Vonn recovers from Aspen disaster, more Olympics notes
Alpine star Lindsey Vonn was brilliant in bad conditions at Lake Louise
Tim Burke may be the best hope in a sport where the U.S. usually blanks
The speedskating rivalry of Shani Davis and Chad Hedrick heated up
What a difference a week makes for Lindsey Vonn. The U.S. alpine star had been horrible in Aspen, failing to qualify in the giant slalom and skiing off-course in the slalom. This past weekend, though, she nearly won all three races in Lake Louise, Canada. What's more, Vonn performed brilliantly under the same kind of conditions that often plague skiers in Whistler, site of the upcoming Olympics.
Last Friday, Vonn clobbered the field in the downhill by more than half a second, paying little mind to the poor visibility and choppy conditions that forced officials to shorten the course. She barely flinched when she kneed her own lip while getting jostled on the run, causing her to spit blood at the finish. The accident would never have happened had Vonn not been so determined to maintain a tucked position through the most treacherous points on the course.
Her tenacity bodes well. Vonn came back to win another downhill race under much better conditions on Saturday, without the blood. This one was more of a tactical speed race in that the skiers had to choose a good line in order to maintain top speed. Vonn stayed high along the course and showed she could win on both guts and technique during the same weekend. It was the 24th victory of her career on the circuit and 14th in the downhill, the most for a U.S. skier.
On Sunday, Vonn finished behind only Austria's Elisabeth Goergl by a mere three-hundredths of a second after two small mistakes on the bottom of the course cost her a sweep. Considering that Vonn, skiing at her best, still missed out on a triple, you have to marvel at what Switzerland's Carlo Janka did in Beaver Creek, Colorado, over the weekend.
Like Vonn, Janka skied under varied conditions over three days and decimated the field. He won the super combined on Friday, the downhill on Saturday, and the giant slalom on Sunday, setting himself up as the early season skier-to-watch in Vancouver.
The 23-year old from Obersaxen won the world championship in the giant slalom last season. Teammates call him The Iceman -- yes, like George Gervin without the finger roll -- because his emotions rarely change. His off-snow cool also manifests itself in his approach on the course. Unlike, say, Hermann Maier, the last racer to win three alpine events in one weekend at Aspen, Janka races more with precision than abandon. He is technically sound, but not necessarily the most enjoyable to watch.
After the downhill, Janka earned perhaps the most esteemed compliment for a Swiss racer when Didier Cuche, the acknowledged team leader, told reporters that Janka, and not he, was the man to watch on the Swiss squad. Cuche, 35, even reminded people that Janka had been sick for a chunk of the summer. "I want to have the same virus he had," Cuche joked.
A foot of snow blanketed the courses before Friday's racing. Americans Ted Ligety and Bode Miller both skied off the course in virtually the same spot during the second run of the Aspen super combined. Miller and Ligety would each end the weekend with a fourth-place finish -- Miller on Saturday and Ligety on Sunday.
Poised for a breakthrough
So which American will have that breakthrough performance in a sport in which the U.S. has traditionally blanked? Steven Holcomb or John Napier in the bobsled? Erin Hamlin in luge? Bill Demong or Todd Lodwick in Nordic combined?
Maybe, but now it's time to add Tim Burke to that list.
No U.S. biathlete has ever won a World Cup race and or a medal in the sprint event. Burke, a 27-year-old Lake Placid native, ended one of those slumps, and nearly both last week. On Thursday, he placed second in a 20-kilometer event in Ostersund, Sweden, behind hometown favorite Emil Hegle Svendsen. It was best showing for a U.S. biathlete since Josh Thompson finished second in a 20K race in Canmore, B.C. in 1992. Two days later, Burke placed third in the 10K sprint, his favorite event, behind Norwegian superstar Ole-Einar Bjorndalen and Svendsen.
Burke missed only one target over the course of the two events. Like many of the biathletes in the U.S. program, he began as simply a cross-country skier, but by age 16 had taken to biathlon because of its unpredictable nature. Now he looks like a ray of hope for his team.
Until this weekend, the rivalry between U.S. speedskaters Shani Davis and Chad Hedrick had been a one-sided affair, with Davis piling up wins in the 1,000 and 1,500, while Hedrick poked away at the podium. Last weekend, however, they each won a race at the World Cup competition in Calgary.
Davis captured the thousand for the third straight time this season, but Hedrick edged him the fifteen, a distance that Davis had won by more than a second in three previous outings this year. Though they aren't on one other's Christmas lists, Davis and Hedrick have been publicly cordial. Davis has indicated he'd consider skating the team pursuit event in Vancouver, a race Hedrick criticized him for skipping in Turin four years earlier.
Norwegian speedskating legend Johann Olav Koss is back with his old team as an assistant coach for the national team. Koss won a gold and silver medal at the Albertville Games in 1992, and three golds before his home fans in Lillehammer two years later. He's been pressed into service by Norway after the ouster of American Peter Mueller, a gold medalist at 1,000 meters at the 1976 Olympics, who was hired to coach the team after careers with the U.S. and Dutch teams. Mueller, 55, was accused of making inappropriate comments during a team dinner to Maren Haugli, 24, one of his female skaters, and the decision to remove him sparked a national furor for a team that has struggled to regain its preeminent standing in the sport.
Muller was previously married to Leah Poulos, a U.S. teammate and triple Olympic silver medalist, and later to Marianne Timmer, one of his Dutch pupils and a former Olympic champion. Norwegian federation president Vibecke Sorensen fired Mueller without launching a formal investigation because at least one other skater had complained of similar treatment.
Weir's Fallen Angel rises
The Grand Prix final in Tokyo last weekend marked the last chance for the world's top figure skaters to compete under the same roof before the Olympics, and the U.S. came away with two victories. World champ Evan Lysacek had another strong showing, scoring personal bests in his short and long programs, despite popping a triple Axel in the latter. He nailed three triple-triple combinations in the free skate (Lutz-toe; Axel-Salchow; flip-toe). Johnny Weir put together his first clean free skate of the season, falling back on his familiar Fallen Angel program to win a bronze.
Meryl Davis and Charlie White became the first U.S. team to win the ice dance competition at the Grand Prix final. The couple barely edged Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who train with them in Michigan. The competition was a contrast in styles between the Americans -- whose fast-moving lifts come close to being illegal throws of the kind you'd see in pairs events -- and the classically composed Canadians.
Korea's Kim Yu-na won the ladies event again. She has not been beaten this season, but her margin for error is dwindling. Kim's triple-triple combination was downgraded to a triple-double in her usually solid short program. By the end of the first day, she found herself trailing Japan's Miki Ando and only finished ahead of Ando by three points by the end of the competition. Compare that to her resounding 36-point triumph in Paris to start the season. Afterwards, Kim admitted to being tired, but insisted she was not injured.
Rio looks to Rudy
Organizers for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio have tapped a knowledgeable source to be a security consultant for the Games. Rudy Giuliani, the New York mayor during the September 11 attack will advise the Brazilian city on how to prepare for the Games. In addition to typical Olympic concerns about terrorism, Rio is one of the world's more dangerous places, with tremendous pockets of drug-related crime in local slums known as favelas. The city got off nearly incident-free when it played host to the Pan-Am Games in July 2007, though police had killed 652 people to that point during the year. IOC members largely ignored the crime issue when they awarded the Games to Rio at a meeting in Copenhagen two months ago.