The Fastest Women in Racing Have Arrived

Alice Mckennis on the women to watch as the White Circus comes to a close in Aspen

Lindsay Vonn, one of the best gliders ever, is aiming to win in both the speed events and Super G. PHOTO: Courtesy of Lindsay Vonn/Facebook

It’s been a tough season for U.S. speed superstar Lindsay Vonn who, for nearly half of the tour’s schedule, was recovering from a broken arm suffered in training last fall. On the afternoon of March 15, when the women take over the downhill course, Vonn’s physical and mental toughness coupled with an inexplicable ability to recover from injuries could move her from sixth place on the downhill leaderboard to fourth by finishing in the top fifteen.

But the story in women’s downhill this season has been all about a 26-year-old Slovenian, Ilka Stuhec. In 10 previous seasons Stuhec never saw the podium and now has five in downhill, three for wins. However, recently a go-for-broke young Italian, Sofia Goggia, has pulled into second place 97 points back of Stuhec. Though the probability for Goggia stealing the downhill title is a long shot it’s not impossible—should Goggia win and Stuhec not finish the Italian would secure the title.

To gain additional perspective on what the Finals are like, POWDER spoke with U.S. Ski Team speed specialist, Alice Mckennis, who wasn’t among the top-25 qualifiers for the Finals but on Monday did run the Aspen downhill course. Mckennis shares her firsthand look at this relatively unknown track, her take on Aspen as a venue, and the racers she likes in the Finals.

We’ve been grinding hard all season, but the end is now in sight! Most athletes arrive at finals running on fumes, coming off an incredibly demanding and long season of racing and grueling travel schedules.

This guy is the World Cup’s number one fan.

Finals can be a mixture of relief and sadness. This craziness called the White Circus is almost over. But before we know it, we’ll be back out there again doing what we love.

The atmosphere at Finals is intense; athletes are pushing themselves to the limit, physically and mentally as they tap into their reserves for these final races. Everyone wants to finish the season on the podium, to close out the year strong and carry that momentum into next season.

At the same time there is a sense of lightness and fun, it almost feels like spring break! You made it to the finals, hopefully the sun will be shining, and after the races you can finally relax, kick back and take the edge off.

For once, the American team will have an edge on the Europeans; we’re finally home! It doesn’t matter where in the U.S. you’re from, when you finally get the opportunity to race on home soil it changes things. The pride I feel when racing at home is unmatched compared to Europe.

Lindsey Vonn discusses her race strategy.

You can feel the fans pulling for the American team. Even the course workers give you an extra smile and wave—they’re rooting for YOUR team this time. The home-crowd support brings new and exciting energy to the races. You want to put your best performance on stage, to represent your county, and to prove to the European teams that this is our hill and we won’t back down.

The course at Aspen is really untested—at least for World Cup speed events—with the last race about 10 years ago. Very few of the current field of racers will have seen this (speed) track. Because there’s no previous experience to fall back on athletes and coaches will have to work harder to find the line where they can gain on their competitors.

In the downhill, nothing can be given away on the flat upper section of the course. Racers will have to use their tightest, most compact tuck to shave off every hundredth here. Technicians will be studying snow temperatures and weather forecasts in the days and even minutes leading up to the race starts to ensure they have the perfect “magic sauce” on the skis.

Newly constructed jumps and rollers on the top section will keep the athletes on their toes. These features will keep it interesting before entering into Aztec!

Entering Aztec pitch is totally blind, you can’t see the entrance gate until you’re almost on it so a good inspection and memorizing the line will be key to set yourself up for the pitch where you have to break out of your tuck and change into the dynamic, powerful skiing needed for the remainder of the course.

The turns down Aztec are fast. You pick up speed immediately and have to stay very active and ahead of the course. The technical section doesn’t let up until you’re in the finish corral.

Exiting Aztec onto Summer Road, you’re fighting the forces of an Airplane turn—typically set as a big right-footer—which initiates in a compression pushing you back on your heels. If you aren’t strong through your right leg the G-forces will pull you into the A-net. It’s physically demanding and essential for carrying speed into Strawpile, the final pitch before the finish.

Carrying speed out of Aztec you fly off Summer Road and into the stacked turns of the Strawpile. Your legs may be tired from a long season of racing but maintaining focus and pushing through to the finish is critical. Sometimes it feel like you’re hanging on for dear life in this section, but no matter the sensation you have to keep driving until you’re across the line.

US Women Speed Event Qualifiers
Stacey Cook (DH)
Breezy Johnson (DH)
Alice Merryweather (DH as the Junior World Champion)
Laurenne Ross (DH, SG)
Lindsey Vonn (DH, SG)
Jackie Wiles (DH)

Mckennis’ Picks for Women’s Speed Events
Downhill
Ilka Stuhec (SLO) she has been on fire all season, great glider
Lindsey Vonn (USA) one of the best gliders ever, she will find time on the flatter sections
Sofia Goggia (ITA) had a stellar season, she will push hard in the steep, technical turns
Joanna Schnarf (ITA) another go-for-broke Italian, watch out for her
Laurenne Ross (USA) has had a string of positive results recently

Super G
Ilka Stuhec (SLO) again, she owns the speed tracks this year
Tina Weirather (LIE) only 15 points behind Stuhec
Elena Curtoni (ITA) another one of the Italian women, a force to be reckoned with
Sofia Goggia (ITA) strong technical skier who lets the skis run
Lindsey Vonn (USA) she is strong in the technical section, fast in the straights