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FILE - In this Feb. 17, 2010, file photo, Lindsey Vonn of the United States, reacts in the finish area after completing the Women's downhill at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics in Whistler, British Columbia. Vonn is going to skip the Sochi Olympics because of a right knee injury. Her personal publicist, Lewis Kay, says in a statement Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014, that Vonn "will have surgery shortly." The 29-year-old American won two medals at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, including a gold in the downhill. She is also a four-time overall World Cup champion and the biggest name in Alpine skiing. (AP Photo/Gero Breloer, File)
Sochi Olympics: Without Vonn, U.S. speed team needs to find top gear
First Published Jan 09 2014 11:14 am • Last Updated Jan 16 2014 02:23 pm

Altenmarkt-Zauchensee, Austria • Less than five weeks before the Sochi Olympics downhill, the U.S. women’s Alpine ski team is still trying to click into gear.

Going into Saturday’s World Cup race in Austria, the team is looking for its first top-10 result of the season in downhill — a sharp contrast to last year, when six American speed skiers reached the podium at least once.

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"Last year, they pushed themselves to a different level," coach Alex Hoedlmoser said. "This year we are not there yet but we know why we are not there yet. We targeted those areas and it is going to be better."

Results, however, won’t easily improve without Lindsey Vonn, who has curtailed her brief season to undergo surgery again on her injured right knee and will miss the Olympics.

A five-time World Cup downhill champion and 2010 Olympic gold medalist, Vonn has been the standout performer of the team for a long time.

Julia Mancuso, runner-up to her teammate in the downhill at the Vancouver Games, said they’re missing Vonn not just for her results but also for inspiration.

"Lindsey is so consistent," Mancuso said. "So knowing that someone from the U.S. team will always be good, helps the team. ... Having a good, positive environment, people winning, it all helps the team spirit. I am sure we are missing that a little."

Struggling with the aftermath of two torn ligaments, Vonn started in just four of the seven World Cup speed races before being forced to sit out the rest of the season.

Still, her best results — 11th in downhill and fifth in super-G, both in Lake Louise — are unmatched by any of her teammates.

Leanne Smith finished sixth in the same super-G but no American was a threat to the winner in any race.

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Stacey Cook’s best result in downhill this season is 12th, for Smith it’s 14th, for Mancuso 20th and for Laurenne Ross 22nd.

Coming back from a shattered right leg, Alice McKennis came 43rd in Val d’Isere. Like Vonn, she is going to miss the Olympics.

"She had such a tough injury last year, she is not going to be ready," said Hoedlmoser, adding that McKennis won’t race in Austria this weekend either.

Still, Hoedlmoser is confident that results will improve soon.

"We have still some girls that can be on the podium," he said. "We prepare them like we would have prepared if Lindsey would have been around. So there is not really any changes. ... We have still a strong team and we get them as ready as possible."

Asked about the reasons for his team being collectively out-of-form, Hoedlmoser said, without elaborating, "there has been some internal stuff that we know that happened and that we don’t really want to present to everybody."

According to Mancuso, "it’s really hard to explain" what the team has been going through.

"Everyone has been skiing really well, it’s just a matter of doing it in the races," Mancuso said. "It’s really something that is hard to put your finger on. Sometimes when you get off track, it’s hard to get back on."

Despite Vonn’s and McKennis’ injuries, the team spirit has been as good as last season, Cook said.

"As a team we are the same, win or lose, and that’s something that has helped us get better and better," Cook said. "We kind of keep our own mindset in our own little group, it’s pretty positive and fun and the results will come."

Cook, runner-up to Vonn in two consecutive downhills last season, said the impact of the champion’s absence shouldn’t be overrated.

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