As the (Ski Racing) World Turns
Lindsey Vonn said she was “devastated” by the cancellation of the last race at the World Cup Finals in Lenzerheide, Switzerland on Saturday.
It was perhaps an unfortunate word choice given the literal devastation suffered in Japan just a few days previous. But Lindsey’s an emotional kid and nothing if not competitive. She can be quite sunny when things are going her way, but also capable of assigning blame when they are not. And being stripped of the chance to win her fourth straight World Cup overall title was no doubt hard to take.
Vonn, America’s blonde skiing sweetheart, trailed rival and close friend Maria Riesch by three points following Friday’s slalom. The Saturday giant slalom was to be a fitting, winner-take-all duel for the season-long crown. But then foggy warm weather and trap-door snow conditions forced the decision to cancel. This being the finals, there was no chance to schedule a make-up. Riesch took the big crystal globe home to Germany (she had finished second to Lindsey the last two years), and Vonn smiled grimly for the cameras.
Three other races also had to be cancelled at Lenzerheide last week (two men’s races and the women’s super G) because of rain and soft snow, but it wasn’t all-in-all a grim week.
Julia Mancuso, the other great American ski racer on the circuit, won the finals downhill with a slicing, beautifully imagined run. Vonn was fourth, and Riesch skied tentatively to finish out of the points. That race catapulted Lindsey, briefly, into the overall lead by 27 points.
Mancuso is all Hawaiian hang-loose to Vonn’s willful intensity – she spends summers there surfing. Coaches who know both women say that if only Julia, with her gift of snow feel, had Lindsey’s work ethic, then she would have been the dominant skier of this age. I remember seeing her race in Breckenridge when she was 12 or 13. (She, like Vonn, will be 27 this year.) Back then nobody could believe her flow, her ability to ride a fast ski without ever having to brake, as comfortable as if she were walking on a moving sidewalk. After her downhill win, Mancuso created a website, skiershelpingjapan.com, and dedicated her winnings, $18,200, to the relief effort.
Didier Cuche, the ageless bald Swiss, did the same with his somewhat smaller fourth-place check from the men’s downhill. Cuche, who is 36 and not planning on retiring any time soon, was in a good mood, because his fourth was just enough to keep him ahead of rival Austrian Michael Walchhofer for the season-long downhill title. (Lindsey, by the way, had already sewed up the women’s downhill, super G and combined discipline titles before the finals. So, her “devastation” will likely ease with time.)
Friday was the women’s penultimate race, the slalom, and Riesch leapfrogged back into the lead by virtue of her solid fourth place behind Slovenian Tina Maze. Vonn finished the fast-twitch, rapid-gate dance a distant 13th. And there, as it turned out, the season ended. With an unfortunate cancellation and a display of pique.
If one athlete at the finals had things in perspective, it was Croat Ivica Kostelic, the tall, grinning, long-suffering older brother of Janica Kostelic. Janica won everything in sight (six Olympic medals, four of them gold; five World Championship gold medals; three overall titles; and the record for the most points ever scored in a World Cup season) before retiring at 24, in 2006, due to health problems.
Ivica was good, but never that good. He endeared himself to his fellows by his cheerful sportsmanship and his excellent air guitar on the awards platform after races. Then this year he caught fire, winning seven races in January and effectively coasting to the overall title. When they gave him the big globe in Lenzerheide, he did a cartwheel in the finish area.
I was thinking about all this, about the life-and-death seriousness, and the occasional fun, on a circuit where adults ski for a living, when I chanced to be at Powderhorn on the second day of the regional J5 championships. J5s are micro racers ages 8-10. They had come from all over: Winter Park, Taos, Flagstaff, Vail, Aspen, Telluride. There were a hundred boys and a hundred girls.
They raced two runs of giant slalom on Friday and two slaloms on Saturday. The best of the kids were scary good, blocking the rapid gates out of the way, carving railroad tracks on every turn.
Late in the afternoon I shared a chair with a boy from Winter Park. He had on his red-and-white, skin-tight suit complete with shin guards. He was fizzing with energy. I asked him how he’d done, and he said, “I won! I won the second slalom! Now my dad has to buy me a giant bottle of Pepsi! We had a deal! I’m going to blow it up with Mentos!”