Mendes’ focus remains the same – to win |

Mendes’ focus remains the same – to win

Shauna Farnell

The Associated Press Jonna Mendes carves her way to a U.S. downhill title at the 2005 U.S. Alpine Championships at Mammoth.

COPPER MOUNTAIN – In 10 years, the hardest times Jonna Mendes has had are the times when she has looked in the mirror and seen only a ski racer.

Mendes of South Lake Tahoe has had her ups and downs during her 10 years on the U.S. Ski Team. Now that she is facing her third Olympics this February in Torino, Italy, she’s not aiming for merely being one of just four American women to compete on the U.S. Olympic Team. With rising stars Lindsey Kildow and the Julia Mancuso and the rest of her team posing some very stiff competition, getting on the team itself is not easily achieved.

“Any athlete in an Olympic sport will tell you they want a medal,” said Mendes, who was training with her team at Copper Mountain last week. “It’s one of the hardest challenges out there. So few people in the world are able to get an Olympic medal. It is really, really hard to do. I’ve been working so long and so hard at this, that this is what I want. I want a medal. That’s what I’m here for.”

This is the school of thought she learned from one of her first coaches, Noel Dufty of Heavenly Ski Foundation.

“I’m not setting my goal to make the Olympic team,” said Mendes. “That’s not what I’m going to the gym and doing a million squats so many days of my life to do. I want to win and to medal.”

Mendes’ career highlight to date was a bronze medal in the 2003 World Championship super-G event in St. Moritz, Switzerland. She is a four-time national champion, twice in downhill and twice in giant slalom. She took 11th in the 2002 Olympic downhill in Salt Lake City, Utah, and has had a number of top-10s on the World Cup circuit.

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Still, there have been some low points. Last season, Mendes hopes, marked the end of them.

“I had two tough seasons,” she said. “Two years ago, I had consistently bad performances. That became worse and worse. I had two races that were nowhere near where I’d been for the (previous) few years, and it started to pull me down. I wasn’t used to not skiing well. I didn’t handle it as well as I should have.”

This started not only to take its toll on Mendes’ racing, but on her identity too.

“Skiing is what I do, but it also became who I am,” she said. “So, I felt it directly reflected who I was, which is not the case. I am a ski racer, but it’s not like, who I am. It took me a whole season to realize that. I had to tell myself this when I got 30th place. That’s not what I wanted, but I’m not a bad person because of it. That season was awful. I was depressed. Generally, I’m not a depressed person. I’m generally very happy. I enjoy my sport. I wasn’t enjoying it at all. I came back the next season and decided not to be as hard on myself.”

Last season wasn’t the best in Mendes’ career, but it was an improvement. After competing in two World Championships and two Olympic events, Mendes didn’t qualify for last year’s World Championship races in Bormio, Italy. With Mancuso qualified for all five events, she opted out of the downhill, opening one spot. Mendes and teammate Bryna McCarty had to race off for it, and Mendes, who claims to find speed under pressure, took the spot. She walked away with 12th place.

Back on the up and up

“It wasn’t great, but I was proud of it,” she said. “It stinks to sit there at the bottom of a race and watch your teammates racing in an event that you want to race in, that you have raced in. There are definitely positive aspects to not always doing well. It was very motivational for me, but it’s not something I want to have happen again … ever.”

So Mendes closed her season with a win in the U.S. Championship downhill event at Mammoth Mountain and is looking to continue her streak, beginning with upcoming World Cup races in Lake Louise, Canada, Dec. 2-4 and in Aspen, Dec. 9-11.

As for the Olympics, the third time may be the charm for Mendes. Despite approaching the 2006 Games as a veteran, Mendes said the mystique is still there, but modified by the solidity of her experience.

“The Olympics are just as amazing as ever,” she said. “I’ve had just about every experience you can. I’ve experienced the Olympics – I’ve gone to figure skating. I’ve gone to the opening ceremonies. I’ve walked into the stadium. I don’t need any more experiences. Nothing is going to be overwhelming for me.”

Mendes said while some measure of surprises are inevitable at an event of Olympic caliber, but she won’t be taken aback by them.

“I’m not going to be surprised by the crowds. I’m not going to be surprised by the crazy, weird security measures,” she said. “One of the positive things I’m coming into Torino with is that I ski well under pressure. I ski well in big events. It’s one of my strongest points. I’m not there to experience the Games. I’m there to win.”