For U.S. skiing, the long-awaited future has come and gone -- now what happens?
By Tim Layden
Last sunday morning U.S. ski racer Jonna Mendes ripped down the Wildflower course at Snowbasin and slammed to a stop in the finish corral, far out of the medal chase (she would place 16th) in the Super G. The crowd roared its appreciation, and Mendes blew kisses back. It was a sweet, patriotic scene that has been repeated endlessly at Olympic Alpine races, an arms-wide embrace of racers in red-white-and-blue, a thanks for trying so darn hard.
Against this loving backdrop the U.S. ski team has reached a crossroads. The medal count may yet reach a respectable total (and beat the bar-set-low goal of three Alpine medals established by U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association CEO and president Bill Marolt). The larger picture, though, is more unnerving.
Four years ago the U.S. women's Olympic team coaches sought to build for the future by taking then 20-year-old Kirsten Clark, 19-year-old Sarah Schleper and Caroline Lalive and Mendes, both 18, to the Nagano Games, largely for the experience, as none of them were truly ready to compete at a high level. With Salt Lake looming four years in the distance, the attitude was, Just wait.
In Salt Lake, Clark was 12th in the downhill and 14th in Super G; Mendes finished 11th in downhill before her 16th in Super G. Lalive failed to finish either the downhill, combined or Super G, felled by nerves. "We expected more; the placing is not good," said U.S. women's head coach Marjan Cernigoj.
Perhaps the problem is partly the expectations created by a home court Olympics. "This has been on our minds for sooo long," said Mendes after the Super G. "I really wanted to come out with a medal. It's devastating."
On the men's side, an injury in January to Chad Fleischer left Daron Rahlves to carry the U.S. load in downhill and the Super G. He was spooked when the media descended upon him after a fast -- but meaningless -- training run and went on to finish 16th and eighth, respectively. With no pressure, 21-year-old Marco Sullivan finished ninth in the downhill, and Thomas Vonn did likewise in the Super G.
So look ahead: The women's speed program has lost Picabo Street to retirement. The Nagano Kids may have plateaued. On the technical (slalom and giant slalom) side, neither Schleper nor Kristina Koznick finished their first run in yesterday's slalom. (Both are entered in tomorrow's GS.) Unless Sullivan is the real deal, the men's speed cabinet is bare. Only the men's technical ski program, in which Bode Miller has Tom Rothrock, Vonn and Chip Knight behind him, looks strong for the long term.
Questions must be asked. Such as: Should the emphasis among women now turn to young skiers like 17-year-old Lindsey Kildow, who was a shocking sixth in the combined? And will the system help her advance any better than it did Clark, Lalive and Mendes? So many times the U.S. skiers who excel are rebels working either on the edges of the system or outside it altogether. Think Phil and Steve Mahre, Tommy Moe, Street, Miller. Koznick left the U.S. program two years ago.
It's a huge challenge, training individual athletes in a team environment and racing countries like Austria and Germany. It takes work and creativity. Cernigoj said it best: "We've got to take a look at everything we've done."