Sure, last year’s number one female ski racer, Slovenia’s Tina Maze, dominates in all four disciplines and put out a pop music video that’s garnered nearly a million YouTube views. While she’s a favorite in every race she enters in Sochi, there’s a tramload of Americans who won’t be going down without a fight.
In the overall F.I.S. rankings of the fastest women in ski racing from last season, three of the top 10 were American—specifically: Julia Mancuso, Mikaela Shiffrin, and Lindsey Vonn. That’s more than any other country (perennial powerhouses Germany and Austria each have two, including Maria Höfl-Riesch and Anna Fenninger, respectively).
And it’s in the speed events—downhill and super-G—where the U.S. really rules and can put the red-white-and-blue kibosh on racers-turned-pop stars. The American women’s speed team is the best in the world, having won the nation’s F.I.S. downhill standings the past four years.
The women’s speed team was, of course, led by media darling Vonn, who won her sixth-in-a-row downhill World Cup title last year even after her season—and a bid to make the Olympics—were cut short by knee injuries.
Vonn or no Vonn in Sochi, she is far from the only hotshot on the U.S. women’s speed team. Enter Mancuso, Stacey Cook, Leanne Smith, Alice McKennis and Laurenne Ross, any one of whom could medal in Sochi. Here’s how strong the U.S.’s women speed team is: Each country is only allowed to start four athletes in each Olympic race, but on the U.S. speed team, all six women earned a World Cup podium last year. This means that in Sochi, a potential medal contender from the U.S. won’t even make the starting list for the super-G and downhill races.
“On our speed team, every single girl has the ability to win, which is unheard of,” says slalom specialist Shiffrin. “Most of the other teams have a couple of star athletes who they count on to win, whereas we have six girls with that potential.”
The U.S. women’s tech team for slalom and giant slalom doesn’t run as deep, but its star performer is 18-year-old prodigy Shiffrin, who won the overall slalom title last winter on only her second year on the World Cup circuit. “I can’t recall an athlete who’s risen as quickly as Mikaela,” says U.S. Ski Team spokesman Doug Haney. “What she’s doing at this age is pretty astounding.”
And never rule out Mancuso in any of the disciplines. The Tahoe native, who spends her summers surfing in Hawaii, already has three Olympic medals, more than any woman in U.S. alpine history, including giant slalom gold from Torino in 2006. Showing she’s far from past her prime, in 2013 she had her best season in years, finishing fourth in the overall World Cup standings and second behind Maze in super-G.
Another trick the U.S. team has up its sleeve—a training advantage. Two years ago, the U.S. Ski Team made a deal with the Russian Federation. The Russian skiers were allowed to use the U.S.’s training facilities in exchange for letting the Americans hold training camps on the Sochi venues. Outside of the Russians, no other nation has had more training in Sochi, giving U.S. women, as well as the men, a distinct advantage heading into the 2014 Games. “That was something we identified as a potential boost several years ago,” says Haney. “Particularly with the speed sports, the more familiar you are with the venue, the better you can perform.”
So while Maze has been making music videos, the U.S. women’s team has been setting its sights squarely on Sochi. The most difficult part, it seems, might be having too much of a good thing. The Olympic teams won’t officially be named until late January, and even then coaches won’t decide who’s racing what event until the night before the race. Due to the strength of the women’s team, that could be a tough decision.
“At this point, the depth of the women’s team is better than it’s ever been,” says Haney. “We haven’t seen the amount of athletes consistently performing at such a high level since the mid-1980s.”