Olympics: No Linsdsey Vonn, but U.S. ski team still has star power
The U.S. Ski Team Â heck, the entire U.S. Olympic Team Â might have been robbed of its biggest marquee star for the upcoming 2014 Sochi Olympics in Russia when Lindsey Vonn announced recently that she won't be healthy enough to compete.
But that might just throw the doors of opportunity wide open for others.
While nobody can match Vonn's megawatt combination of staggering athletic talent, red-carpet good looks and gossip-page personal life, the Park City-based ski team does have a few other Alpine stars who could fill the void with strong performances and perhaps vault themselves into starring roles in NBC Sports' presentation of the Olympics in the United States.
Top of the list, perhaps?
Park City's Ted Ligety.
Long overshadowed by others, the mild-mannered but fun-loving 29-year-old is an Olympic champion who has done something that even Vonn has never done win three gold medals at the world championships.
Ligety achieved that historic feat last spring, becoming the first man to do it since legendary Jean-Claude Killy of France in 1968. Although Ligety began his career as a giant-slalom specialist, he has evolved into an all-event skier, and is a medal threat in everything but the downhill.
The big question is whether he can put it all together in all those events, again.
Ligety had never won a World Cup or world championship race in any discipline other than giant slalom before his feat at the worlds in Schladming, Austria, where he won the giant slalom, super-combined and super-G.
But Ligety did win a World Cup super-combined last weekend in Switzerland, delivering his first trip to the podium in a non-giant slalom discipline in more than four years.
"This is definitely a big victory for me," he said. "It's a nice little confidence boost and step in the right direction for getting ready for Sochi."
Ligety has said he believes that skiing well during the World Cup season is the best preparation for a strong Olympics, but he probably hasn't enjoyed quite as strong a season as he would prefer.
By this time last year, he had four gold medals and a bronze on the World Cup circuit. He had three golds this season, heading into a four-event World Cup stop this weekend in Kitzbuhel, Austria, and sits fourth in the overall World Cup standings after finishing third last season.
Still, he's totally capable Â and another lightning-in-a-bottle performance could make him the household name he probably deserves to be.
After all, NBC Sports reached more than 190 million people with its coverage of the 2010 Vancouver Games a disappointing and medal-less one, for Ligety and its chief executive has called the Olympics the "soul" of the network. It will adjust, even though it had spent months and millions incorporating Vonn into their marketing of the Games.
"There's plenty of stars out there," Mark Lazarus, chairman of NBC Sports Group, told to the Washington Post. "Yes, we wish we still had Lindsey there, but we don't. That's the nature of sports; lots of stars unfortunately get injured and hurt."
The knee injury that will keep Vonn out of the Olympics seemed to hit the women's side of the ski team especially hard.
Without her, the speed skiers had been struggling until seeing some positive signs at the World Cup stop last weekend in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy.
Three-time Olympic medalist Julia Mancuso cracked the top 10 for the first time all season with a seventh-place finish in a super-G on Thursday, followed by a ninth in a downhill on Friday, while teammate Stacey Cook finished ninth in the super-G and a season-best fifth in the downhill.
That was Cook's best finish since her only two World Cup podiums in 2012, and there were two more races scheduled over the weekend.
"I'm getting there, just in time for the Olympics," Mancuso said.
All of that was a welcome sign for the speed team, which hadn't finished in the top 10 of the downhill all season, after six Americans reached the podium in that discipline at least once last year. Coach Alex Hoedlmoser had hinted recently at problems behind the scenes, telling the Associated Press that "there has been some internal stuff that we know that happened and that we don't really want to present to everybody."
Nevertheless, things are clearly looking up, and there's always Mikaela Shiffrin.
The 18-year-old from Colorado appears to be the next big thing for the U.S. team, having won the world title in the slalom last spring as well as more than any other American on the World Cup circuit this season. She sits fourth in the overall World Cup standings, same as Ligety.
Shiffrin is a technical specialist, and she is expected to ski only the slalom and giant slalom in Sochi, limiting her chances to become a breakout star.
But she has had the best results on the team so far three golds and a silver in slalom, and a silver and bronze in giant slalom and most closely resembles a younger Vonn, with huge potential and already tremendous appeal for sponsors.
That's basically the position Vonn occupied before the 2006 Turin Olympics in Italy, where she famously finished eighth in the downhill just two days after a training crash that forced her to be airlifted off the mountain and hospitalized overnight.
That probably ignited Vonn's ascent into the nation's sporting consciousness, though her success on the slopes paired with several high-profile personal issues since Vancouver she began dating golfer Tiger Woods following both of their divorces, reconciled with her long-estranged father and talked publicly about battling depression has sent her marketability soaring.
Oh, and there's always Bode Miller.
The four-time Olympian and one-time "bad boy" of the ski world, the 36-year-old Miller showed last month that he still has the chops to compete, even after microfracture knee surgery and some 18 months away from the sport.
After joking at a U.S. Olympic Committee event in October that he was finally healthy and ready to "kick ass," the five-time Olympic medalist finished second behind Ligety in a giant slalom at Beaver Creek, Colo., in just his fifth race back.
"Now that he's back in good shape and healthy," Ligety said at the time, "it's good to have somebody like that pushing you every day in training."
Olympic alpine skiing schedule
NBC Sports plans to stream every event at the Sochi Olympics live online for the first time, so hard-core fans can watch the U.S. Ski Team in action:
Feb. 9 •Â Men's downhill, midnight
Feb. 10 • Women's super-combined, midnight
Feb. 12 • Women's downhill, midnight
Feb. 14 • Men's super-combined, midnight
Feb. 15 • Women's super-G, midnight
Feb. 16 • Men's super-G, midnight
Feb. 18 •Â Women's giant slalom, midnight
Feb. 19 •Â Men's giant slalom, midnight
Feb. 21 •Â Women's slalom, 5:45 a.m.
Feb. 22 • Men's slalom, 5:45 a.m.
All times mountain