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Why isn’t Mendes on Olympic ski team

Steve Yingling

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised.

Professional sports are result-oriented. It’s paramount to produce as often as possible so those in charge won’t forget your validity.

How else can you explain why a coach like the Packers’ Mike Sherman has one bad season, and he’s fired? Replaced by some assistant who was responsible for one of the worst offenses in NFL history.

But this rant isn’t about the coaching carousel going on in the NFL. No, it’s about downhill skier Jonna Mendes being left off the U.S. Olympic Ski Team.

Mendes deserves to be on that team. She’s put in the time and sacrificed her body for the good of the American team for a decade. She nearly broke a leg trying to make the Olympic team in December.

But Mendes is like a quarterback who doesn’t get his job back after rehabilitating an injury. Mendes’ coaches have obviously forgotten what the South Lake Tahoe woman did for them and their program the past two Olympics.

She salvaged some respect for the team at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City by placing 11th in the downhill – the best of her four career top-20 results at the Winter Games. No, there haven’t been any Olympic medals from Mendes, but she has probably been the U.S.’s most consistent performer during the past two Winter Games.

For some reason, other Americans haven’t performed at the most pivotal time. We’ve seen Caroline Lalive struggle to finish an Olympic race. She DNF’d in all of her races last time out. Even three-time Olympian Picabo Street finished behind Mendes in the downhill at the last Games.

Mendes has always been a big-race performer. Her career highlight was only three years ago when she earned a bronze medal in super-G at the world championships.

Only Kirsten Clark has approached Mendes’ results at the most-recent Winter Games. Clark has three career top-20 results, including a 12th in downhill at Salt Lake City.

A training injury to Lalive on Wednesday in Italy created the possibility of an opening for Mendes, but coaches won’t admit they made a mistake. No other American will be added to the team, and Clark will likely fill Lalive’s downhill position.

What would be the harm in putting Mendes or some other skier in Lalive’s place? What message is the team sending its skiers by not filling the spot?

Without probing for answers from U.S. coaches, who are out of the country at World Cup races, it’s obvious that they only wanted one two-time Olympian on the team. That’s a shame. Clark deserves to be at the Games, but so does Mendes.

Even though she was sidelined for most of the World Cup season by a battered leg, Mendes rebounded with some decent results last week in St. Moritz. After placing an American-best sixth in a training run, Mendes’ 19th-place finish in downhill – second among U.S. team members – was disappointing.

Mendes isn’t one to make excuses, but I’ll make one for her.

“I had one of the best runs of my last couple seasons but was hit by a head wind on the top flats and there was no chance after that point,” she said. “I’m extremely frustrated and sad, as this was my last shot for making the Olympic team.”

With Lindsey Kildow and Julia Mancuso coming into their prime, the Americans certainly have the potential to exorcise their most-recent Olympic failures. But it’s hard to understand why coaches filled out the team with a couple of youngsters who aren’t capable of a high Olympic finishes at this point in their careers. Kaylin Richardson has a season-best of 36th in downhill and 17th in slalom. She’ll likely be used in the combined event.

Stacey Cook of Truckee got of the gates fast, finishing eighth and 10th in a pair of downhills at Lake Louise, but her results since then have been more reminiscent of the third-year team member that she is: a best of 26th in her past seven super-Gs and a best of 30th in her past five downhills.

The fact is these skiers had opportunities that Mendes didn’t have. Coaches should already know what Mendes can do, and that’s what is most disappointing by their oversight.

The snub from her team has given Mendes pause to rethink her future.

“I’ll be heading home to the states in a week and will talk to my family and Noel (Dufty) to make a plan for the remainder of the season and talk about my future and where I’m headed,” Mendes said. “There are some smaller races I could enter, but I think I’d prefer to come to Tahoe and ski at Heavenly and train with Noel. I’ve missed that a lot, traveling as much as I do.”

What does Mendes have to do to show she still belongs in the Olympics – finish on the podium this weekend in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy?

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


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