South Shore’s Jonna Mendes couldn’t disappoint her wide-eyed throng of relatives, especially since many of them were watching her race for the first time.
“Ten family members had never seen me ski until today,” said Mendes, who provided them with memories that a camera couldn’t have duplicated.
Mendes produced her best Winter Games finish ever Tuesday in the much-delayed women’s downhill, placing an American-best 11th at Snowbasin, Utah.
“I felt such a sense of accomplishment to finally have my family see me race, and to have it be the Olympics as an introduction to what I do, it couldn’t be any better,” Mendes said.
But it did get better for Mendes because she was encouraged and embraced by many more Lake Tahoe supporters than she had anticipated.
“I saw so many people from Tahoe today, I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I bet there were 100 people from Tahoe there. I’m glad so many people got the opportunity to come here and experience something that’s so amazing and wonderful. People are really embracing it, and emotions are running so high here.”
One of Mendes’ fans also fired her up with a banner that read “Keep Tahoe Red, White and Gold. Go Jonna! Go USA!”
Despite beating all of her American teammates, including the much-publicized Picabo Street, Mendes thought she was capable of more.
“There was some redemption in that I proved that I can show up on big race days and perform, but I’m really disappointed that our team didn’t perform better,” Mendes said. “I didn’t go into it thinking that I’d be happy with 15th or better. I definitely went out there to win a medal, but I knew how hard that would be.”
Noel Dufty, her former coach at Heavenly, said Mendes was focused on a top-10 finish or better.
“She has such high expectations and a track record that suggests she should be able to pull something off,” said Dufty, who plans to watch Mendes compete in the super-G on Sunday. “For her, it’s fantastic, but I just know she wants one of (her results) better than that.”
A high-wind delay for the second straight day and a late starting slot hindered the 22-year-old’s medal chances.
“I skied really well. There was a lot of good skiing that was happening, and it wasn’t showing with the times,” she said. “There was some talk that maybe the course conditions slowed down quite a bit. It got really warm and pretty much no one from the back got in there at all.”
For the most part, Mendes followed tight lines around the gates and was on top of her run throughout. However, she was slow to celebrate her 11th-place standing — the first time she’s been the No.1 American in an event this season — after crossing the finish line.
Finally, she raised both arms and exhorted spectators to share in her accomplishment. Later on, she embraced Street in the finishing area.
“We agreed before the race that regardless of how either of us did, we were just gonna give each other a big hug and be content of how the race unfolded,” Mendes said. “We both expected more of ourselves, but when you get into the finish area, it’s not a place to mope and sulk.”
Mendes finished 1.41 seconds behind winner Carole Montillet of France.
Mendes went into the 2001 off-season with a broken foot and some observers doubting whether she could return to form in time for the Olympics. Mendes’ success Tuesday came after months of hard work and belief that her results would start to improve.
“In some ways I thought it would easier to come back from my injury, but in some ways it has been harder because I didn’t expect the ups and downs I’ve experienced,” she said.
Mendes’ previous-best Olympic finish was 17th in combined in the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan. She also placed 19th in downhill at those Games.