Mendes to carve out a new life: South Shore racer retires after productive 10-year career on the U.S. team |

Mendes to carve out a new life: South Shore racer retires after productive 10-year career on the U.S. team

Anja Niedringhaus / The Associated Press / Heavenly Foundation's Jonna Mendes, left, displays her bronze medal in the women's super-G at the 2003 World Alpine Ski Championships in St. Moritz, Switzerland.

A World Championship bronze medal. Two Olympic Games. Ten World Cup top-10 finishes. Two World Cup top 5s. Four national titles. Two Junior World Championship silver medals.

That’s the booty that Jonna Mendes totes into retirement. The 27-year-old Mendes officially severed her ties with the U.S. Ski Team after 10 seasons on Monday.

“Is it a good career? I think so,” said Heavenly Ski and Snowboard Foundation Director Noel Dufty, who helped launch Mendes’ competitive racing career in South Lake Tahoe. “Could she have done better? I think she probably could have. You always hope they accomplish more, but the bronze medal at the World Championships spices it up.”

Two difficult seasons laden with injuries and subpar results contributed to Mendes’ decision.

“I am retiring because I have not been enjoying competing like I used to,” Mendes said. “I want to make it clear that I still love skiing, but the travel and competition were wearing on me. The worse things got, the more pressure I put on myself and I just got myself into a tailspin.”

Mendes nearly retired after a disappointing 2004-05 season but didn’t want to leave the sport without one more push to reach the upper-echelon of skiing.

An early season crash at Lake Louise nearly left her with a broken leg and dashed any hopes of making a serious run at her third Winter Games. By the time Mendes returned to the team she only had a handful of World Cup events left to try and meet U.S. Olympic criteria.

“I’ve been thinking about retiring for a while now,” Mendes said. “As much as I loved ski racing for all those years, I am so incredibly excited about my future and what it will bring.”

Her future plans include returning to school and working toward a degree in nonprofit management. The team will make it easier for Mendes to return to school because of a long-standing team program of providing financial assistance to alums who go to college.

“I feel like a lot has been given to me and I’d love to have a career that would allow me to be able to give back,” Mendes said.

She’ll have plenty of fond memories, because of a knack of performing at her best when the stakes were large.

Mendes was only 18 when she competed in her first Winter Games in 1998 in Nagano, Japan. Despite her youth, Mendes finished 14th in combined and 17th in downhill.

“She was a race-day girl. Her true colors came out on race day,” said Jim Tracy, a 20-year coach with the U.S. Ski Team who recently retired. “She never let the pressure get to her and always took things for what they really were.

“She was fun to have around. She’d always be the one to crack a joke to take the edge off.”

At the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City, Mendes was the U.S. women’s team’s most consistent performer, finishing 11th in downhill and 16th in super-G.

But the highlight of her came at the 2003 World Championships at St. Moritz, Switzerland, when Mendes accomplished something that mysteriously eluded her on the World Cup circuit – a podium finish.

“Jonna had a lot of talent. I wish she had been able to get on the podium more because she definitely think she could have,” Tracy said. “For whatever reason it didn’t fall into place (more) for her. She certainly had the commitment. There is a switch that you have to flip on sometimes to take it to a really elite level. She always was a contender.”

Dufty was disappointed that the U.S. team didn’t send Mendes to Torino, Italy, for her third Games in February after injuries to Caroline Lalive and Lindsey Kildow.

“They should have had her out there,” Dufty said. “They were racing Kildow hurt. It looked like a fiasco over there when they have people who could have raced. Thank god for Julia Mancuso.”

Mendes masked her disappointment. She stayed sharp by winning some humbling Nor-Am races usually reserved for nonteam members. Realizing she still had much to offer her sport, Mendes used those races and the national championships to help the country’s younger racers. She served up her decade of elite racing experience to any young racer who had the nerve to ask her a question.

Still, she showed well at the nationals in March, placing sixth in super-G and 10th in downhill – an event that she had won two years running. But when the racing stopped, Mendes knew where her career stood.

“I don’t think I would be able to perform at my previous levels if were to continue to compete,” Mendes said. “I am so excited about what my next stage of my life will bring and that’s how I know that it’s time to walk away. I would never be able to do my best unless my head and heart were 100 percent there the entire time, and they’re not.”

Besides working toward her future, retirement will afford Mendes an opportunity to share more time with her family.

“When I started traveling full-time, I was 16, my brother Jory was 13 and my sister Chelsea was 10. I missed seeing all of their teenage milestones and I missed those opportunities to be an older sister,” Mendes said. “I put myself first and neglected to be a good sister for a lot of years and that’s the only I regret about my time with the team.”

One regret. Now that’s a great career.

– Tribune Sports Editor Steve Yingling can be reached at (530) 542-8010 or

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