Ski Team starts strong in Soelden |

Ski Team starts strong in Soelden

Paul Robbins, Special to the Record

Ted’s ripping. So are Bode and Jules. And Lindsey Vonn – one of Park City’s newest residents – is 100 percent healthy and ready to rip when the alpine World Cup ski tour re-invades North America in late November.

The 2008 Audi Alpine World Cup schedule opened over the weekend on the Rettenbach Glacier above Soelden, Austria. Americans left town smiling, by and large, while Austrians – limited to one podium performance over two races (two races in ski-nutty Austria!) – were less jubilant.

The two Olympic ski champs from the Park City Winter Sports School – Ted Ligety and Julia Mancuso – jump-started the U.S. Ski Team’s season as each finished second. They took different routes, and as men’s Head Coach Phil McNichol noted, "No complaints when you start the season with a podium. In fact, there’s never a bad time to have one of your athletes in the top three."

A year ago, the season openers in Soelden were rained out. This time, though, there was no such problem as cold, clear weather rolled into the mountain region and hung around through Sunday’s finale. It was a little bumpy, but glaciers do that – the river of ice chunks up under the snow and can provide a wild ride for racers – and things weren’t much better for each second run as the sun dropped behind a ridgeline.

But with two top-3s in 24 hours, U.S. athletes and staff were pleased.

The next races are a slalom for men and another for women Nov. 11-12 in Levi, Finland. Ligety will race in that one, but Mancuso, whose weakest event in slalom, returns home this week to grab some down time after another three weeks overseas. The North American part of the schedule 40 races overall for the gents, 39 for the gentles – begins two weeks later.

"Obviously, this was a helluva weekend, a great way to start the season," U.S. alpine chief Jesse Hunt said as he headed to Munich, Germany, for the flight home. "We got some good things going this weekend."

In the men’s giant slalom Sunday, Ligety led the first run – "a bit of a new experience for me, ‘winning’ the first run," he acknowledged – and held on to finish second. Norwegian star Aksel Lund Svindal, the reigning World Cup overall king, who also won the GS title at the World Championships last February in Sweden, barreled through the fastest second run to win in two minutes, 17.87 seconds.

Ligety was runner-up in 2:18.19 with Bode Miller, a Park City homeowner, finishing fifth with a scorching second run that moved him up 12 places in the final placings. No other Yank reached the second run.

A day earlier, Mancuso was second, too, but she had a race more like Miller’s – lackluster first run (she was 12th) and a sizzling second run. Italy’s Denise Karbon, who’s been beset by injuries over the last few seasons, won in 2:23.21 with Mancuso second in 2:23.54.

Vonn, formerly Kildow, was 13th in her first race since injuring her right knee during training at Worlds eight months earlier, and Resi Stiegler, another Winter School grad, was 15th.

It was the first time since the opening races of the 1977 World Cup season that U.S. skiers have been on the podium each day.

A look back at Soelden:

Sunday – Ligety, running second, took the first-run lead on a 48-gate course in 1:07.72, two-tenths ahead of Finn Kalle Palander. Svindal, struggling through three gates on the top half of the layout, was sixth, more than a second out. Miller was 17th, nearly two seconds back.

On the second run, with the flip-30 format so Ligety would run last, Miller and Svindal set sail, taking risks on a tricky course with a couple of breakovers that handcuffed many skiers. Svindal had the fastest run for the victory; Miller, a two-time Soelden winner who is two shy of tying Phil Mahre for the U.S. record of 27 World Cup wins, was only a couple of tenths back as he barged into the top five.

Dane Spencer – who has alternated between Park City and Boise, Idaho, since breaking his neck and pelvis in a racing crash on Valentine’s Day 2006 at Montana’s Big Mountain – was off the pace in the first run. So was Parkite Erik Schlopy, who is rebounding from a knee injury last December. However, each was pleased to get the winter’s first race over, so he can get back to re-tuning his technique.

Ligety credited Svindal for his brilliant run, saying simply, "I didn’t make any big mistakes [on the second run]. It was mostly Aksel. He killed it!"

At a post-race press conference, he said, "It was cool to see Bode’s second run. He ripped it." Although Miller is training apart from the U.S. Ski Team this winter, Ligety said his oft-exciting style and years of being a teammate haven’t disappeared.

"We always root for each other, and it’s cool to see Americans doing well…to see Dane Spencer come back after breaking his neck and his pelvis – that was so cool, unbelievable…and Julia was unbelievable [Saturday]. It definitely gave me a lot of confidence today – seeing how far back she came from after that first run," Ligety said

Slalom/GS Head Coach Sasha Rearick said he was doubly impressed by the day – by Ligety’s growing maturity and professionalism as he continues to emerge as a challenging GS skier and by Spencer’s storybook return. "They’re both the story of the day, what Ted did and what Dane did."

He said Spencer’s take-no-prisoners approach – he was less than eight-tenths of a second away from qualifying for a second run, a big gap but not monumental…and, coming from where he was a year ago, almost infinitesimal. "I’ll tell you, he had a lot of people on the edge of tears, if not sniffling," Rearick said. "Just coming back from what he’s gone through is epic and we’re all so stoked he’s skiing so well."

Saturday – Karbon has battled injury after injury in recent seasons, but she showed she’s healthy and that there’s a semi-new contender to duke it out with first-run leader Tanja Poutiainen of Finland, the Austrians and Mancuso in giant slalom.

It was her second triumph, and well received by the crowd…but Mancuso left everyone buzzing, too, after her final run put her on the podium. On her first run, "I kinda wimped out," she laughed. On her second run, she let things fly.

"I just needed a kick in the butt after that first run," Mancuso said. "I threw out my game plan and just went for it on that second run. I know I’m skiing well, so I took some risks and went to going for it all the way…

"The shadows were just creeping over the mountains when I went, and I took opportunity and made it an advantage for me."

At this time a year ago, Mancuso was just starting to get into shape after springtime hip surgery following the Olympics. She had precious little preseason training and had to "ski into" the season, which she did nicely, producing the best U.S. woman’s season since Tamara McKinney also was third overall in 1984; Mancuso earned the first four wins of her career and added a silver medal (combined) from the World Championships.

Today, she’s healthy – "everything’s in balance," she said – and looking to take each race as it comes. With no Worlds or Olympics this season, Mancuso is resisting any urge to carve in concrete any goal of winning a World Cup title or specific race.

"I always want to win, but I want to have fun…and if I’m skiing well, the results will take care of themselves," she said. And nobody’s arguing with that thinking.

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