In the middle of Banff National Park sits Lake Louise Ski Area, a somewhat remote location for the first World Cup speed races of the season. Yet, for years, this Canadian venue has brought together the best men and women in alpine skiing to compete.
The men have come and gone, and the ladies have filled the Team Lounge in the Whiskey Jack Lodge. Snow has fallen on and off for the three days of scheduled training runs, and there was enough accumulation on Tuesday night that Wednesday’s training run was canceled due to course conditions. Thursday marked the second and final downhill training run before racing begins on Friday, and the U.S. women–who refer to themselves as Speed Unicorns–are champing at the bit to race.
There are eight U.S. women on the start list this year led by Lindsey Vonn, who is hunting for even more wins at the venue often referred to as “Lake Lindsey.”
“I’ve had a good feeling here,” Vonn said. “I think some courses you show up and you feel a little bit lost and it takes you a while to get into it, but Lake Louise, since I showed up the first time when I was 17, I was like, ‘This is my place. This is where I can ski well.’ And I just know where I can make speed and where I need to make sure I’m on line and I just have a good understanding for the course.”
She is joined by last year’s World Cup overall winner Mikaela Shiffrin, Laurenne Ross, Stacey Cook, Jacqueline Wiles, Breezy Johnson, Alice McKennis and Alice Merryweather. Six of these ladies were in the top 15 in the final training run; a good sign heading into race day. Cook, who has raced on the track for more than a decade, says the track is the fastest she’s ever seen it.
“It definitely feels like it rained last week, but it’s very, very icy–probably the fastest conditions I’ve ever seen here in 15 years, so it’s kind of a thrill,” Cook said. “It’s exciting.”
Like Vonn, Cook has had success on this track, earning her three career World Cup podiums here.
“I love that this is the start of the year,” Cook explained. “It’s very welcoming here, very warm, very together with the World Cup again because we’re all in the same hotel, and I’ve had success here, so it’s a good feeling to know that I have confidence on this track to the start the year, even if the prep period isn’t 100 percent perfect. There’s confidence in this place.”
Ross is another veteran unicorn, having competed at the venue in nearly two dozen World Cup races since 2009. She is returning from a right knee injury that she sustained last March at U.S. Nationals. After the first training run, Ross was feeling like she could use a few more.
“I feel really good on my skis,” she said. “I’m just still getting used to the speed, still a little bit scared and a little uneasy especially in downhill, but in general, I feel really comfortable and strong and like I can make some really good turns. It’s just a matter of getting the training in and getting used to the speed again.”
Shiffrin is primarily a tech skier, and is using her slalom savvy to get more competitive in the speed disciplines. The Lake Louise downhills will mark her third and fourth World Cup starts in the discipline. Last year, the Olympic slalom gold medalist earned 13th and 18th place in the downhills at this venue.
“I feel like my skiing is really solid,” Shiffrin said after the second training run. “I’m figuring out the key spots in this track slowly, but surely, and I’m really looking forward to racing tomorrow and see what happens.”
Fans should also keep their eyes on Breezy Johnson, who is hunting for her first World Cup podium. The 21-year-old speed specialist is coming off her best season yet, which included an 11th-place result in the first downhill race last season.
“I’m really excited just to get the season going, for sure,” Johnson said. “We’ve been training all summer and you get to the point where you’re like, ‘Let’s just race already and get it over with!’ so it’s really exciting to be back here and to be kicking off the season again here, but I’m just excited to get the season going.”
Noticeably absent from the start list is Julia Mancuso. The Olympic gold medalist said earlier this month that she hoped to return to racing this week, but posted on Instagram that she would not be coming to Canada.
Tune into this weekend’s racing action in Lake Louise and Beaver Creek on TV and online via the Olympic Channel, NBCSN and NBC.