hunt, Kelly and Rigney said there are no guarantees Aspen will continue to receive the same early December dates in future years. Hunt feels that Aspen has a good chance of continuing to get races at the same time if it continues to deliver as it has in years past. After a trying 2007 season that featured a string of cancellations and reschedulings because of poor snow conditions in Europe, Hunt and Kelly both said the FIS plans to shrink its World Cup calendar in the future years.The onus will be on quality, not quantity, Hunt said. “From my side, it’s important that we bring a lot of value to the events,” he said. “There’s different philosophies about how to do that at the moment, but from the standpoint of the athletes and coaches, we want to race at the sites that are ready, that can produce the key events. The FIS wants to focus on its classic sites and has recognized Aspen as one of its classic resorts. “I know the tour is really happy to have the events in Aspen, but I’m not sure we’ll have a December date from here on out. It’s one of the most sought-after dates out there. It’s definitely a long-range plan. We’ve had two out of the last three in December, which we’re excited about, and hopefully that trend will continue.”Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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