Published Date Written by Lloyd JonesCONWAY — Coming off her best season yet on the U.S. Ski Team, Leanne Smith believes even better results are just on the horizon. Smith, a 2010 Olympian and the daughter of Paula and Joe Smith, of North Conway, finished fifth in the final Super G World Cup race of the season and then was second in the same event at the U.S. Nationals to wrap up her fifth year on the U.S. team. Next season is about to begin for the fun-loving yet fiercely competitive ski racer.
Smith, who dropped by The Conway Daily Sun Wednesday, headed to Mammoth, Calif. two days later for nine days of training with her U.S. Ski Team teammates.
No summer vacation once again for the former Kennett High three-sport (soccer goalie; shortstop in softball; and skier) standout who earned 12 varsity letters during her career with the Eagles.
"After camp we start lifting and working out again," Smith said. "I'm going to go out to Park City (Utah) periodically through the summer in between camps and when we have the high-volume of training and the intensity is high in the gym, we'll go back there to get the guidance of trainers and physical therapists."
Smith, who has also found some time in her hectic schedule to continue her education, hopes to declare business as her major in the near future. She had been taking courses at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, Utah, but believes she may have to finish up pursuit of her degree online simply due to other commitments.
"It's hard especially since we have camp," she said. "It really gets involved during school because there's a three-week crossover that makes things really difficult."
Although often thousands of miles from home, Smith still continues to following the racing fortunes of her former teams, both Kennett High, which her sister Laurel Zengilowski is the head coach of, and the Mount Washington Valley Ski Team, which Dave Gregory is the head coach and program director for. She's in regular contact with both.
"Is it a surprise anymore that (the Eagles) are always first," Smith said, laughing. "It's no surprise to me, but always great to see. I follow both teams."
What's Smith's strength as a ski racer?
"Her mental toughness," Gregory said. "She is not easily rattled and is extremely competitive; very focused and goal oriented."
Smith thought for a moment about her strengths.
"I think that sums me up pretty well," she said. "I think as time goes on I'm a little less competitive, just in other things. Skiing probably not because I do get just as worked up because it's all on you. I think that's a good thing about it. In any team sport, yeah I hated losing, but it was a team effort. In skiing, it's your fault when you're not doing as well as you'd like."
Gregory recalled a couple of "Leanne stories."
"One of my favorite stories was the first time I had her in the gym to start strength training when she was 14 or 15," he said. "By the end of the workout she almost passed out and almost threw up. I didn't know it but she hadn't had much to eat that day and she bonked pretty hard. Also the time she won two FIS Super Gs in one day at Okemo.
"Another time we were at Okemo for a Super G and it was well below zero," Gregory said. "The race was on hold because of the cold. All the other girls from other teams were staying in the lodge and not skiing. I had Leanne out skiing so she would be used to the cold and told her it would give her an advantage over the other girls. We skied all morning and they cancelled the race because it was too cold."
"I got frostbite," Smith said, laughing. "The whole thing got canceled because it was so cold and windy. I was on the chair by myself gripping the back of it because it was swinging so much, it nearly hit a tower. I came into the lodge and (had frostbite). It was scary."
Once of Smith's favorite people in the world is Tyler Palmer, of Conway, who on Jan. 23, 1971 won a slalom World Cup race at St. Moritz, the first ever World Cup victory for an American male. She was delighted to see him enshrined into the United States Ski Association Hall of Fame last month.
"I was supposed to do a video for it because they do a video for each of the inductees but the person who asked me forgot and I forgot."
In a sport such as skiing, races are decided by the blink of an eye and the margin for error is such a fine line.
"Once you get to the top and you're racing World Cups all the time you realize how every little mistake counts and it can really hurt you, you can be fourth place or 20th place," Smith said. "I've been a couple of 10ths of second from a podium. You just never know, you can't make too many mistakes."
Both Gregory and Doug Haney, of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, believe Smith is on the verge of big results.
"Leanne produced easily the best season of her career," Haney said. "She was an integral part of an American women's speed team that toppled Austria in the downhill standings by a staggering 636 points. She now knows she can compete with the best in the world. Next season, it's not going to be about when will she crack the top five, it will be about when will she stand on her first World Cup podium. She's that good."
"She is ready for some podium performances," Gregory said.
Smith admits that's a realistic goal going to the 2012-13 season.
"I do feel like this was the best season so far," she said. "Every year I've made leaps in different aspects of the sport and this past year for me was pretty big. At the beginning of last season, at May camp where I'm about to go on Friday, I was working with the head of PSIA (Professional Ski Instructors In America) in the United States and his name is Mike Rogan. He's also the manager down in Portillo (Chile) where we go to train speed every September. I worked with him all of Mammoth camp last year just doing slow drills back and forth across the hill with him making sure that everything is perfect and parallel and I just hammered it. I hammered it in Mammoth, I hammered it in New Zealand and again in Portillo. I'd see him in the morning in Portillo and then we'd go train after.
"I think I realized in order to get to the top where I want to be I had to change my skiing," Smith continued. "Before there was some good things about my skiing but there are always things that you can be fixing. I needed to change my body positioning for certain parts of the turn. I had to go back and completely break it down to where I could hold positions on tougher courses and just be more solid all of the time instead of half of the time or three quarters of the time."
Smith said there were a number of highlights this past season.
"One of my highlights was actually being in Beaver Creek (Colo.); this year we had our first women's World Cup there ever," she said. "And the 2015 World Championships will also be in Beaver Creek so that means after Sochi (site of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Russia), World Cup Finals will be in Beaver Creek and then the next year World Championships will be in Beaver Creek which is huge. We're all really excited about that. Because of weather problems in Val d'Isère, France this December, FIS (Federation of International Skiing) changed a race site to Beaver Creek because the men were there and the course was already set up. We went there and did a Super G and the snow was just amazing. The hill is kind of tough. We did a little dogleg that made it a little longer I think.
"The Beaver Creek thing was sweet because no women had run on it," Smith continued. "The first race (Super G) at Lake Louise (Canada, prior to Beaver Creek) I just wasn't on it. I put a lot of pressure on myself because I know the Super G is my better event and that I need to be in there. I really enjoyed my Super G skis this year. I had a lot of command of them and I knew exactly where I need to be on the ski and I could drive into the boot early. In downhill I didn't. I was on the longer ski for various reasons, but I had a shorter ski from last season that had a fast base so we went with that. I just wish I had something that I felt better on in downhill, but that doesn't mean this year it won't be."
Smith is a speed racer for the U.S. Team focusing primarily on downhill, Super G and Combined (a run of downhill and slalom on the same day).
"I like Combined alright, it's a long day," Smith said. "I think that a lot of us feel it is a little bit of a dead event. If I'm watching baseball or football I want to see to the best in the world. I want to see the best at their craft. When you watch men or women in Combined you're going to get a not very good downhill skier or a not very good slalom skier. So you're getting both of that each run you watch and it's not very pleasing to the viewer. They're going to keep it for the Olympics and the big events so we have to do it at least twice a year. They should just stay with the single events in my opinion so you can see the best skiing out there."
There are new skiing regulations coming out next year that may change the sport a little.
Heading into her sixth year, Smith is comfortable with the routine of the team, the World Cup venues and the race mountains.
"There always will be new venues but a lot of the times every couple of years you go back to the same one so you remember certain parts," she said. "The terrain can be totally different depending on the amount of snow. Obviously experience is a big thing. You go to these mountains with some downhills harder than others and sometimes you're skiing better than others or sometimes you're injured, sometimes you're not. I think there are a lot of factors that go into it but just having been around and knowing how you need to ski to do well, the confidence that you need to be riding on to do well those are important."
Off snow Smith wears a women's size 9 shoe, but on the slopes it's a snug-fitting size 6.
"Skiing starts from the ground up," she explained. "You have to be doing the right thing with your ankles. It goes ankles, knees, hips and shoulders. If you're skiing with your hip and shoulder then your feet follow. If you're stable on the ground it starts with your feet, your knees all the way up. Obviously in skiing you don't want to be leaning in right. If you drop your shoulder in you have no push on the ski."
Smith had a nasty fall late in this recent World Cup season that forced her to miss a couple of races and training.
"I went to Sochi and when I raced there I wasn't really in a good place," she recalled. "I hadn't done anything for two or three weeks. The crash in Garmisch (Germany) was probably one of the hardest crashes I've had in a long time. They had gotten some new snow overnight in Garmisch and it was flat light and there was probably six inches of new snow. Sometimes FIS gets a little overzealous with wanting to make it happen. They pushed (the start of the race) back 15 minutes to half an hour, I wish they had pushed it back a little further. I got a little late coming over a traverse and then on the next turn my ski got rerouted because of the extra snow. I was just running the low line and they hadn't slipped the low line and my ski ended up behind me and it started catching like this with this one going this way toward the fence. It was like slow motion and then it twisted and it tore my calf muscle. I couldn't walk. And then that ski went off and made this huge contusion on the other knee and I couldn't walk on that one for a couple of days. It was so brutal.
"Then I tried to see if I could race on Sunday because I made it into the Top 15 in Super G and I drew 10," she continued. "I had to at least try, but when I went up on the hill I couldn't even stand so I couldn't do anything for three weeks until it healed. I came back here for a week and then I went back there. It was starting to feel better in Sochi, but it wasn't all the way back. It was feeling better but I just hadn't skied. I literally hadn't done anything."
Smith likes Sochi and hopes to be there for her second Winter Olympics in 2014.
"It's a very strange place," she said. "It's a very strange place. The security is intense and they're literally building from the ground up. It kind of reminds you of like Disneyland the way the buildings are coming up. The clock tower wasn't there a year ago. They're trying to make it look like a town that's been there for awhile, but the mountains are sweet there. It's a lot like a Whistler (Vancouver, Canada) climate because it's right on the Black Sea. It's like 40 minutes away from Sochi which is right on the Black Sea.
"First we have World Championships this season in Schladming (Austria) which will be a huge event because the Austrians take their skiing so seriously as we all know," Smith continued. "They get pretty excited. It's definitely interesting. I've been thinking about the future, but there are things you have to do before that. I think you're always thinking about what you'd like to have happen for the next season. For me right now it's about the new FIS regulations and the the skis and making sure that I like what's going on with them and getting used to them and hope that they suit my style of skiing."
World Cup season starts in November. The U.S. women's team will head to New Zealand in the middle of July to Aug. 1 and then Sept. 1 to mid September in Portillo, Chile.
Smith speaks highly of her teammates and is proud of the accomplishments in being the top team in the world.
"There's a lot of people working together and there are a lot of people who want to do well — it's a combination for success. We're a great team and we all have our strong suits. If there's a team that I want to train and race with, I know it's ours," she said.
Having traveled the globe, Smith says there's still no place like home. "It's nice here," she said with a big grin. "It's a nice time of year and nice to see family this is home."
Smith said she may start a blog but the best way to follow her and the team is through Universal Sports online, which airs all of the races and offers in-depth interviews. You can also friend her on Facebook.