SCHLADMING, Austria — Julia Mancuso got the ball rolling with an almost forgotten bronze medal on the same day Lindsey Vonn had a season-ending crash.
Ted Ligety followed with three golds to earn the title from local media of “Der Koenig von Schladming” – “The King of Schladming.”
And 17-year-old Mikaela Shiffrin capped a historic world championships for the U.S. Ski Team by fighting off a serious case of nerves to win the slalom title.
In the end, even without Vonn and Bode Miller – who is sitting out this season to recover from left knee surgery – the U.S. had the most golds at worlds — the first non-European nation to achieve the feat.
“It’s been incredible – hot and cold,” U.S. Alpine director Patrick Riml said Sunday. “The rest of our team is stepping up so big.”
The showing was even more impressive considering the scene, with huge crowds in this ski-crazy nation averaging 30,000 fans, and nearly all of them pulling for Austrian skiers.
While the Austrians led in total medals with eight, the U.S. topped the International Ski Federation’s table with four golds. Austria and France were next with two golds each.
“It’s nice being in Austria and beating up on the Austrians on their home turf,” said Ligety, who won in super-G, super-combined and giant slalom. “They always dominate the sport and they always kind of seem like they should be dominating the sport so it makes it all the more satisfying to beat them.”
But Peter Schroecksnadel, the powerful president of the Austrian ski federation, didn’t see it as a loss.
“In the U.S., they don’t count golds, they count the overall number of medals,” Schroecksnadel said. “So there we are No. 1.”
Riml, who is Austrian, wasn’t surprised by Schroecksnadel’s comments.
“He just turns it the way he wants it,” Riml said. “That’s OK. We won the most World Cup races this year and we’ll lead that when we leave the World Cup finals and we got the most gold medals at the world championships. That’s pretty good.”
Indeed, the U.S. has 14 wins between men and women on this season’s World Cup circuit to Austria’s nine. Also, at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, Germany led with three golds to the Americans’ two but the U.S. had the most overall medals with eight.
“(We’re) best in the world for sure,” Riml said. “We saw it three years ago. We saw it this year on the World Cup.”
If Vonn and Miller come back fully healthy next season, there’s no telling how strong the U.S. might be at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
“Potentially we have a very, very good team,” Ligety said. “If Bode gets fully healthy and motivated he has a really good chance of winning medals in the speed disciplines, and then Lindsey can win whatever she wants, basically, if she’s healthy and feeling good again. And I’m sure Mikaela will be close to being a contender in the giant slalom as well, so we have a lot of good medal chances.”
Indeed, Shiffrin finished sixth in the giant slalom here for her top career result in that discipline, and she has plenty of room for improvement, according to her coaches.
Besides Vonn, three other U.S. women finished on the podium this season in downhill – Stacey Cook, Leanne Smith and Alice McKennis – to go along with Marco Sullivan and Steven Nyman on the men’s side.
“Our goal is not to have just one (contender) per event,” Riml said. “We got to have two and three.”
Entering the 2006 Turin Olympics, the American spotlight was largely on Miller, while in Vancouver it was almost entirely on Vonn. This time, maybe it will be on the entire team.
“There is so much pressure on those athletes already, and if you strengthen our team that takes away a lot of pressure from everybody,” Riml said.
One key to strengthening the team has been the opening of two key facilities in recent years: the Center of Excellence at the team’s home base in Park City, Utah, an ultra-modern physical training and education facility; and a speed training center for downhill and super-G at Copper Mountain, Colo.
The Center of Excellence was designed to replicate the style and feel of a college campus and includes strength-training areas, ski ramps, a nutrition center, rehabilitation facilities and a sport science lab.
Sounds like a great place for Vonn to use as she recovers from surgery to repair two torn tendons in her right knee.
Besides allowing its own athletes optimal training before the North American speed races at the start of each World Cup season, the Copper facility has enabled the U.S. to arrange key deals with other federations by allowing teams such as Austria, Italy and Russia to use it, too.
In exchange, the Austrians allowed the Americans to train on the worlds’ courses in Schladming on several different occasions earlier this season; the Italians opened up several of their training sites – perfect when the weather is bad in Austria and Switzerland but sunny on the southern side of the Alps; and perhaps most valuable of all, the Russians have given the U.S. free access to the Olympic slopes in Sochi – something no other team besides Russia has.
“With that venue we’re in the driver’s seat and we can choose and pick who we want to work with,” Riml said. “Obviously we want something in return.”
Over the next couple of weeks, a group of about 10 Americans led by Ligety and Shiffrin will fly to Sochi for an in-season training camp.
“It is preparation for the next chapter,” Riml said. “To have the opportunity to be on that hill it’s priceless. That’s why we try to build those relationships all over the world.”
As for the next worlds, the U.S. won’t need to build any partnerships. That’s because they’ll be held on home snow in Vail-Beaver Creek, Colo., in 2015.