ROSA KHUTOR, Russia — Saturday was decision day for the U.S. women’s speed team. Stacey Cook and Julia Mancuso were previously assured downhill starts through USSA’s objective criteria, leaving Leanne Smith, Laurenne Ross and C Team member Jackie Wiles to race it out for the final two spots Saturday.
The deal was simple: finish in the top seven, make the team. If not, it would be up to the coaches to fill those two remaining spots, according to a U.S. Ski Team spokesman.
Finishing fifth on the day, Laurenne Ross was apprehensive to declare her spot on the downhill team. But a deal’s a deal; she’s slated to start.
“It’s not my place to announce, but that’s what they told us,” said Ross after the run.
Later in the day, the U.S. Ski Team officially announced Ross will indeed round out the Olympic downhill team, along with C Team member Jackie Wiles. Officials also released the super combined roster: Mancuso, Cook, Ross and Smith.
A downhill start will be especially gratifying for Ross after the 25-year-old was left off the World Championship downhill team in Schladming, Austria last season. Like the Olympics, only four athletes per nation may start in a single event at the Championships. Of the five healthy members on the speed team, Ross was the odd woman out last year.
“It feels good,” said Ross. “I’m feeling a lot better on my skis. I’m feeling confident. I’m really liking this hard snow, enjoying the ice. … (Being a part of the downhill team) will mean a lot to me. Racing the downhill at the Olympics is something that I’ve always looked forward to.”
TV monitors have not been available for the women during these training runs, so when Wiles came through the finish showing a fourth-place result, observers were stunned and assumed the young gun had locked up a start; however, her body language quickly revealed she had missed a gate, nixing the result per team agreement. She was awarded the start, nonetheless.
“I came out of the start charging, but the third gate came up — there were a couple bumps,” said the 21-year-old Wiles, who’s strength is in the downhill. “I didn’t stand over it enough, wasn’t in the best position possible and it kind of went out from under me. I wasn’t able to make the next right-footed double. But that kind of lit something in me after that, so I just sent it.”
Notably, the coaches’ decision leaves Leanne Smith on the sidelines for the Olympic downhill. Smith has been battling sinus problems for the last month, and she’ll be the first one to tell you she’s not skiing her best. She finished 22nd on Saturday.
“It is what it is,” said Smith of her health problems. “Hopefully the medicine I’m on now will work, but that’s life. Sometimes it’s hard to get back and healthy. This lifestyle is really demanding, and it’s hard to get back to where you want to be.
“I’m just working on trying to get rid of this mental block that I have in these downhills, taking the skiing that I can do in certain sections of the course and in my freeskiing and gate training into these downhills,” added Smith. “I need to not let the hill take me for a ride, definitely need to step my game up. I know this won’t last forever; it’s a phase, but it’s something I need to get out of real quick.”
Stacey Cook and Julia Mancuso continued their hot streaks with another solid day of training, finishing fifth and eighth, respectively.
“It’s about skiing hard; there are (also) a couple tactical places,” said Mancuso, who’s competing in her fourth Olympics. “I’ll watch video. I think I did the turns better today, but I did the flat sections better yesterday, so try and see if I gave up any (time), if I turned a little too much to make it onto the flats.”
Lara Gut was one of the few big international names who kicked out on Saturday. She finished second, although she also missed an early gate on course. Fellow Swiss Dominique Gisin and Swede Kajsa Kling rounded out the training “podium.”
“It was OK, but it’s only training, so nobody cares,” said Gut. “Yesterday, I never (found) the way I had to ski. I skied bad. Today, I just tried to be a bit more engaged and find the lines, but I don’t know, (I only skied) 60 or 70 percent.”
There were 17 racers who did not start this third day of downhill training, including notables Anna Fenninger, Maria Hoefl-Riesch, Tina Weirather and Tina Maze, to name a few. Many are again expected to skip Sunday’s downhill training. A whopping fifth day of training is scheduled for Tuesday after the women’s super combined, prior to the downhill race on Wednesday.
On Friday, Ski Racing Magazine asked Hoefl-Riesch how it feels to be perhaps the favorite in this Olympic downhill. “Kind of cool. Kind of not cool,” she said. “Because, of course, you feel the pressure. And it’s mainly my own pressure. Because I really want to (win) a medal in the downhill. Of course, gold is the biggest dream you can have. It’s not so easy.”
The Americans, like many other teams, are expected to forgo Sunday’s training in hopes of getting some needed rest.
RESULTS — Women’s Downhill Training, Saturday
|Rank||Bib||FIS Code||Name||Year||Nation||Total Time||Diff.|
|14||10||495318||RUIZ CASTILLO Carolina||1981||SPA||1:44.28||+1.91|
|Did not start 1st run|
|50||35089||SIMARI BIRKNER Macarena||1984||ARG|
|4||425880||SEJERSTED Lotte Smiseth||1991||NOR|
|Did not finish 1st run|
|53||465098||CAILL Ania Monica||1995||ROU|