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Ten years after entering the world stage of ski racing with the U.S. Ski Team, Mammoth racer Stacey Cook last weekend finally got a payoff.
A member of the Mammoth Mountain Ski Team, Cook landed on her first-ever World Cup podiums, finishing second behind superstar Lindsey Vonn in the opening races of the 2012-13 World Cup season.
“It’s hard to put into words because it’s been just so long coming,” she said in a telephone interview from the Calgary, Alberta airport, where she was getting ready to board a flight to her next race in St. Moritz.
“I’ve worked so hard for so many years,” she said, “and everyone’s told me this was something I was capable of, but after so long of not achieving that, you start to doubt it. So for it to be reality is pretty special.”
It also was special for the members of Mammoth’s racing contingent, said her former coach and mentor Mark Brownlie, the athletic director at Mammoth Mountain Ski Area.
“I am absolutely blown away,” he said after Cook captured her first downhill podium on Friday, Nov. 30, then finished second again on Saturday, Dec. 1.
“This,” he said, “is the culmination of a great amount of work over the years, and now she has reached the highest athletic level. Stacey is setting herself up. She’s lit the fuse, so to speak. All the right pieces are falling in all the right places.”
Mammoth downhill racer Stacey Cook celebrates the first World Cup podium finish of her career Saturday, Nov. 30 at Lake Louise. Photo/Roger Witney, Alpine Canada
Cook, a former Truckee resident who is 28 years old, didn’t just shine in the downhill race.
She placed 29th in the Super G competition as well, and in a sport where a Top 30 finish places an athlete among the best, Cook came through.
Yet it was in her back-to-back second-place finishes in downhill that signaled the end of the beginning of a road that suddenly is wide-open before her.
“The biggest factor, I think, is maturity, and starting to believe in myself more,” she said. “It’s been a process.”
“I didn’t grow up, like a lot of my teammates have grown up, bound to be professional athlete and trained to be a professional athlete from a very young age. I definitely had to battle some things, and this lifestyle, that other athletes don’t.
“Overcoming that and learning to be a professional athlete has been a huge stepping stone,” she continued. “Then there is the confidence and believing I can compete with these girls.
“That’s something that’s happened over time. It was a matter of just chipping away at it.”
The ski racing subculture in Mammoth reacted swiftly.
Members of the Mammoth Mountain Ski and Snowboard teams gathered in the refurbished Slopeside Training Center near Main Lodge to watch the races on television. Many of them sent texts and email messages to Cook immediately after both races.
“I was getting pictures of a lot of people in front of their computer screens,” Cook said. “It was so cool to see that. It’s really fun to bring racing to Mammoth in that way.
“I don’t remember having that as a junior, sitting around watching World Cup with my teammates. That’s probably the best part of the weekend: knowing that people there (in Mammoth) were watching and supporting me.”
In her first race, nearly the entire field was on edge because of weather conditions. Fog drifted across the downhill course in waves, causing widespread speculation that the race would be called off.
But the fog lifted just enough to race, and Cook found a window to make an unfettered ride to the finish.
“The weather was really tough,” she said, “and that presents a mental battle, because you arrive at the start and you don’t know if you’re going to have fog or sun.
“But in the end, it doesn’t matter. You have to prepare yourself for that. It’s really draining on a lot of athletes.
“I was just not going to let that bother me. I knew the job I had to do was within myself and I couldn’t worry about the weather or any other outside factors.”
In the second race, the following day, weather conditions improved, and for a brief time, Cook simply owned the hill, holding onto first place as Vonn waited in the starting gates.
Vonn, proving why she is the best in the world in the discipline, overcame a serious mistake mid-way through the run to win again, but not by much.
It was the 54th and 55th victory in Vonn’s electrifying downhill history; for Cook, though, it was a first-time experience, and it showed.
Wearing a purple Mammoth Mountain knit hat with the U.S. Ski Team logo stitched below the Mammoth logo, Cook bounded to the podium as if there were no gravity at all. She held her skis above her head in a moment of triumph and tears glistened at the corners of her eyes.
For Cook, her podium finishes were a combination of experience, both as a veteran racer as well as a racer on that particular mountain, she said.
“I’ve raced this hill for a really long time,” she said, recalling her fourth-place finish there in 2006. “It’s the downhill I have the most experience on in the world, so I know it really well.”
Now, Cook said, the pressure on her has increased, but in a new, different and almost refreshing way.
“This is definitely a new position for me to be, second in the world in an event,” she said. “There are pressures that come with that, but I think I’ll be able to handle that just fine because of the journey I’ve had in my career so far.
“I’ve had a lot of ups and downs and faced pressure before, but that’s a little different pressure. I know how to handle it now because I know the battle is up to me—it’s how I perform.
“It doesn’t concern anyone else. And if I keep a really level-headed attitude like that, this could be just the tip of the iceberg.”