With Street out, Mendes a national title threat | TahoeDailyTribune.com

With Street out, Mendes a national title threat

Michael Traum

Picabo Street is out. While that cold fact has caused much emotional stress for members of the U.S. Women’s Alpine team, Street’s absence has left the field wide open in this weekend’s Chevy Truck U.S. Alpine National Championships in Jackson Hole, Wyo.

“It’s weird not having her here,” said Jonna Mendes, an Olympian from South Lake Tahoe. “It’ll be a great honor for whoever ends up being the national champion. But in the same sense it won’t be the same without Picabo here. She would have won it on one ski.”

Street’s season ended earlier this month when a relatively routine fall and subsequent collision with a safety net during a World Cup downhill race in Switzerland caused a broken right femur and blown knee. The reigning Olympic gold medalist in the super-G and top-ranked American in the speed disciplines will miss her second straight national finals. Last year, a blown left knee left her unable to compete.

“Picabo is such a great competitor. That presence just isn’t here,” said Kirsten Clark of Raymond, Maine.

Mendes, 18, and Clark, 20, are part of the U.S. Alpine youth speed movement. Both competed in the Nagano Olympics and are young veterans of the national event. Mendes is currently ranked fifth in the United States in downhill and sixth in super-G. Clark is third and seventh, respectively.

Both women will compete in all four Alpine disciplines. And both said it will be a challenge to put Street’s plight out of mind.

“(Crashing) is something you deal with every day in this sport. It can happen in a split second and not even be your fault. You can’t be doubting yourself when you’re going 80 mph. But you can’t not think about it,” Mendes said.

On Wednesday, Mendes led the women’s training opener, covering the 1.4-mile Rendezvous Mountain course in 1:14.42. Clark was second in 1:14.89 and Kate Monahan of Aspen, Colo., was a distant third in 1:16.22.

“I can honestly say it would take years for me to be able to beat Picabo. She’s just that much better than everyone else,” Mendes said. “But now, this is a great opportunity. There are four or five girls who can win. It’s exciting to think of the possibilities to be national champion. There’s an opening and I’ve got to take it.”

Added Clark, “We’re going to be punching it like everyone else. When you get in the start gate, it’s all about thinking about you and going for the win.”

Mendes, the defending junior national champion, is coming off her best year as an amateur. With regular World Cup starts, she added a second-place finish in the Junior Worlds to an impressive Olympic outing, where she was 14th in the combined, 17th in the downhill and 32nd in the super-G. In the national’s two years ago, Mendes was second in the combined overall and third in the GS.

“I’m skiing fine in all of the events and I’m hoping to do well in the combined,” Mendes said. “And it’s not like a World Cup event. There’s not as much pressure. You’re here with all your friends, everyone speaks English and it doesn’t feel like the whole world is watching.”

The women will contest an International Ski Federation race on Friday, with the national championship downhill scheduled for Saturday. The super-G will be Sunday, with the GS on Tuesday and slalom on Wednesday.

For the first time since 1995 when Park City and Snow Basin split the honors, the U.S. Alpine Championships will be divided between Jackson Hole and Silver King ski areas in Jackson.

Approximately 200 racers are expected for the title races, which have speed events scheduled at Jackson Hole, with slalom and GS at Silver King.

Tahoe Daily Tribune E-mail: tribune@tahoe.com

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