U.S. women shooting for No. 1 Austrians in Nations Cup | AspenTimes.com

U.S. women shooting for No. 1 Austrians in Nations Cup

Devon O'Neil
Summit County correspondent
Published: Lindsey Kildow of Vail tucks past a gate during a womenÕs World Cup downhill race in Santa Caterina Valfurva, Italy, Thursday. AP photo/Alex Trovati.

COPPER MOUNTAIN ” Patrick Riml knows a thing or two about Austria’s alpine ski racing dominance. He grew up in the alpine hotbed of Soelden, spent time as a racer on the Austrian national team, then for three years coached the newest wave of born-to-be-fasts as a tech coach for the Austrian team.

That’s why, when Riml is asked whether he thinks the Americans can supplant his native country as the world’s premier alpine racing program, it’s worth listening. Tuesday, Riml didn’t hesitate. “Definitely,” he said, noting that the better question is when.

To be fair, Riml is now the U.S. Ski Team’s head women’s alpine coach. He, like the rest of the planet’s ski-racing aficionados, knows how far the Americans have come. But this is still quite a statement.

The U.S. climbed to second in the Nations Cup last winter, its best finish in history in the standings that represent a country’s alpine skiing power. With Bode Miller leading the way, the group had been third the previous two seasons.

Still, the U.S. was a hemisphere away from Austria, which finished with a remarkable 14,454 points, more than double the Americans’ total (6,516). Italy was third with 4,685.

This year, the obvious underlying goal within the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association’s overarching “Best in the World” motto is to reign supreme at the Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. But if there is a close second for the American alpine team, it’s to continue gaining ground on Austria in the Nations Cup standings.

Almost to a person at Tuesday’s U.S. women’s team media session at Copper Mountain, the Americans said they think they’re still a year or two away from actually winning the Cup.

“It’s gonna be tough,” said head women’s speed coach Alex Hoedlmoser, another Austrian on the U.S. coaching staff who used to compete and coach for his native national team. “The depth of the Austrian team is just incredible.”

Still, Jonna Mendes, one of four American women with a decade or more of experience on the U.S. team, hasn’t given up hope on this season.

“We have the best athletes and the best team that I’ve seen, and I’ve been on the team for 10 years,” she said. “If there’s ever a year that we’re capable of being No. 1, it’s now.”

Because skiing is not a major sport in America, the ones who have taken notice more than anyone else are probably the Austrians themselves. This is in part because of their unconditional love for anything and everything having to do with the sport, but also because the once-lowly Americans have suddenly become a serious threat to the Austrian stranglehold on the ladder’s top rung.

“We’ve been ninth in the Nations Cup for many, many years, and all of the sudden we’re biting at their heels,” Mendes said. “They’re used to being 1-2-3 on the podium, having multiple women on the podium at every World Cup race. And now it’s not the case. They’re getting bumped out a lot more than they ever have before, so of course they’re looking at what we’re doing. They want to know how we’re creeping up on them.”

Hoedlmoser said he sees it every day on the hill; the Austrians now watch American racers ” specifically Lindsey Kildow among the women ” take their training runs and pay careful attention to what equipment they’re using, which can be a high compliment in ski racing.

“They are [worried],” Hoedlmoser said.

The often overlooked irony to the U.S.’s climb up the standings is the fact that the deep and balanced women’s team has actually contributed more to the push than the top-heavy men’s team, which tends to feature Miller and Daron Rahlves at the height of the finish list but few other skiers in the points-scoring top 30.

Men’s and women’s points combined determine a country’s place in the Nations Cup standings.

“We were getting a lot of points for the team,” veteran speed skier Libby Ludlow said, “and you look at the men and what points they’re getting, and what points the women are getting ” in comparison to the Austrians ” we’re pretty close to the Austrians and the men are pretty far off. It’s not like we’re blaming them or anything, but definitely, we need to have both sides skiing well.”

Should the U.S. finish what it has started and relegate Austria to No. 2, Ludlow said, “It’d be a pretty big deal. We’ve always been kind of the fighting, struggling team. We’ve always been really strong but not quite as strong as the Austrians. … To get on top would be pretty amazing.”

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