Lindsey Vonn, Julia Mancuso, Stacey Cook, Leanne Smith, Alice Mckennis, and Laurenne Ross have been part of an iconic group of women that have defined speed in American ski racing during recent history. Collectively, the women have obtained 182 World Cup podiums, 90 World Cup victories, 13 World Championship medals, and seven Olympic medals. In 2012, each woman on the women’s speed team made the podium and topped the nations standings for both downhill and super-G. Enter Jacqueline Wiles in 2013, and Breezy Johnson in 2016, two more strong, capable athletes that have added to the accolades.
Then one by one, teammates trickled away. Smith, Mancuso, and Cook retired from the competition circuit. Wiles, Johnson, and Mckennis were all sidelined by injury. By the time the 2018/19 season rolled around, Ross and World Cup rookie Alice Merryweather would stand alone as the sole representatives for the United State’s women’s downhill team. Vonn would still attempt a comeback from her early-season training injury, only to retire at World Championships in Are, Sweden. Ross would eventually fall victim to injury alongside her teammates, leaving Merryweather as the last woman standing by the end of the season.
“The year before that I had been very much a rookie and was used to taking the back seat, laying very low, letting everyone do their own thing and just kind of shadowing and learning from all the experienced girls,” says the 22-year-old. “So to suddenly be the only one and to have it be just me and six staff members, it was a really quick turn around and it was pretty intimidating and pretty lonely.”
The 2019 World Finals in Soldeu, Andorra was the first competition at the World level that a female athlete from the United States would not compete in the downhill since at least a decade. Merryweather finished 27th in the World overall but needed to be ranked in the top 25 in order to race.
“Stacey [Cook] raced basically every race of her entire career, so it’s probably been at least a decade and a half, maybe even more,” says Johnson. “That was crazy for us and kind of bummed us out, but we are looking onwards and upwards. We’ve worked really hard, we’re strong, we’re gonna take the summer, and we’re gonna figure our shit out. We have so much fire, it’s almost hard to contain.”
The 2019/20 season hoped to see the complete return of Breezy Johnson, Alice Mckennis, Jacqueline Wiles, as well as the eventual return of Ross, which would bring the team’s numbers back up to five women. Johnson, who had torn her ACL during summering training in Chile, had returned to snow just 4 months after her operation and had been patiently anticipating her return to the World Cup and to her team. In an unfortunate turn of events, Johnson can no longer be counted on for a majority of the 2019/20 season. During training at Mammoth Mountain, Johnson sustained another knee injury, this time to her left leg. On June 13th, she tore her posterior cruciate ligament (PCL), and her medial collateral ligament (MCL) after catching an edge in giant slalom training.
“Devastated, gutted, shattered,” Johnson wrote in an Instagram post about the injury. “These adjectives don’t do justice to how I’m feeling right now.”
With Johnson now out of the picture for the foreseeable future, Wiles and Mckennis hope to bring the fire back to the women’s team after overcoming a multitude of physical and mental setbacks.
April 23rd, 2019 was a standout day for the duo. After almost a year and a half a piece off of snow, both veterans of the women’s speed team were able to pop back on their skis and arc a few turns for the first time and what felt like a lifetime.
Mckennis had suffered a tibia-fibula break while coaching the American Downhiller camp in Mammoth in May 2018. Her doctor’s projected she would return to snow in time to race until rehab continued to stall well after the initial surgery. Her tendons had become scarred down to her bones, preventing normal flexion of the foot, and movements essential to walking that most people never have to think about. So Mckennis went back under the knife, this time at the ankle.
“The experience I had going through returning from the injury and all the struggles I had had, my main goal was let’s just try and walk and be normal and go about my life. So to even have the opportunity to ski again was very exciting. I feel like I have a shot at [next season] now,” reports Mckennis.
On the other hand, Wiles’ spent a year and a half in rehab after a devastating crash at Garmisch-Partenkein tore her ACL, MCL, PCL, LCL, and lateral meniscus in addition to tibia-fibula joint damage, a fibula break, and peroneal nerve damage. While her team flew to compete in the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, Wiles flew to Vail to have surgery.
“That was pretty devastating, to feel everything crumble after all the hard work and coming up short,” says Wiles. “I’m looking forward to just being a part of the team again and getting to travel the world skiing again with my friends. You take it somewhat for granted, but don’t realize how lucky you truly are until it’s taken away from you.”
After a year and a half on the bench, Wiles is more than ready to return to the circuit. Both her and Mckennis have missed the camaraderie and team atmosphere that comes from traveling the world skiing with friends. The adrenaline that derives from flinging your body down a mountain at 80 mph, the pressure from counteracting incredible g-forces, the wind in your face as you move through space and time. The feeling of crossing the finish line, slowing to a stop and immediately looking forward to the next chance you have to do it all over again.
“You get so caught up in results and the pressure of doing well that sometimes you lose track of the fun aspect of what we get to do. But I think I have a different perspective now,” adds Wiles.
Although each woman has combated injury on an individual level, the group has been able to find some comfort that they aren’t in this battle alone. The fight and tenacity required to come back from injury and perform at the highest level of your sport does not go unacknowledged by those in the struggle, or those observing the struggle. It creates what Wiles refers to as a “sisterhood bond of fighting through the struggle and trying to get back to normalcy.”
“It’s been so heartbreaking to see them and watch their pain and just want them to be back so badly,” says Merryweather. “I can’t even imagine what it’s like for them, but even for the rest of us, it’s so exciting and joyful to have them on snow and to see how happy they are. It’s been inspiring to watch them and how hard they’re pushing it and how driven they’ve been to fight through all the setbacks and make it back on snow.”
For Wiles and Mckennis, their return to snow and the World Cup circuit also means they will be returning to a team that lacks some of the faces that they have cherished as athletes, role models, and friends over the years.
“I mean there’s a lot of significant people that have retired in the last few years that just outside of being a teammate are significant people in my life. So do not have that daily rapport with Stacey [Cook], or Lindsey [Vonn], Jules [Mancuso] or Leanne [Smith], it’s different. Because not only are you losing a teammate you’re losing a friend that you were seeing almost every day. It’s so hard in this sport, when you retire it just sort of feels like the person fades away and that they’re nothing. There’s sometimes very little recognition of what they did or what that person accomplished, who they were as apart of the team. ” explains Mckennis.
In the spring, Mckennis and Ross were able to celebrate those friendships for the first time, when Cook, Mancuso, Smith, Vonn, and their physical therapist, Lindsay Winninger, reunited in Mexico on a girl’s trip. The women had become so accustomed to seeing one another only on the slopes, in training, and in competition, that having the opportunity to celebrate their teammates and their exemplary careers was an experience they will never forget.
But now, they must keep looking forward. Retirements signal the changing of the guard, and the new veterans must now become the role models that newbies and juniors look up to.
“With all the women who have retired in the past couple of years things have kind of been thrown off,” says Ross. “But I think we’re going to be really strong this year. As you move through your ski racing career, things just change, that’s the nature of it. You start out as the young one, and then you end up as the older one. I feel good about the group of girls that are returning and how strong they can be.”
Ross is right. The team may have shrunk in size, but not in strength. After all these women have been through as individuals, from achieving their childhood dreams of making the U.S. Ski Team, to coming back from the most devastating of injuries, the women’s speed team does not fall short on the dedication scale. Yes, some of the greatest Olympic champions the sport will ever see have come and gone through the ranks. There are some big shoes to fill. But the women’s team is up for the challenge.
Mckennis adds, “there’s so much more potential and things change but at the end of the day, we’re all in it together no matter who is part of the team.”