BEAVER CREEK, Colo. — Lindsey Vonn is banged up and unsure of her plans heading into the Sochi Games.
In years past, the very thought might send a very cold shiver through the U.S. speed team.
At least this time, the Americans are loaded with depth in downhill and super-G. Julia Mancuso, Stacey Cook, Leanne Smith and Laurenne Ross are the skiers the Americans could be counting on for medals in Russia if Vonn, the reigning Olympic downhill champion, can’t compete after hurting her surgically repaired right knee again.
And, guess what? It’s actually a talented group.
All of them made the podium at least once last season and all of them were top 16 in the downhill standings.
Throw in Alice McKennis, who won a World Cup event last season but is still recovering from a shattered right leg, and it’s an even more dynamic mix.
This also creates quite a few tough decisions for women’s coach Alex Hoedlmoser, since there are only four race spots available in Sochi in the downhill and again in the super-G. That means someone well-deserving could be left out of the starting gate.
“One of the best traits of our team is everyone has the understanding that if you get beat out for that spot, it’s not somebody else’s fault. It’s probably something you did or your own fault in some way,” said Cook, who had the fastest time in downhill training on Wednesday. “There’s not a lot of the blame game that you might see typically.”
Vonn remains unsure just how much her latest knee injury will affect her Sochi hopes. In an interview on NBC’s “Today” show Wednesday, the four-time overall World Cup champion was asked whether her knee can withstand the pressure of training for the Olympics.
“To be honest, I don’t know,” Vonn replied.
Vonn crashed during a downhill training run in Copper Mountain last week and partially tore a reconstructed ligament in her knee. She skipped the events in Beaver Creek, but is hoping to be ready for the upcoming races in Lake Louise, Alberta.
Her teammates almost expect that, too.
“I don’t know exactly where she’s at (in her recovery), but she doesn’t sit still easily,” Cook said.
Then there’s this thought: If Vonn is, say, only 50 percent healed by the time Sochi rolls around, and someone else is completely healthy, just who gets to race?
“We’re still going to bring the potential medalists down to Sochi,” Hoedlmoser said. “We can put more people in training runs and then make a decision before race day.”
There are plenty of chances between now and Sochi to stand out, beginning this weekend on the new course at Beaver Creek created ahead of the 2015 world championships.
“You are in control of your results,” said Smith, who was 14th in training on Wednesday, 1.21 seconds behind Cook’s top time. “If you’re skiing well and have the right mentality, it’s going to work out just fine.”
The recent success in speed events has a lot to do with the presence of Vonn and Mancuso. Training alongside those two icons over the years has elevated everyone’s performance.
At least, that’s Smith’s take.
“To see them get on the podium, week in and week out, was obviously very inspirational for someone like me, who was just scrapping down these courses to try and get World Cup points,” said Smith, who had two downhill podium finishes last season. “You learn and you figure out what it takes. You compete with your teammates. All of a sudden, you are in a situation that we’re in, where everyone is super competitive and you still have those two girls that are leading the pack.
“It’s just fun, good pressure for everyone else. It’s something to aspire to.”
For years, Cook didn’t believe she had the ability to keep up with Vonn in a race. But last season in Lake Louise, the 29-year-old had a breakthrough, finishing runner-up to Vonn in two races. It showed Cook she was on the right path.
“It’s really become a challenge to myself, to believe that I can compete with her,” Cook said. “I’ve really accepted that over the last few years instead of hid behind it.
“It takes perfection for me to beat her. That is the absolute challenge, to reach perfection going 80 mph on two planks.”
Mancuso sees a renewed confidence in the speed team, a definite camaraderie, too.
“We’re all leaning on each other. That’s nice,” said Mancuso, a three-time Olympic medalist. “Just all of us together trying to go fast. Everyone is cheering for each other and that’s always fun.”