Winter Olympics Sochi 2014

Winter Olympics Sochi 2014

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U.S. Women: Best Speed Team in World

Transformation couldn't have occurred at a better time -- a year before the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

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    Alice McKennis of the USA competes during the Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup Women's Downhill training on December 12, 2012.

    Most people know of Lindsey Vonn and Julia Mancuso, and maybe recently heard of American teen skiing sensation Mikaela Shiffrin.

    But who are these other U.S. women finishing atop the podium on the World Cup circuit?

    Downhillers Stacey Cook, Leanne Smith and Alice McKennis are each in the middle of breakout seasons. They've had so much success that for the first time in recent memory, coaches will have a tough time selecting the four starters for the downhill at next month's world championships.

    Vonn leads the World Cup downhill standings, Cook is second, McKennis fourth, Smith sixth, Mancuso 11th and Laurenne Ross 21st. Of those six, only four get to start the worlds downhill Feb. 10 in Schladming, Austria.

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    "It's going to be very difficult," longtime speed coach Chip White said. "It's better than squabbling over someone who's 30th place. It's definitely a problem but it's a good problem."

    While Vonn's five victories this season have all come in speed events, she hasn't been alone on the podium.

    Cook finished second behind Vonn in the opening two downhills of the season in Lake Louise, Alberta. Smith was second in Val d'Isere, France, last month and showed it wasn't a fluke with a third-place result in Cortina last weekend. McKennis had the biggest breakthrough of all, winning the challenging downhill this month in St. Anton, Austria.

    All three skiers had never before finished on the podium.

    Add two podium finishes for Mancuso in super-G, that's 12 podiums overall for the speed team. In the country downhill standings, the Americans hold a massive 441-point lead over Switzerland.

    Ross, one of the newest members of the team, also has podium potential, as evidenced by her fourth-place finish in a super-G in Tarvisio two seasons ago, and a fifth-place result in St. Anton when McKennis won.

    It's clear that the U.S. women are the best speed team in the world. And the transformation couldn't have occurred at a better time -- a year before the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

    Naturally, the team has been asked repeatedly how it became
    so successful. Smith recounted a conversation the racers had in the team van recently on the subject. It started with some jokes, then got serious.

    "First we were like, `We listen to Justin Bieber together, or we all sleep in one big bed every night, or we have these rituals.' But, no," Smith said. "There's a lot of hard workers on this team. Everybody wants to help each other out and see each other do well.

    "When you see a teammate come down and podium you say, `Hey, I can do that, too.' When you see that with Lindsey and Julia every day, you watch them ski and see what they do, you can emulate that. Obviously, they've had a lot of success in the past so there's a lot to be taken from them.

    "It's kind of nice to be on the U.S. Ski Team right now," Smith added. "We're having fun."

    According to White, it's been a gradual building process to get to this point. He's been with the team for 17 years and has worked together with head coach Alex Hoedlmoser for 16 years.

    Vonn described White's dedication by recounting how the silver-haired coach kept working this season after accidentally cutting his finger off with a table saw.

    "He had one hand all taped up and he was still out there carrying gates around and wrenching in gates and working just as hard as he always does even though he was in excruciating pain," said Vonn, a winner of the past five World Cup downhill titles.

    While European skiers go home between races, the U.S. team goes on the road for months at a time. Consequently, a family atmosphere develops.

    White was recently asked to describe each of his athletes. He did so with a wise smile for each of them.