Is alpine team peaking at right time?
The U.S. Olympic alpine ski team was announced Sunday after three World Cup podium finishes plus a near miss this weekend, which prompts the question: Despite Lindsey Vonn's injury and absence from the 2014 Games, is the American team peaking at just the right time?
On the men's side, Bode Miller finished third in the downhill Saturday and second in the super-G on Sunday at Kitzbuehel, Austria, while Ted Ligety finished second in the super-combined after winning the event last week in Wengen, Switzerland.
"We can see the momentum building with this group of guys," U.S. men's coach Sasha Rearick said Sunday on a conference call. "We just finished up a good week -- not a great week, but a good week with a couple podiums."
Over on the women's side, Stacey Cook just missed the podium in the downhill and finished fifth at Cortina d'Ampezzo, while three-time Olympic medalist Julia Mancuso has three top-10 finishes this month.
And, of course, there is the continued success of 18-year-old World Cup slalom champ Mikaela Shiffrin, who has won three WC races this season, including two this month. "She has been solid from the get-go," U.S. women's coach Alex Hoedlmoser said.
"We had a little slow start on the speed side, but we got some momentum going in the last couple of races," Hoedlmoser said. "The team is going in the right direction and it looks like those athletes on the speed side are peaking at the right time."
Hoedlmoser said the slow start was due to Vonn's absence from early team training and much of the World Cup season. "That definitely was a little bit of a problem because the other athletes didn't have the pace they usually have with Lindsey when she's there in training and has her incredible speeds," he said.
"It took the whole team a little while to really get going, and it took some reinforcement from the coaching staff and some psychological work to really have the athletes focus on themselves and deal with the situation that Lindsey will not be there and they have to step in. The athletes are ready. It took awhile, but they realize it's their Olympics and their performance that matters and they'll be ready."
Despite her youth, Shiffrin has won eight career World Cup races, has reached the podium six times this season and also won a reindeer. Yes, a reindeer. She is currently ranked No. 1 in the slalom. Hoedlmoser said he is confident that Olympic pressure will not affect Shiffrin because she has already handled pressure at World Cup races that drew crowds larger than there probably will be in Sochi, Russia.
"She wants nothing right now except success," he said. "That wasn't any different than when Lindsey was her age -- she was the same way."
Mancuso, 29, has won more Olympic medals (three) than Vonn. When Vonn won the downhill at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, Mancuso took the silver. She has no World Cup podium finishes this season, but has finished in the top 10 in her past three races, her best results of the season. This will be her fourth Olympics. A three-time Olympian, Cook was fourth in the World Cup rankings last year.
A gold medalist at the 2006 Torino Olympics, Ligety, 29, won his fourth World Cup title in the giant slalom last season. He also won three golds at last year's world championships, something no skier had done since Jean-Claude Killy. This season hasn't gone quite as well, but Ligety has won two races -- the giant slalom at Beaver Creek, Colo., in early December and last week's super combined.
"He's skiing well," Rearick said. "He needs to gain a little bit more confidence to ski in all conditions on all courses, and that will be part of the last little peak part we will put in on the slalom side. On the speed side, on the downhill, as we saw in Wengen, when it comes to taking certain risks, he's doing that well. So I'm pleased where he's at."
Miller, 36, is the most successful male skier in U.S. history, but missed all of last season with a knee injury. Still, he also has gotten himself into tremendous shape and has had three podium finishes this season, including his exceptional performances this weekend. This is his fifth Olympics and don't bet on him going out quietly.
"I don't think Bode ever doubted that he would be at this point," U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association executive vice president Luke Bodensteiner said. "We certainly believed in him and thought he could make an effective return from his injury. Bode is very cognizant of his stature and the legacy he wants to leave. He has unfinished business."
As does the entire team.