Forgettable GS for the U.S.
There’s always the slalom.The U.S. Women’s Alpine Ski Team must have been murmuring that phrase over and over under their breath Saturday. While the final standings of Aspen’s giant slalom had a distinctively international flare – the top six racers hailed from different countries – the host nation’s absence shined brighter than Maria Jose Rienda’s gold medal. Those expecting to see an American garner a coveted podium position were left scanning down the leaderboard. Past the top five. Past the top 10. Those searching for the familiar three letters would not find ‘USA’ until Julia Mancuso, in 12th place.After a day in which the U.S. was featured prominently in the super G’s top 10, seven of the 10 U.S. skiers to enter the giant slalom failed to record a top-30 score and qualify for the afternoon’s final heat. Of the 11 racers who did not finish run No. 1, three were Americans.There are logical explanations for the surprise misstep. Key injuries. Home soil jitters. Equipment failure. A demanding course. But most chalked it up to the inconsistency and costly miscues World Cup skiers know all-too well. “I didn’t do what I thought I could out there,” said Kristina Koznick, of Eagan, Minn., who finished 24th. “I knew I had to win to move up. I was carrying too much speed [at the bottom]. Once I made a mistake, I started to lose it mentally.”
Koznick was in 25th after a timid first run, putting her 2.46 seconds behind Spanish leader Rienda entering run No. 2. In a desperate attempt to make up time, Koznick sped into the Spring Pitch section at the bottom of the course, but could not harness her speed. She was momentarily knocked off line and wasted valuable seconds as she veered back on course. Despite the momentary bobble, Koznick did manage to trim 1.13 seconds off her first run time. When she stretched her Volkls across the finish line with a cumulative first-and-second-run time of 2:00.52, however, she was fifth out of the sixth racers who had completed their afternoon runs. Her position would continue to fall.Mancuso was in 11th place after the first run, with 1.15 seconds separating her from Rienda. But as she stood in the starting gates awaiting run No. 2, there was something other than the course’s 41 gates weighing on her mind. It was her boots. With her normal pair left behind on a recent World Cup stop in Lake Louise, Alberta, Mancuso had no choice but to wear a new pair in Friday’s super G course and during training sessions, she said. The hard plastic had yet to be broken in, Mancuso said following her second giant slalom run Saturday. As a result, she struggled to find the right feel. The battle showed on the jumbotron screen, as Mancuso was loose with her turns on the top section of the course.
Considering the circumstances, Mancuso said she was glad to cross the finish line.”They were too aggressive,” Mancuso said of the boots. “I could feel my knees every time I went to turn. I was a little bit all over the place, but I held in there.”The same could not be said for the majority of the Americans, who were practicing slalom by early Saturday afternoon instead of competing for medals. Vail’s Lindsey Kildow, who came in seventh in Friday’s super G, said she still has yet to master the short turns required to attack a giant slalom hill. On multiple turns, Kildow sailed wide of the gates, using up valuable energy to pull herself back. She finished 59th out of 71 competitors. One day after Kirsten Clark was the highest American finisher – fifth place in super G – the veteran could not complete the course after sailing wide of a gate with the finish line in sight.Intensifying the U.S. team’s frustrations was the plight of Kristen Mielke, who learned she had finished 31st. She was just .2 seconds behind Canada’s Emily Brydon, who nabbed the 30th and final spot.”It’s as close as it gets,” said Mielke, who took the misfortune in stride. “It was nice to get a good run under my belt, and I have enough confidence to go out and get it next time. This is something to build off.”
While Mielke was grinning from ear-to-ear and said her confidence level was boosted by the performance, the other women’s team members were eager to look ahead. And quickly. As soon as they exited the finish area and their boots were unclipped from the bindings, the giant slalom became a thing of the past. The team’s optimism and sense of humor never wavered. “I’ll have plenty of time this afternoon to train [for slalom],” Kildow said, as she flashed a sarcastic smile.”I’m still going into the season in a better position than last year and it takes a while to get warmed up,” Mancuso added.They said the right things, prescribing to the old adage that the experience could do nothing but help. They did well to mask any lingering dissatisfaction.
The team acknowledged they were undermanned – Caroline Lalive skipped the giant slalom because of lingering soreness in her left knee after a crash Friday and Sarah Schleper continues to recover from back surgery, having yet to join the team this season. They acknowledged they are young and have much to learn. There is little reason to panic just three stops into the World Cup calendar. Four months of competition remain. And there’s always the slalom. “If I get on the podium tomorrow, it will be a great way to start the season,” Koznick said. “This team is young and with more experience, the easier it will come. The next four years will be fun to watch.”Jon Maletz’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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