Mendes captivated by Olympic notoriety |

Mendes captivated by Olympic notoriety

Michael Traum

The notoriety, the expectations, the Opening Ceremonies – Jonna Mendes has had much to ponder entering the start of the 1998 Winter Olympics.

Mendes, 18, of South Lake Tahoe, left home on Thursday morning, bound for Nagano and the world’s largest athletic stage.

Since receiving “the call” on Monday, when U.S. coaches informed Mendes of her Olympic berth on the women’s Alpine team, life has been frantically splendid.

“So much is going on, I can’t help it. It’s more than I ever expected,” said Mendes during an Olympic party at Dixon’s Restaurant on Wednesday. “There’s so many people. I’ve never had people here just for me, ever. I’ve always felt supported, but this is incredible. People I don’t even know are saying, ‘Tahoe is so proud, everybody is rooting for you.'”

Performance expectations are natural inquiries for fans and coaches of Mendes. But Mendes, one of three 18-year-olds on the women’s team, knows that the trip to Nagano is purely for experience. The 2002 Olympics are in Park City, Utah, and, if everything goes right, Mendes could be skiing in her fourth Olympics in 2010 at just 30 years old.

“A lot of people are saying go and get the experience, that they know that I’m young. They just want me to go and have fun. It’s good to know that. I was hoping they didn’t have too many expectations for me, and it seems like they don’t,” Mendes said.

U.S. head coach Herwig Demschar said he just wants Mendes to continue her improvement.

“She’s already overshot her goals. I want her to gain experience at the in Nagano and also to ski up to her potential. If she were to go top 20, top 18, it would be an outstanding start for her,” he said.

Mendes, who will be skiing in the super-G, downhill and combined events, agreed with her coach.

“If that’s what he thinks, it’s probably right. I still don’t know where I’m going to start. Wherever I start, if I move up 10 places it would be awesome for me. I’ve never done anything like this before.”

Another new experience for the young skier will be the Opening Ceremonies – a sensory spectacular, featuring athletes from every attending country, which highlights the beginning of each Olympic gathering.

But Demschar was reluctant to give his OK for the women’s team to attend the event.

“The Opening Ceremonies is always a problem because we’re already training on the hill. Traveling in Japan, especially in Nagano, is a pain. It’ll take us up to two hours to go from Hakuba (skiing site) to Nagano. I don’t want my athletes before an event involved in an over-the-top experience of traveling around Japan. I want them focused on ski racing,” he said. “I’m not going to talk them out of it, but it’s not always the wisest thing to do.”

But Mendes, given the opportunity, said she’ll attend the opening festivities.

“If I get the choice, I’ll go to the Opening Ceremonies. It’s what everybody is most excited about: watching me and everyone that’s representing the U.S. walk-through. I think it’s a major, major part of the Olympic scene and everything that goes along with it,” she said.

Mendes rationalized the choice by saying she knows the spotlight won’t be on her.

“I’m not Picabo Street or Kristina Koznick. It’s not like it’ll distract me. I won’t be getting hounded by the media because I’m not a huge name,” she said.

But Mendes plans to use the experience to further her readiness in the sport.

“I’m just the second string on the team. Right now, I’m good with that. But I’ll be there eventually and get the attention. Right now, I don’t deserve it,” she said. “I’ll be there with world champions and Olympic medalists. I haven’t done anything that major yet. But when I get it done, I won’t be happy being second string anymore.”

After the Olympics, Mendes will travel directly to Poland for the Junior World Championships, an event in which both her and Demschar expect big results.

But until then, the Olympic experience will be cherished with every waking moment in Japan.

“Hopefully, I’ll get time to check everything out. I do have a couple days between races and four days after my last race before the Closing Ceremonies,” she said. “We get three extra bags for stuff to bring home. I’m going to get so much stuff I won’t be able to fit it in my house.”

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