AP Sports Writer
CORTINA D’AMPEZZO, Italy -- Most people know of Lindsey Vonn and Julia Mancuso, and maybe recently heard of American teen skiing sensation Mikaela Shiffrin.
But who are these other U.S. women finishing atop the podium on the World Cup circuit?
Downhillers Stacey Cook, Leanne Smith and Alice McKennis are each in the middle of breakout seasons. They’ve had so much success that for the first time in recent memory, coaches will have a tough time selecting the four starters for the downhill at next month’s world championships.
Vonn leads the World Cup downhill standings, Cook is second, McKennis fourth, Smith sixth, Mancuso 11th and Laurenne Ross 21st. Of those six, only four get to start the worlds downhill Feb. 10 in Schladming, Austria.
"It’s going to be very difficult," longtime speed coach Chip White said. "It’s better than squabbling over someone who’s 30th place. It’s definitely a problem but it’s a good problem."
While Vonn’s five victories this season have all come in speed events, she hasn’t been alone on the podium.
Cook finished second behind Vonn in the opening two downhills of the season in Lake Louise, Alberta. Smith was second in Val d’Isere, France, last month and showed it wasn’t a fluke with a third-place result in Cortina last weekend. McKennis had the biggest breakthrough of all, winning the challenging downhill this month in St. Anton, Austria.
All three skiers had never before finished on the podium.
Add two podium finishes for Mancuso in super-G, that’s 12 podiums overall for the speed team. In the country downhill standings, the Americans hold a massive 441-point lead over Switzerland.
Ross, one of the newest members of the team, also has podium potential, as evidenced by her fourth-place finish in a super-G in Tarvisio two seasons ago, and a fifth-place result in St. Anton when McKennis won.
It’s clear that the U.S. women are the best speed team in the world. And the transformation couldn’t have occurred at a better time -- a year before the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
Naturally, the team has been asked repeatedly how it became so successful. Smith recounted a conversation the racers had in the team van recently on the subject. It started with some jokes, then got serious.
"First we were like, ‘We listen to Justin Bieber together, or we all sleep in one big bed every night, or we have these rituals.’ But, no," Smith said. "There’s a lot of hard workers on this team. Everybody wants to help each other out and see each other do well.
"When you see a teammate come down and podium you say, ‘Hey, I can do that, too.’ When you see that with Lindsey and Julia every day, you watch them ski and see what they do, you can emulate that. Obviously, they’ve had a lot of success in the past so there’s a lot to be taken from them.
"It’s kind of nice to be on the U.S. Ski Team right now," Smith added. "We’re having fun."
According to White, it’s been a gradual building process to get to this point. He’s been with the team for 17 years and has worked together with head coach Alex Hoedlmoser for 16 years.
Vonn described White’s dedication by recounting how the silver-haired coach kept working this season after accidentally cutting his finger off with a table saw.
"He had one hand all taped up and he was still out there carrying gates around and wrenching in gates and working just as hard as he always does even though he was in excruciating pain," said Vonn, a winner of the past five World Cup downhill titles.
While European skiers go home between races, the U.S. team goes on the road for months at a time. Consequently, a family atmosphere develops.
White was recently asked to describe each of his athletes. He did so with a wise smile for each of them.
Mancuso: "Julia Mancuso is a free spirit. She’s self-motivated, self-confident. She’s an amazing natural skier, coming from Squaw Valley, she skied big mountains growing up and has had a lot of fun skiing. I think that a lot of her success is because she loves the sport so much and she loves just skiing in general -- she’s not just a ski racer, even though she excels at it."
Ross: "She did get a haircut this year but she used to be referred to as the hippy. She had long dreadlocks, so she had the hippy look, ring in her nose. She’s extremely intelligent, a very talented musician, everything that she touches she does very well. She does extremely well in all of her studies and taking college courses. ... She’s an athlete -- like all of our athletes -- that you can’t just pull the wool over their eyes and feed them a line on technique or tactics. Because of her intelligence, she’s a real thinker and she won’t just buy it if it’s just giving her a line. She’ll say, ‘OK, tell me why and make me believe that that’s correct,’ which is great because it keeps us honest also."
Smith: "She’s a funny character. ... She’s very self-confident and very self-motivated. She comes across as really tough girl and really strong but she does have a soft side and we see that sometimes. When she first started out with us, her answer to everything was, ‘I got it. I got it, I got it, I got it.’ She had all the answers and she didn’t really listen. Unfortunately she got injured (Smith tore her ACL in Cortina in 2009) and when she came back from her injury she realized that she had some work to do and she had a different sense of urgency. ... She realized that she needed to do more than, ‘I got it, I got it, I got it.’ And so she became a better student of the sport. She listened, she paid attention to video, she asked intelligent questions and really thought things through and it changed her whole attitude and approach and it was awesome to see. And since then her skiing has just been skyrocketing, because she is now letting herself become a better skier."
McKennis: "She is a great gal. She’s very quiet and subdued but she’s very funny in her own way. When we first saw her come to the team, to be honest I thought she had no chance. She could go straight and she could make some big, sweeping turns but technically she had a lot of work to do and we were just going, ‘This is not the level of this team and I just don’t see it happening.’ And every time I was about ready to write her off she would do something that was brilliant with her skiing and you would just say, ‘She understands this, she’s just not doing it all the time.’ She was not very athletic, either on or off the snow and we spent a lot of time on her athleticism with dry-land training and this made her become more body-aware, so she was able to move out of her own way, because she was a little clumsy, and she’s getting better and better at having awareness at where every part of her body is. ... She has a race mode and a mind-set of, ‘I can do this and I will do this.’ She showed it in St. Anton."
Cook: "She’s an extremely hard worker. She’s the same age as Lindsey and Julia and she’s very self-motivated, very professional. As far as her work ethic goes, it’s second to none. Lindsey works extremely hard and people talk about how hard she works off the snow and Stacey is exactly the same, just Lindsey gets publicity about it and Stacey doesn’t. She’s like a little fire hydrant -- strong, stout, really sturdy. She’s solid. She has been skiing so well for such a long time, but what she does is she trains really well but then on race day she tries to do something different and that usually is her demise, then she goes and blows it. ... Toward the end of last season she really started to show consistency and great skiing."
Vonn: "She gets a lot of publicity in lot of different directions. I have to say all my experiences with her have been nothing but positive. She’s a talented, hard-working athlete and she’s also a very nice person and the people that see some other side to it don’t know her. She’s friendly, she’s generous, she’s appreciative and helpful to her teammates and supportive of her teammates. She’s great with little kids and things like that and anybody that has something negative to say about her doesn’t know her."