This weekend, Mikaela Shiffrin will slide into the starting gate looking to replicate her career first downhill World Cup win. As the Lake Lindsey era ends (Lindsey Vonn will miss Lake Louise resting a recent knee injury), Vonn leaves with 18 World Cup downhill and super G wins in the Canadian Rockies. Vonn and Shiffrin are among an impressive eight U.S. women who have stepped up onto Lake Louise World Cup podiums. It all began on a bitter cold weekend in December, 1994.
The early ‘90s were a formative time for women’s speed. In the 1970s and ‘80s, Cindy Nelson, Holly Flanders and Pam Fletcher all picked up wins. But there wasn’t continuity. And there wasn’t the dominance as a team that would grow in the future. That would change in Lake Louise.
The stage for the 1994-95 races in Lake Louise had been set over the previous three seasons. In the 1992 Albertville Olympics, Hilary Lindh won downhill silver – the first U.S. women’s speed medal since Cindy Nelson in 1976. A year later in the World Championships at Morioka-Shizukuishi, Picabo Street won the combined downhill and went on to take silver. At the Lillehammer Olympics in 1994, she added silver in the downhill. That same winter, Lindh won her first World Cup downhill at Sierra Nevada heading into the Olympics.
The newfound success of the U.S. women attracted plenty of attention. All summer long the storyline of Hilary and Picabo played out. Media flocked to Vail for the season-opening speed races a week before Lake Louise. Lindh came out on top with a win as Street went cartwheeling down Huey, Dewey and Louie.
Sport thrives on personalities. With the credibility of having Olympic medals in their pockets, media were enamored with the two new ski racing stars with contrasting personalities. Alaska native Lindh was a well grounded, hard working athlete simply focused on the task at hand. Sun Valley native Picabo was a free spirit who shined in the limelight. Denver Post journalist Charlie Meyers nicknamed them Mother Earth and Planet Hollywood.
Yes, they were rivals. Yes, they had their own approach to ski racing. But they also both knew what they could do together and how it would inspire a team and elevate the level of racing for the U.S. Ski Team.
“It was an awesome start to that season,” said Lindh, now a ski racing mom with an 12-year-old daughter in Whitefish, Mont. “For sure it was a really big deal to the Europeans. We won the first three races of the year! It was a big statement.”
“The biggest thing I remember is how differently coaches and athletes were looking at us,” said Street, who lives in Park City, Utah where she manages an academy for athletes and artists. “There was a different feeling about everything because I had trained very well and was showing signs of winning there.”
The U.S. women came to Lake Louise that year as a strong team – Lindh, Street but also Krista Schmidinger and Megan Gerety. But Lindh and Street were the stars, mugging it up for Sports Illustrated photographer Carl Yarbrough in the elegant Chateau Lake Louise.
When you stand in the starting gate in Lake Louise, you are distracted by the serene majesty of the Canadian Rockies. Look in any direction and you’ll see snow-covered pines, majestic ridgelines and frozen mountain lakes dotting the landscape. It’s mesmerizing.
“I was staring out at the lake and its beauty,” said Street, who started 21st, “and the start referee smacked me on the helmet to let me know the start count had begun.”
“I did well up top linking turns together,” recalled Street. “You never want to sacrifice a turn for a tuck. I had figured out how to ski the top section like super G in a tuck. I went into the first jump and just launched. It made me aware that my skis were smoking fast.”
It put Street into a new mode, working every piece of terrain and feeling the warmth as she descended to the finish. After she crossed the finish, she checked body parts for feeling in the numbing cold. She saw her rank 1 on the board, but held off celebrating.
In the end, it was Street taking the win with Lindh second.
Then, 24 hours later, it was the Alaskan’s time for revenge. Starting 11th, she launched out of the gate and attacked the turns in Upper Wewaxy, then setting up nicely for the crucial Fishnet turn. “There’s a lot of terrain on that course,” she recalled.
Rocketing down through the finish she took a strong lead. Now it was time to wait. Winner a day before, Street was off the pace in Saturday’s race. One by one, the best came down but no one could match Lindh until 25th-starting Florence Masnada of France came within an eyelash – .18 back in second.
Think about the impact of this. Three races into the 1994-95 downhill season and two Americans had combined for three straight wins! When the crystal globe was finally three months later in Piazza Cavour, the two Americans had combined to win seven of the eight downhills with Street winning the globe and Lindh second.
“Looking back from my perspective now, it was monumental,” said Street. “It was the beginning of a trend the has never really gone away on the women’s side. It put us on the map in speed events and brought attention our way.”
This week, Lindh will bring her daughter to Lake Louise – her first trip back since she was a guest coach in 2000 at the start of Vonn’s career. It will be a trip down memory lane for the Hall of Fame ski racer, reminiscing about that magical weekend in December, 1994 where it all began as a pioneer of U.S. Ski Team women’s downhillers.