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Stacey Cook masters the imposing Tofane schuss to lead the US team in 5th at Cortina downhill

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CORTINA D'AMPEZZO, Italy - If the downhill at the Sochi Olympics has anything resembling the Tofane schuss it will be good news for Stacey Cook.

The American finished fifth Saturday in the final downhill before the Sochi Games to match her best result of the season from a day earlier.

Both days, Cook found her speed in the Tofane schuss, a straight and narrow chute between two walls of rock that is the most recognizable feature of the Olympia delle Tofane course.

In Friday's downhill, the start was cut off due to overnight snowfall, meaning racers went immediately into the schuss. On Saturday, the full course was used, with skiers sweeping around a right turn then over a jump into the steep chute.

"It's a classic downhill when you get a jump into the Tofane schuss," said Cook, who clocked 133.4 kph (82.9 mph) Saturday in the chute.

"The first image I had of women's World Cup racing was of the Tofane schuss," Cook added. "So that's something that has always been pretty special to me. Before I knew what the World Cup was, I knew what the Tofane chute was."

How did Cook, who is from Mammoth, California, learn about the Tofane schuss?

"A coach had mentioned to me once that you jump right next to this cliff and I just thought it was the coolest thing," she explained.

Cook had second-place finishes in consecutive downhills last season in Lake Louise, Alberta. But her best finish this season was 12th — until this week.

She was also ninth in a super-G on Thursday to open four consecutive days of racing.

"It's definitely going in the right direction," Cook said. "I'm psyched with the speed that I have and the confidence to go out and attack. Everything is getting better and better and it's a really good feeling for the weeks ahead."

With Lindsey Vonn out injured, Cook and Julia Mancuso have been leading the way for the U.S. team this week.

In a race won by defending overall winner Tina Maze, Mancuso finished seventh to match her best result of the season from two days earlier.

"I really felt like I executed what I wanted to do today," Mancuso said. "I'm happy and I feel like I'm in a good spot going into the downhill for the Olympics."

Mancuso was third at the final checkpoint but couldn't maintain her speed into the finish.

"I know I can improve on the bottom," she said. "It's always the last split that kills me."

A super-G on Sunday is the final race before the U.S. team names its squad for Sochi, where the women's downhill is scheduled for Feb. 12.

Rookie Jacqueline Wiles again stated her case to make the Sochi team by finishing 29th to follow up her 15th-place result from a day earlier — when she gained her first World Cup points.

"No one has mentioned anything yet," said Wiles, who is from Aurora, Oregon. "We're all just trying to do our best to squeak in there."

The 21-year-old Wiles seems to fit in nicely with her older teammates, even though she acknowledged that she was in awe of Vonn and Mancuso before meeting them.

"She adds such a good personality to the team," Cook said. "She gives us a lot of laughs. She's so easygoing and just easy to be around. I think we're going to have a lot of fun with her in the years to come."

Teammates and coaches have quickly bestowed Wiles with a bevy of nicknames.

"They'll call me Jacqueline, Jackie, Jankie, Wacky, Janks," she said. "There's names all around."

Julia Ford, another younger racer, also finished in the points this season with a 21st-place finish in Lake Louise.

"It's cool when you have new girls coming in and they have no expectations and just want to go out and ski and every race is fun and a surprise," Mancuso said. "It's just fun having people with a lot of energy, because it's not the same routine every day. It brings a new aspect to the team, where they are really excited to go play a game and walk around town. It's cool."

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Follow Andrew Dampf at http://twitter.com/asdampf

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