The last time Lindsey Vonn got a shot at downhill racing immortality, a painful crash left her icing her knee in Colorado while the world’s fastest scorched the slopes at the Sochi Games. At Krasnaya Polyana, her Olympic downhill crown got split in two by Slovenia’s Tina Maze and Switzerland’s Dominique Gisin, who tied for the 2014 gold.
But by then Vonn had already shifted her gaze to the next big test: the 2015 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships, which take place February 2 to 15 at Vail/Beaver Creek. Vonn, now 30, aims to reclaim her throne there and give Tiger Woods a chance to finally watch his girlfriend win big.
Talk about a homecoming. Should Vonn prevail at the worlds, she’ll collect her hardware at a medals ceremony on a Vail plaza only a short jog from the condominium complex where, in 1995, she and her mother occupied a two-room unit so little Lindsey, then an 11-year-old slalom phenom from Minnesota, could better emulate her idol, Picabo Street. A lot has changed in 20 years. The U.S. Ski Team, once a cash-poor and skid-prone band of also-rans, is an alpine powerhouse today, especially at high-stakes contests like the Olympics and the world championships. Sharing the spotlight with Vonn is a Murderers’ Row of American ski champions that includes Ted Ligety, Mikaela Shiffrin, and Vonn’s eternal foil, Julia Mancuso.
All of them remain understudies to one teammate whose innovative and daring approach helped spark the American downhill renaissance. Thirty-seven-year-old Bode Miller is now a grizzled father of two, and he may be making his farewell appearance at the Vail/ Beaver Creek races. If, that is, he races at all; he underwent surgery to repair a herniated disc in his back in November. But it has never paid to make predictions about Miller.
The Alpine World Ski Championships, which come in odd-numbered years, are a tradition dating back to 1931. Ask the sport’s luminaries of any era (and if you go this year, you’ll see a lot of them at Vail/Beaver Creek), and they’ll likely tell you that the world championships confer satisfactions not found at the Olympics: more-challenging courses, ample prize money, and the intimate atmosphere of a pure skiing festival.
This year’s edition is the first of the century to unfold on North American snow. The last time the 10-race series was held on this side of the Atlantic was 1999, and the host was the same—Vail/Beaver Creek. Back at those worlds, Miller was a 22-year-old test pilot. He and his teammates were essentially bystanders amid the Austrian podium sweeps and a Norwegian team known as the Attacking Vikings (see sidebar, "The Attacking Vikings," below).
Back then, American men had won only four of the previous 150 world championship medals. Since then they’ve collected 14, and the women have won 13 of their own, for a grand total that puts the U.S. Ski Team solidly in the very top tier of ski-racing nations. Nine different skiers have contributed to those tallies.
Among them is the team’s current top producer, Ligety, who won three golds two years ago at the last world championships, which took place at Schladming, Austria. The women’s slalom gold at that event went to the precocious Shiffrin, who is already a World Cup and Olympic champion at age 19.
Vail/Beaver Creek has laid out quite a red carpet for the more than 700 athletes from 70 nations expected to attend. Legendary Swiss downhill architect Bernhard Russi has designed a new downhill course at Beaver Creek for the women (see below): the Raptor, the first new downhill introduced in the United States since the Salt Lake City Games. (The 2002 Olympic courses at Snowbasin, also Russi creations, have never been used for racing since.)
The new run converges with the lower half of the course Russi has called his “masterpiece,” the Birds of Prey, a familiar and formidable downhill launched for the 1999 races, where it mainly served as a playground for ferocious Austrians like Hermann Maier.
But in the annual World Cup races held on the course, Miller has won the downhill three times. Nobody knows the course’s gold-medal shortcuts and bone-crushing hazards better than he does, and regardless of where he ends up, his race-day showmanship demands that everyone on the mountain will stop to watch his effort.
“Everybody is waiting,” says one of Miller’s greatest admirers, Franz Klammer, “saying, ‘I have to watch. Bode is still to come. What will he do?’”
Women’s Downhill: The Raptor
The women have their work cut out for them.
There’s a place near the top of the spectacular new women’s downhill at Beaver Creek where the athletes will tuck across a traverse at Interstate 70 speeds when suddenly it appears in front of them, I-70 itself, snaking through the valley 4,000 feet below.
It’s one of several pitch changes on the Raptor course where the trail suddenly vanishes and the skiers launch into a sunny panorama of Colorado’s western slope. The course plunges down into one of the least forgiving lines the women have ever encountered. “There’s a lot of really technical sections, and it’s hard to get the timing right,” says U.S. star Julia Mancuso.
Officially the course’s jumps and tricky passages have names like Kestrel, Banshee Bank, Heckle, and Jeckle, but rumor has it that the women bestowed informal titles on certain crux sections that are unprintable on a family magazine's website.
With a 2,349-foot vertical drop and a length of around 8,000 feet, the Raptor would be exhausting even if it didn’t start at the oxygen-impoverished elevation of 11,000 feet above sea level. The dry Rocky Mountain wind is likely to wick the moisture out of the snow, leaving behind the kind of grippy surface that punishes racers whose nerves cause them to overpressure their edges.
The true character of the course won’t be revealed until February 6, 2015, when the gates are placed for the women’s world championship downhill. Organizers might be tempted to plant some big sweeping turns down a section called the Lech-Zürs Schuss, where a straighter course set could easily push speeds over 80 mph.
The American women are coy about how much time they’ve spent on the hill, but they’ve had a few exclusive training sessions there. A November 2013 World Cup race served as a test event, but the lower half of the Raptor wasn’t ready at the time, so Lindsey Vonn, who couldn’t enter the event because of her injury, won’t be any less familiar with it than her rivals.
Look for Switzerland’s Lara Gut, Slovenia’s Tina Maze, and Austria’s Anna Fenninger to be gunning for medals. And don’t forget about Mancuso, though everyone always does until she comes screaming down the slope like a peregrine falcon diving for its prey. ●
Nathaniel Vinton is a reporter for the New York Daily News and a former World Cup racing correspondent. His book on ski racing, The Fall Line, is out now.