U.S. will test Games courses

Times Staff Writer

WHISTLER, Canada -- Marking the halfway point between the disappointment of Turin in 2006 and the promise of Vancouver, the United States Alpine ski team makes a key World Cup circuit stop this week on the Whistler Mountain courses to be used at the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

It has been a decade since the World Cup circuit visited Whistler, and this week's races will serve as the only test events before Vancouver.

"A lot of our athletes have never actually skied on these hills," U.S. Alpine director Jesse Hunt said. "For them to feel these courses out and get a good idea of how things run is really important."

In racing over four days beginning today, Lindsey Vonn and Bode Miller continue their quests to become the first U.S. Alpine skiers to win the women's and men's World Cup overall titles in the same year since Tamara McKinney and Phil Mahre in 1983.

Miller holds a 93-point lead over Austria's Benjamin Raich in the overall standings. On the women's side, Vonn is tied with Austria's Nicole Hosp with 983 points.

Racing begins today with a men's super-giant slalom, followed Friday by a women's downhill. The weekend features a men's giant slalom Saturday and concludes Sunday with a women's super combined event (a super-G with a slalom run).

Vonn, known as Lindsey Kildow before marrying former ski racer Thomas Vonn last year, was favored to get a medal in the 2006 Olympic downhill before crashing in a training run. Kildow raced despite multiple bruises and severe back pain, finishing eighth.

"I'm still kind of bitter about it almost," Vonn said of her Olympic experience in a phone interview after she won Tuesday's downhill training down run in Whistler. "That's what's really tough about the Olympics; you only have one shot every four years. Anything can happen. You can have wind, or a fog bank roll in on your run. You're stuck with what you have. At the same time, I think things happen for a reason, and it definitely has made me work harder."

Vonn, 23, has developed into the greatest U.S. women's speed racer since Picabo Street. Vonn has won four downhill events this season to bring her career total to nine, tying her with Street and Daron Rahlves on the all-time U.S. list.

"It's crazy, really, just thinking that Picabo was my idol," Vonn said. "She's the one who got me thinking about ski racing, and now I'm in the record books with her."

Vonn said she got goose bumps Tuesday making her first practice run on the Olympic downhill course, which she called first-rate.

"For the Olympics, they always seem to dumb it down for people that haven't raced on the World Cup before," she said, "but it's definitely one of the most challenging courses on tour."

Miller left the team in May and is skiing independently, although he still races wearing a U.S. bib.

"It's working fine on the hill," Hunt said of Miller's departure. "From our standpoint, we support Bode and his efforts. The bottom line is the energy is good and things are running smoothly."

Miller was a member of the U.S. ski team in 2005 when he became the first American male since Mahre in 1983 to win the World Cup overall crown. Last month, Miller eclipsed Mahre's U.S. record of 27 World Cup wins when he scored his 28th in January in a combined event in Kitzbuehel, Austria.

Reflecting on the record-breaking feat in a blog entry for the World Championship Sports Network website, Miller wrote: "Some people made a big deal out of it, some people didn't. I mean nobody in the U.S. knows anything about skiing anyway."

He has since scored his 29th and 30th World Cup wins.

Miller, now 30, will be remembered by many for failing to get a medal in five events at the 2006 Turin Games, making headlines instead for his apres ski exploits. He said last spring he would not race in the 2010 Olympics, which leaves him two years to change his mind.

These are exciting times for U.S. skiers, but triumph on the World Cup circuit does not guarantee Olympic success.

After being projected to win eight Alpine medals in 2006, the U.S. team won only two -- Ted Ligety's gold in the combined event and Julia Mancuso's gold in giant slalom.

The U.S. ski team is building its 2010 medal campaign around Vonn, Mancuso and Ligety.

Miller, as always, is the wild card.

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chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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