Breezy Johnson will enter the starting gate at the world championship downhill as a legitimate medal threat considering her consistency and four podium finishes this season.
U.S. Ski Team women’s speed coach Alex Hoedlmoser highly commends what Johnson has achieved overcoming injuries, but is also quick to point out that Jacqueline Wiles and Laurenne Ross have both fared well on Cortina’s Olympia delle Tofane track. The Austrian-born coach believes the potential exists for a solid team effort in Saturday’s women’s downhill.
“Laurenne, Jackie and Breezy have all been on this hill multiple times, they know exactly what to expect and have been somewhat successful too,” Hoedlmoser tells Ski Racing Media. “I think they are bringing some confidence here.”
A common bond between the three U.S. downhillers is that they’ve all battled back valiantly from recent injuries, demonstrating tenacity and perseverance to return.
“Breezy, Jackie and I have all had injuries – Jackie and I have had really major knee injuries, so we’ve really had to be there for each other because it is really challenging to do on your own,” Ross said, after her second training run in Cortina on Friday.
“I think we have a bond from rehabbing together and being able to talk through what we’ve gone through,” Wiles said. “We all relate to each other very well.”
Hoedlmoser – the U.S. women’s speed team coach the past two seasons coming off nearly five years as head coach and a stint with Lindsey Vonn – says Johnson’s performance this season is impressive considering her string of crashes and time away rehabilitating knee injuries. He believes she is poised to become a regular contender at major events.
“It’s a fine line between taking too much risk and skiing over your abilities – she has learned that training runs are there to figure things out and then to really push on race day,” Hoedlmoser says of Johnson “In downhill, she is in a really good spot with that.”
The 25-year-old from Victor, Idaho, has charged to four third-place downhill results this season – back-to-back thirds in Val d’Isere, France, in mid-December; another in St. Anton, Austria on Jan. 9; and her fourth third place in Crans-Montana, Switzerland, on Jan. 22.
Hoedlmoser says Johnson’s progression and added confidence can be attributed to multiple factors.
“Finally, she had a full practice period where she has been healthy,” he said. “She is putting everything she has into this sport.
“She has a clear goal of what she wants to achieve and with a couple seasons on the World Cup that it takes that to really obtain that experience and she’s getting there.
“On top of that, she is super strong this year, like a machine conditioning-wise.”
Johnson was fourth and tenth in two downhill training runs under sun and blue skies in Cortina on Friday.
“There are a few things to clean up and I’m definitely confident I’ll be able to do that,” Johnson said, following the second training. “I have my plan for tomorrow and I’m going to execute that.”
Austrian Mirjam Puchner and Lara-Gut Behrami, fresh off her super-G victory on Thursday, posted the fastest training times on Friday.
Jacqueline Wiles attained one of her two career podiums in Cortina in January 2018, finishing third in a downhill behind Tina Weirather and Vonn.
The 28-year-old racer from Oregon suffered a setback this season breaking her collarbone in a crash at Val d’Isere on Dec. 20.
“She was determined to have it fixed and stay with the team – the surgery and repairs were done in Innsbruck,” Hoedlmoser informed. “She started to train again as soon as she was allowed.”
Wiles returned to racing, exactly one month after the crash, in Crans-Montana, Switzerland.
“She is confident that she is healed and can put it on the line again,” said the veteran U.S. speed coach. “We had some good training days and preparations for the world championship in San Pellegrino. Time-wise she was the fastest again.
“Jackie likes the course here and while expectations are probably not too high, I think she can surprise some people”
Prior to missing the Cortina World Cup last season while recovering from a complex knee injury sustained in 2019, Laurenne Ross competed nine consecutive times at the annual Italian Dolomites resort tour stop.
Ross, 32, amassed four top ten finishes across downhill and super-G, with her best result a fourth in downhill in 2015.
On the comeback trail, Ross crashed at Copper Mountain, Colo. in November. She tore her MCL and was off skis for six weeks.
“She came back to the team mid-December and is coming closer and closer with her times being faster,” Hoedlmoser said. “She also had a good training block in San Pellegrino. The veterans know the hill and can put it on line on race day.
“I haven’t had the drive and hunger I had before, but I think I’m overcoming the fear and getting better every day,” Ross said, after her second training run Friday.
Hoedlmoser added: “Expectations are not too high, but she has an outside chance to do something good.”
The fourth member of the U.S. women’s downhill squad is 24-year-old Isabella Wright, who is making her world championship debut in her first season on the U.S. Ski Team.
“Bella has come such a long way – it is incredible how she improved in one season,” Hoedlmoser says, about the Salt Lake City racer. “She is a very confident skier – in training she is already faster than the others.
“Right now, she can just go out there without any pressure, but in the future expectations are high.
“She should just enjoy it and show the world what she can do.”
Conquering the Olympia delle Tofane
Hoedlmoser says that it takes “a complete downhiller” to thrive and clock fast times on the Olympia delle Tofane.
“It’s a course that includes basically everything – it has all the elements,” says Hoedlmoser, who has been attending races in Cortina for nearly 25 years.
“It has very technical parts, fast parts, steep parts, jumps and some gliding at the bottom, so whoever is going to win this thing has to be a very good and complete skier.
“That’s the beauty about this course, besides the scenery, and who knows with the snowfall now, but it usually has incredible snow conditions.
The Olympia delle Tofane runs 2,560 meters in length with a vertical drop of 760 meters. It boasts a maximum gradient of 65% and an average of 30%.
“You need a very light touch on the skis becauses even if it feels hard, it is usually quite aggressive snow,” he says. “You could be having a great run, but if you overpressure and ski too hard, the time will not be there.
“You need to be a very complete downhiller to win this year.”
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