One of the most fascinating dynamics in ski racing is the cohesion of a team in an individual sport. This week in Aspen, veteran speed skier Laurenne Ross will bid adieu to the daily grind of the white circus. She’ll take with her the friendships from a career with the U.S. Ski Team during a period where she was part of the best women’s speed team in the world.
Ross, 32, and teammate Alice McKennis Duran, 31, who is also bidding farewell this week, were part of a group of six American ski racers who formed the nucleus of one of the most successful speed teams on the women’s tour in the early-to-mid ‘10s. Lindsey Vonn, Julia Mancuso, Stacey Cook, Leanne Smith, McKennis Duran and Ross came together from every corner of America. They were each unique personalities who found common bonds, learning how to be teammates, friends and fierce competitors at the same time.
Across 153 World Cup starts, Ross claimed two podiums amid 28 top-10s. She started off the U.S. Alpine Championships at Aspen Highlands in style Saturday morning, claiming her third-career U.S. title by winning the downhill. It was an emotional victory with her family in the finish, and longtime teammate McKennis Duran at her side. She’ll also be in the starting gate for Tuesday’s super-G.
Figuring out the next step
Like most athletes, Ross doesn’t view it as a retirement. It’s just another chapter. And she’s surely not saying goodbye to the sport that has produced such deep friendships and cherished memories.
“I started saying that I’m retiring and one of my friends pointed out to me, she said, ‘you’re not actually retiring. You are transitioning. You’re bringing your skill set from your previous career into your next.’ I think about it more as a gap.”
Ross plans to see where life takes her over the next year. A recent graduate of the University of Oregon, she plans to apply to grad school this year and assess her life next spring. But she’s crystal clear that the ski community will be a part of her future.
Her eyes light up when she talks about her role as a NASTAR ambassador. “It’s a really good way to introduce people to ski racing,” she said, “and a good way to stay connected with the community. I just love the people – they’re excited about skiing and ski racing.” One of her goals is to convince her home mountain, Mt. Bachelor, to bring back NASCAR.
Amid downhill training in Aspen and doing interviews Friday, Ross and boyfriend Tommy Ford squeezed in a call with an architect to review plans for their new home at Awbrey Butte near Bend, Ore.
The new home is likely foreshadowing Ross’ future. “I really want to get into sustainable design and doing sort of like green design or maybe like green remodels,” she said. “But I’m not totally sure how to go about that or where to start. So I’m really excited for this project because it’s going to help me understand more of the process. I’m really drawn by it.”
Ross was born in Edmonton, Alberta before moving to Klamath Falls, Ore. when she was seven. She skied at tiny Snow Valley Ski Club outside Edmonton. Occasionally the family would pack the kids into the car to take a four-hour drive down to Canmore where they had a condo not far from Banff National Park.
She was skiing by two and racing at six. She still recalls the snow in the trees for her first race at Lake Louise. Little did she know at the time that 15 years later she would be racing for the podium there as a part of the world’s strongest downhill team.
In Oregon, ski racing was a natural progression for Ross, who also became intrigued by photography and music. She took her ski racing to Mt. Bachelor, progressing steadily. Growing up in the late ‘90s and into the ‘00s, she looked up to the rising stars of the U.S. Ski Team. “I looked up to Daron Rahlves – I liked his style of skiing,” she recalled. “And I loved Bode (Miller) – he was such a fun skier to watch.”
Soon, Mancuso and Vonn came onto her radar – skiers just four years older who would become her teammates in just a few years.
Ski racing as a part of life
While some young ski racers set their eyes on the Olympics from an early age, Ross saw her life differently. Ski racing was just part of the mix.
“I never had an aha moment or a point in my life at which I realized that I could be an Olympic skier,” she said. “It never happened like that. It was always kind of just sort of a slow build.” She blended ski racing with an interest in gymnastics, before committing to skiing at 14. But she also loved music, singing in a chamber choir, playing in an orchestra and a jazz band. “I just loved music – and the program at the schools in Klamath Falls was really wonderful. I love school, I love learning – I still do.”
When she made the U.S. Ski Team for the 2006-07 season, her commitment increased. But she still traveled with her violin and camera. “To this day, I wonder what my career would have been like if I would have given everything else up,” she said. “I don’t think it would have been good – I would have been sad and angry that I didn’t have those other passions in my life.”
The growth of speed
Ross wasn’t on the 2010 Olympic team, but watched her future teammates, Vonn and Mancuso, combine to win four medals at Whistler. A year later, she was side-by-side with them on her first World Championships team in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. She finished 10th in downhill – capping three Americans in the top-10.
“Yeah, I guess I would define it as like a breakout moment for me,” she said. “It definitely lit a fire inside me. That was really special. My whole family was there. That was definitely the beginning of a lot more success in that realm.”
Ross had already become good friends with Smith and McKennis Duran. She was also still skiing tech in addition to speed, so she spent a lot of time with Mancuso.
“We (Ross and Mancuso) traveled a lot together those first couple of years and got to know each other really well,” she said. “I feel like we had created a really wonderful team dynamic by that point that just got better. I really loved all my teammates.”
The Schladming World Championships in 2013 were somewhat bittersweet. All six U.S. speed specialists came into worlds with top-10 World Cup finishes, including Ross, who was strong in training. After Vonn was seriously injured, that left five athletes vying to claim four spots. Ross needed a top three in the final training run and didn’t get it.
“I came into World Champs a little bit bummed and feeling like I was left behind,” said Ross, whose best finish was a fifth at St. Anton behind McKennis Duran’s win. “When I was told that I wasn’t racing the downhill, I was really sad. But it made sense. I understood everybody else had a podium. And you can’t argue putting Jules in the race – she’s a big-game contender.”
Two weeks later, Ross and company headed to Garmisch-Partenkirchen for what would turn out to be the final speed events of the 2013 season.
“At that point I had let go of the need or the hunger to do as well as my teammates and sort of stopped comparing myself,” said Ross. “In Garmisch, I had just started to understand that a little bit better and started to let go. That was obviously a really healthy thing for my head and helped me to perform well and be fast in that race.”
Starting 26th, Ross had to sit nervously through a course hold after her teammate McKennis Duran was helicoptered off after a bad crash. Regaining her focus, she came down second behind Tina Maze for a career-first World Cup podium.
But it was more than just her first podium. It capped the second straight year for the U.S. women as the best speed team in the world. “I did feel like I was a part of that team dynamic for that podium,” she said. “But that podium made me feel like I was contributing more to our status as actually being the best in the world. And that felt really good to feel like I was a bigger part of that.”
Racing on the world’s best speed team
Going into the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, the women’s speed team was a big story. At NBC’s West Hollywood promo shoot in April, 2013, the Olympic network filmed Ross and the little musician ensemble she formed with her teammates.
But the vibe that had created a powerhouse speed team the past few seasons ran into a speed bump that season. Vonn’s comeback from the 2013 Schladming crash was thwarted with a pre-season training injury at Copper Mountain. Vonn, Cook and Smith grabbed a handful of fifths and sixths. Another injury in Val d’Isere kept Vonn out of the Games.
Despite being off the pace from a year earlier, Ross made her first Olympics.
“Standing in the starting gate was such an insanely magical experience,” she said. “I just remember the energy being so intense, but also just so full of joy and standing up there looking down, knowing that my whole family was there and all of my friends were around me.
“I was about to compete in this thing that was bigger than myself. That was a feeling I had never really experienced before. And that was really special.”
The next December in Lake Louise, Ross was a part of what was arguably the two best back-to-back days ever for the women’s speed team. On day one, Ross was fourth – the top American and leading four into the top nine. The next day, Ross was sixth behind a podium of Vonn, Cook and Mancuso. The speed had returned.
The speed the team achieved emanated from superstars like Vonn and Mancuso, who elevated everyone around them. “To have the pace like that in training was imperative for our success that year, years prior and years to come,” said Ross. “Having the fastest girls on the circuit, to train with every day over the summer and fall and in the winter was really beneficial for the rest of us and made us all so much better.”
Still, it wasn’t all ‘rainbows and butterflies,’ as Ross reflected. “There was darkness, too,” she recalled. “We were all really competitive with each other. So it’s hard to see your friends succeed when you feel like you should be there, too. It was a journey – I mean, the dynamic was definitely something special that I had never experienced before and really didn’t expect.”
Ross came into the team having heard mixed messages about how tough it was for younger athletes. She found a different experience.
“When Lindsey and Jules stepped up and really became mentors for the rest of us, that was something I think none of us expected,” she said. “We were all really grateful for it and it definitely contributed to all of our successes.”
Racing as a team, the women led the combined downhill and super-G Nations’ Cup in the 2012 and 2013 seasons over Austria. With the addition of Mikaela Shiffrin, Breezy Johnson and Jackie Wiles to the speed mix in 2018, the team led the world in downhill.
Coming out of the pain
Looking to her second Olympics in 2018, Ross and teammates came away from the 2017 test events at Jeongseon with strong performances. Ross was fourth in downhill with Vonn and Cook joining her in the top six. Ross was sixth in super-G.
Then, disaster struck. Two days after winning the national super-G title at Sugarloaf, she crashed in the GS, shredding her right knee.
“I think I’m inherently resilient,” she said. “It wasn’t really ever a choice of mine. I’ve always just been a really hard worker and and pretty hard headed, honestly.”
But this injury was different. And its outcome was mind boggling. “It was heartbreaking,” she said. “I really liked that hill (Jeongseon).”
No stranger to pain, she gutted through it once again with heavy rehab at Rebound Physical Therapy near her home in Bend and at the Center of Excellence in Park City.
“I knew that I wanted so badly to get back to the Olympics,” she said. “So I just put my head down. I learned a lot about my fears and my doubts. I learned a lot about my hopes and about who I was. And I found some darkness within me that was difficult to process but made it through. And I am really grateful for that.”
Forming a new direction
The last few years have been up and down for Ross with new injuries. But she also used that time to grow as a creator and finish her degree in art from Oregon. Her 2019 photograph book Approach: a study in alternative processed film photography features a stunning look at the world through her years of travel. It’s a gorgeous collection of prints from film.
She staged two more comebacks, ultimately making her sixth World Championship team, competing in one of her favorite places this past February, Cortina d’Ampezzo. In a way, it was like going home – a perennial stop on the women’s tour. It meant pizza at Ariston, hanging out with the girls at La Cooperativa di Cortina and taking her Bronica SQ-A and wandering the Dolomites in search of photographic inspiration.
“I’ve sort of redefined what success means to me throughout the years,” she philosophizes. “I used to think that it was about winning or about getting podiums or skiing as fast as you can and beating everybody. And then as I grew, I started to realize that it was more a matter of perspective. And I started seeing the little things as successes. You start to understand success in a different way. And that’s been really good for me.”
In a way, it’s a bit of a long time now to think back to that period now nearly a decade ago when she was a part of that powerhouse speed team.
“I haven’t really thought much about that era in the sense of success as I have, in the sense of the friendships and the bonds that we formed,” said Ross. “I think back a lot to the days when it was Leanne and Alice and Jules and Lins and Stacey and myself skiing together. Like, that’s our crew. And if it felt so good to have all of those girls in one place and race all of those World Cups together.”
Ross will measure her time with the U.S. Ski Team not only on what she accomplished riding speed courses at 110 kph, but in the friendships she made and the spirit she brought to the team.
Over time, how will she be viewed by the next generations? “I want them to see me as kind and expressive and joyful … and like a good friend.”