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Mendes’ age is her only obstacle

Steve Yingling

Steffi Graf didn’t have to wait long. Neither did Tara Lipinski or Tamara McKinney. Age rarely acts as a barrier to up-and-coming teen athletes, but the South Shore knows differently.

Skiers don’t come along very often like Jonna Mendes, but the 17-year-old trail blazer has been harnessed by the U.S. Ski Team over the past two seasons. Another poor World Cup season by the Americans has come and gone, while perhaps its most talented female skier plows under the Nor-Am circuit and concludes her studies at South Tahoe High.

Two years ago, the financially strapped team denied Mendes her rightful place in red, white and blue, tendering her a consolation trip to Europe instead. Finally, the U.S. found a spot for Mendes last spring, but has yet to unleash her on the world circuit.

Mendes’ youth coach has no problem with her progression.

“You don’t want to rush them. Basically, she’s just starting into it, it’s her rookie year, and that’s always a big problem,” said Mendes’ Heavenly Ski Foundation coach Noel Dufty. “Once you get into World Cup, it’s pretty hectic. It’s like playing in the NFL.”

In what has been one of the U.S.’s least productive seasons ever on the World Cup circuit, Mendes would have been a refreshing infusion of hope. With the way the Americans have been avoiding the top 30 results, you’d think snow doesn’t exist in the States.

“I think the (progression) has been just right,” Mendes said. “It is a little bit slower, but there’s lots of other reasons (for not promoting me sooner). It can get depressing after a while. I know a couple of girls who have done a few of them and when you’re consistently in the 40s it brings you down a little bit, although that isn’t necessarily bad.”

But there’s no way the U.S. can push aside Mendes this week. By week’s end, the U.S. team may be looking like fools for not elevating Mendes sooner. Mendes has the potential to upset Hilary Lindh in the downhill and super-G, and medals in the giant slalom and slalom are within reach, too.

“Jonna could win any of those events on a good day. The easiest two would be the downhill and super-G. But she also has a good chance of medalling in the GS,” Dufty said. “The slalom field is fairly strong, so if she did well in slalom it would take an exceptionally good day.”

Perhaps out of respect to her elders, Mendes may be downplaying her chances.

“I’m just hoping I can ski like I know I can, and if I do, I should be right in there,” said Mendes, who was third in the combined last year as a 16-year-old. “I’m hoping to finish top three in the combined. (Beating Hilary) is not going to happen. Top six would be really good for me.

“My top goal is to be the No. 1 junior.”

Dufty recalls McKinney being thrust into World Cup competition at 16, although the North Shore phenom didn’t make an impact until her late teens.

“McKinney was awesome. But it’s a different World Cup now. The average age now is 26 to 28 and back then it was 21,” Dufty said. “Where Jonna is now, she’s awfully young. That changes everything a bit. They’re kind of looking out for her, not rushing her into it and getting her hurt.”

The frightening note for Mendes’ future World Cup foes is that she has yet to commit an entire year to skiing because of her devotion to Viking soccer and schooling.

Yet, Mendes, who will turn 18 on March 31, showed she belonged in her World Cup debut earlier this month at Mammoth Mountain. Despite a few technical errors, Mendes finished second among Americans and 31st overall in the super-G.

“She could have easily made top 15 in Mammoth if she didn’t make two little mistakes,” Dufty said.

If the U.S. lets Mendes loose for all the world to see next winter, Mendes will earn that right this summer.

“It wouldn’t hurt Jonna to get a little stronger,” Dufty suggested. “If she wants to do it quickly, she has to get stronger quicker … and she could do that through a dryland program.”

Judging from Mendes’ reaction to her first taste of the World Cup, there’s no reason to believe that she won’t be a regular next season.

“It was awesome. I’ve never done anything so wonderful in my whole life. I’m on a permanent high,” she said a few days after her Mammoth experience.

Just give her chance. Besides, she’ll soon be old enough to vote.


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