The World Cup races in North America weren't kind to the hosts last weekend, as both the U.S. and Canadian alpine teams lost skiers to serious injury for the rest of the year to serious injury.
In Lake Louise, Alberta, site of the 1988 Olympic alpine events, T.J. Lanning of Park City suffered a non-paralyzing neck vertebra fracture after a high-speed crash near the end of the downhill course. Lanning was airlifted to a local hospital, where he was also diagnosed with a dislocated knee. He appeared to sit back on his skis during an icy stretch and suddenly pitched forward and landed on his head.
Unfortunately, Lanning has always battled injuries. A week after a strong tenth-place showing in Val Gardena, Italy, he slammed into a safety netting while training in nearby Bormio, and suffered nasty facial bruises. He was also airlifted away from the treacherous downhill in Kitzbuhel, Austria last season, when he crashed through one fence and banged into another.
During the Super-G race at Lake Louise, Canada's John Kucera, the world champion in the downhill, ended his season and Olympic hopes when he sustained a broken leg. The Calgary native, skiing on his home course, fractured the tibia and fibula in his left leg during a fall. Generously listed at 5-9 and 175 pounds, the diminutive Kucera was a feel-good story, dedicating his Olympic bid to the memory of Jason Lapierre, his first local coach who died soon after the Turin Olympics when a car struck the bike he was riding.
There was a bright spot for the U.S. team in the Super-G, as Andrew Weibrecht finished in 12th place despite starting in the No. 62 position. The Dartmouth student shot into the point standings after many fans had left. He's known as the Nomar Garciaparra of his sport because of his assortment of rituals -- tougching and tightening his equipment -- before each run. He has never skied especially well on the Lake Louise course and said it is among his least favorites because of the tricky terrain.
The U.S. women didn't fare much better during the technical races in Aspen. Olympic medal hopeful Lindsey Vonn finished 39th and failed to qualify for the second run of the giant slalom on Saturday and then skied off the course early in Sunday's slalom, in which all seven U.S. women failed to qualify for the later run. Kaylin Richardson, the top American, placed a lowly 35th.
Vonn compared the course conditions to pond ice after the race, though U.S. coach Jim Tracy said that was no excuse for the team's poor showing. It has been already been a tough year for Vonn, who switched sponsors from Rossignol to Head as her equipment supplier this summer after a contract dispute. She has tested close to a hundred pairs of skis over her speed and technical disciplines in order to find the right ones.
Vonn's teammate Resi Stiegler was already done for the season after suffering yet another injury was added to the litany of bad breaks that have plagued her career. The playful Stiegler, 24, who skied at the Turin Games with Tony the Tiger ears on her helmet, broke two bones in her left leg during a training run on Copper Mountain in Colorado. In a horrendous crash two years ago, she tore ligaments in her right knee and fractured an arm and a leg. She's also broken a leg playing soccer and a fractured a foot in a freak fall in her apartment. Stiegler's father, Josef, had much better luck during his career. He won Olympic medals of every color, including gold in the slalom at the 1964 Innsbruck Games.
Granted Erin Hamlin enters the season as the reigning world champion, but German women still rule the sport of luge. On the second stop of the World Cup tour in Igls, Austria last weekend, Natalie Geisenberger, Tatjana Huefner and Anke Wischnewski swept the medals, while Hamlin finished ninth. At 21, the six-foot-tall Geisenberger still considers herself an underdog to Huefner, who won six races on the eight-race circuit last season.
U.S. veteran Tony Benshoof placed tenth in the men's event, won by Italy's Armin Zoeggeler, but was happy to get through his two runs with minimal discomfort. Benshoof, 34, is undergoing treatment again for recurring back ailments and has had consistent discomfort since finishing fourth at the Olympics in Turin. He underwent surgery a year ago because of a herniated disc and said he felt it pushing against a nerve two weeks ago. Benshoof waited until after the recent World Cup race in Calgary, where he gamely placed sixth at the opening event of the season, before receiving a cortisone injection. A year ago, he was unable to shift his weight properly around the curves of the track and felt numbing in his right leg. He first noticed the pain this season when he picked up his sled one day after a training run.
It's crisis time in Russia, where the skiing federation may soon face sanctions because of a rash of doping cases with the national team. Gian-Franco Kasper, a Swiss IOC member and the president of the International Ski Federation, said recently that he gave Russian ski officials a sort of unofficial probation following two series of violations in 2009. Kasper also sits on the World Anti-Doping Agency.
Earlier this year, four cross-country skiers, including Olympic champions Julia Chepalova and Yevgeny Dementiev, received two-year bans after positive tests for endurance boosting EPO. That boosted the total of busted team members to eight over the past decade. Two months later, biathletes Ekaterina Iourieva, Albina Akhatova and Dmitry Iaroshenko were also banned for the same offense. Iourieva was leading the World Cup standings at the time the results were announced. Earlier this season, exasperated coaches from several competing nations agreed to spill the beans to officials if they got wind of cheating Russian athletes.
Earlier this week, WADA officials said they were finally ready to conduct a global program to monitor athletes blood profiles across all countries and sports. The lack of cooperation in Russia, which has one of the world's 35 testing labs accredited by WADA, was one of the hold-ups for the program that has been in the works for more than seven years.
If an athlete's blood profile changes significantly from one test to another, officials can disqualify the athlete even without a positive test. This is usually the result of a manipulation such as blood packing that increases oxygen supply to the muscles. A sport such hs cycling has been able to avoid the legal challenges to assertions of manipulation by conducting blood tests and disqualifying athletes whose profiles change throughout a multi-stage race for health reasons, since it can be detrimental for white and red blood cell counts to change quickly.