U.S. skiers try out new world championships course

Pat Graham
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado
Justin McCarty/Vail DailyWorld Cup slalom champion Mikaela Shiffrin gets a close look at the new Beaver Creek women's downhill course Friday. The course was cut recently in preparation for the 2015 World Alpine Ski Championships.

BEAVER CREEK, Colo. – So steep and intimidating is the newly designed women’s downhill course for the 2015 world championships that Stacey Cook wore extra layers of clothing on her first run to keep from going so fast.

Even then, the speed specialist had to suppress her fear – and a compulsion to tap the brakes – as she soared down the hill at Beaver Creek, Colo., during training this week.

Yep, this course is going to suit the Americans just fine. After all, the more demanding the terrain, the better the speed team seems to perform. It’s been that way all season, too, as they dominated the downhill standings, beating the Swiss by 457 points.

Cook, Mikaela Shiffrin, Laurenne Ross and Leanne Smith took about two dozen runs on the challenging course, just to get an idea of what lies ahead when the venue stages a World Cup event in late November before the big show – the world championships – the following season.

“It takes a little bit of guts to run this thing,” U.S. speed coach Chip White said. “It’s full-on, in-your-face type of terrain. It’s an exciting slope.”

And they’ve only seen a portion of it, too – 1 minute, 10 seconds to be exact. That’s what it takes to run the middle portion of the hill. The team has yet to take on the upper or bottom sections because safety netting hasn’t been installed yet.

The sneak peek definitely gives the skiers a bit of a home-slope advantage, gleaning all sorts of knowledge from a week of practice. No other nation is really going to get a chance to run the course before it opens for action next season.

“To have this course in our minds all summer, it’s such a big advantage,” said Cook, who’s from Mammoth, Calif. “It’s a big confidence booster. The first time we went down, we weren’t exactly fearless. It’s intimidating. But to know what we face now instead of two days before the race is big.”

The speed team is coming off a stellar season in which all six World Cup athletes earned a spot on the podium – including four for the first time – as they cruised to the nation title for a second straight season.

That was without Lindsey Vonn for a chunk of the season, too. The Olympic downhill gold medalist missed time with an intestinal illness early in the year and then tore her anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee – along with the medial collateral ligament and breaking a bone in her leg – during a wipeout in the super-G race on Feb. 5.

Vonn remained stuck at 340 downhill points after her crash at the world championships. But when the final race was canceled due to weather it allowed Vonn to record her sixth straight downhill title by finishing a point ahead of overall champion Tina Maze of Slovenia.

Unexpected, for sure.

But a glimmer of good news for Vonn, who has used the victory as motivation in her recovery from ACL surgery, White said.

“I think winning the globe was a shot in the arm for her, really raised her spirits,” said White, who’s been selected as a finalist for coach of the year by the U.S. Olympic Committee. “She’s looking forward to coming back.”

There’s an outside chance that Vonn’s return to competition could be on this challenging new course. Vonn is from nearby Vail and would love nothing more than to be back by then. But her main goal is the 2014 Sochi Games and won’t rush her recovery.

Could Vonn dominate this hill, much as she does up north in Lake Louise?

“Absolutely,” White said. “Actually, our whole team has a great potential on this course. I think they all can do really well. It suits Lindsey. It suits Julia (Mancuso). It suits all of them.”

Mancuso had another solid season, finishing runner-up in the super-G standings.

However, this speed squad is no longer just Vonn, Mancuso and then everyone else. No, everyone is chipping in:

• Alice McKennis, of Glenwood Springs, Colo., won the downhill in St. Anton, Austria, before breaking her right shinbone in a crash during a race in Germany.

• Cook turned in two podium finishes and wound up fourth in the downhill standings.

• Ross, of Bend, Ore., finished a career-best second in the downhill in Germany.

• Smith, of North Conway, N.H., had two downhill podiums.

Then there’s Shiffrin, the teenager who concentrated on the slalom all season and won the discipline title.

So, just what was the secret to such a successful season for the Americans?

“I don’t think it was anything in particular, just years of building,” Cook said. “A lot of our progress was hidden behind the success of Lindsey and Julia. So when we were on the podium, it took everyone by surprise, but not necessarily us.”