U.S. Ski Team back on track
December 29, 2006
Aspen, CO ColoradoHe came back to the U.S. Ski Team because of a promise his most talented pupil made, and he hasn’t regretted it. At least not yet.To make a deal with Bode Miller was a risk for sure.But then again, there are always risks when it comes to World Cup ski racing, and if anyone could diagnose the odds in such an agreement, it was Miller’s longtime coach, John “Johno” McBride.Judging by the results so far, the gamble has paid off.Since returning to the U.S. Ski Team in a new role as the men’s combined coach, McBride, a lifelong Aspen local, has watched the enigma that is Miller recapture his dominating form and seen the team’s young up-and-comers come into their own.Miller picked up his second win of the season Dec. 15 at a super G at Val Gardena, Italy, the first in a historic string of nine podiums in six races for the U.S. men and women. Miller won two super G’s during that stretch and was second in a giant slalom while Steven Nyman, 24, captured his first World Cup victory in downhill. In the same race, veteran Marco Sullivan, 26, finished fourth. Olympic combined gold medalist Ted Ligety, 22, added a silver in slalom two days later, his second podium this season.Not to be outdone by their male counterparts, Vail’s Lindsey Kildow and Olympic GS gold medalist Julia Mancuso turned in two podium finishes each in Val d’Isere, France, including Mancuso’s first World Cup victory, in downhill.McBride said nothing so far this season has surprised him.
“The guys that we have stepping onto the podium … had all actually been close before,” he said Monday, speaking on a cell phone from his hotel room in Adelboden, Switzerland. “Marco’s best was sixth before he blew his knee out [in Nov. 2004] and Steven Nyman was fourth in [Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany,] last year. He’d shown that he could do it on a very difficult course. To see him win was super exciting. That just doesn’t happen every day. This is only his second year on the World Cup.”Miller’s success is a different story. The 29-year-old New Hampshire native is arguably the most talented skier on the men’s circuit, yet also the most unpredictable. He won the World Cup overall trophy in 2005, then followed with a forgettable 2006 highlighted by leaving the Turin Winter Olympics without a medal after months of hype.The American press was unforgiving. Miller arrived in Italy out of shape and was repeatedly spotted at various bars late into the evening, sometimes the night before races. After his final race, he told an Associated Press reporter that he had no regrets because he got to “party and socialize at an Olympic level.”That quote itself solidified Miller’s reputation to many as a failure and a disgrace to the Olympic team. In the offseason, the U.S. Ski Team created new rules for its coaches and athletes to avoid further embarrassment.Among them was a rule that states all team athletes must sleep in the team hotel the night before a race – a stipulation that chafed Miller, who travels the World Cup circuit in a custom-made RV. There’s also a rule that states athletes and coaches can’t drink together.After watching Miller fail to live up to his potential last season, it was clear to McBride that it was time for him to walk away after 10 years of coaching with the team.All of the bad press wasn’t deserved, but at the same time there was no denying the fact that Miller wasn’t fully committed to winning, McBride said.”I didn’t want to be a part of a super-talented guy not taking care of all the pieces of the puzzle,” he said. “I just didn’t want to be along for the ride on the tour just to do it.”For Miller to convince McBride to come back this past offseason, there had to be some concessions. McBride wanted to come home to visit his family for a week every month during the season, and he wanted Miller to commit to doing everything he can to win.”He was going to have to hold himself accountable to do the best job that he could,” he said. “At the end of the day, if he wins or loses, that’s not the biggest thing. It’s if he did everything he could. I just want him looking after himself, and holding himself accountable.
“So far, he’s done a great job.”As for the new team rules, McBride said he hasn’t lost any sleep. Miller’s antics at the Olympics may have been blown out of proportion, but in the end, he has no one to blame but himself for the team taking a tougher line, McBride said.”He made his own bed on that one a little bit,” he said. “The RV thing was obviously directed at Bode and Julia [Mancuso], and he does get jammed into shitty hotel rooms in Europe with shitty food, but that’s what happens when you have your RV and you’re out partying until 3 in the morning. That didn’t come across that great for the team.” In the midst of the U.S. men’s team success, things were going in the opposite direction for the powerful Austrian men’s squad.Before Michael Walchhofer won back-to-back downhills Dec. 28 and 29 in Bormio, Italy, the Austrians had been mired in a 13-race winless streak. That slump was much more surprising than the success the U.S. men were having, McBride said.”I was psyched for one,” he said. “It’s really nice to see those guys not always checking six dudes in the top 10. I guess my feeling is they took things a little for granted early in the season. I’d never write those guys off, though. They’ve got so much talent and depth, you can’t ever count them out. Most of those guys ski on Atomics, and early on they had some problems on equipment. Fischers and Heads have been very, very fast on tour this year in the speed events, where usually Atomic is ultra dominant. Usually they’ve got their equipment really dialed in, but that wasn’t necessarily the case this year.”Even with Austria’s early-season struggles, McBride was quick to point out that the World Cup season is only half over. While the U.S. men were hot last month, they have cooled off considerably since. Ligety’s 17th-place finish in Saturday’s slalom was the best result in two days last weekend in Adelboden. In the same race, Austria’s Benni Raich, the defending overall champion, won his first race of the season.
Miller was 11th after his first slalom run Sunday, but his right ski popped off during his second run. It’s been nearly a year since Miller has completed a slalom. He is currently third in the overall standings with 540 points, behind Norway’s Aksel Lund Svindal (639) and Switzerland’s Didier Cuche (571). Ligety is 10th, with 292 points.Last season, McBride agreed that Miller was heavier than usual, and that affected his technical skiing. Miller is back down to 210 pounds, after ballooning past the 220 mark last season.”Sunday was the first time we really got the slalom gear where we needed to,” McBride said. “The ski just came off for no good reason. Maybe it was a defective binding.”This year he’s brought his weight back down just so slalom can be part of the equation. He’s been very diligent to get his slalom back in order. He’s trained more slalom this year than he has in four years. It will come. It’s been a painful road, but it will come back together.”And when it does come together, it’d be a mistake to bet against Miller, McBride said. He expects the remainder of the season to be a tight race for the overall trophy between Svindal, Cuche, Miller, Italy’s Peter Fill and Raich. He also foresees Sullivan, Ligety and Nyman continuing to vie for World Cup podiums and progress naturally up the ranks. The retirement of Daron Rahlves – the most successful speed skier in U.S. history – was a blow to the team, but it made other guys step up.”I’m feeling really good about what’s going on with this team,” McBride said. “It’s awesome to watch it all come together. The results are coming. It was a bit of a slap in the face this past weekend because we just had a shitty weekend, but that happens once in a while. Except for Bode, everyone has similar ability, and it’s cool to see guys emerge. Leaders are stepping out of the group.”Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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