American downhillers have lofty goals for Birds of Prey
Aspen, CO Colorado
BEAVER CREEK, Colo. – It has been a whole four years since an American won a downhill at Birds of Prey, a veritable drought.
That’s a silly statement because anything can happen in ski racing, and there was a time when an American on the podium was a crazy notion – especially in the early years after Birds of Prey opened in 1997. Then Daron Rahlves and Bode Miller busted through that barrier and their four straight downhill wins on the Beaver Creek course from 2003-06 reset the standard for the U.S. Ski Team in home races.
Yet the current crop of American downhillers understand that today’s Birds of Prey downhill at 11 a.m. comes with expectations. This is not a race is Europe, where if an American has a bad day, with the possible exception of Miller, the media won’t notice.
“I’ve been here in the past where we’ve had four in the Top 10, me being one of them,” said Marco Sullivan, who was referring to the 2006 downhill here, when Miller won, Steve Nyman was third, Scott Macartney took eighth and he was 10th. “I’ve had good races here and seen Bode and Daron win. It’s a big, long-standing tradition of us going fast here. That looms over us in the start, and it would be huge for us to do well here.”
After Rahlves retired in the spring of 2006 and Miller proved to be semi-mortal, Nyman seemed poised to be the one to pick up the torch for the team at Birds of Prey. After bronze in 2006, the Provo, Utah, native moved up to second in the 2007 downhill here. In between those Beaver Creek stops, Nyman secured his first World Cup win in Val Gardena, Italy.
Nyman took seventh in the 2008 downhill, but his body was betraying him. He’s struggled with back and knee injuries for two seasons, and finally seems healthy.
“It’s tough I think as a downhiller. You’re so hunched over, trying to be aerodynamic,” he said. “I couldn’t get that rolling. I couldn’t get forward. I would protect my back and go up. That’s not the position you’re meant to be in on your skis.”
Now comes the mental battle. After a few years of trying to grit through the pain, Nyman says he needs to convince his brain that his body is fine.
“When you’ve gone through that last couple of years of amping yourself up and fighting that pain, you go to those courses and that’s what you remember. It’s funny. You’re at the top and you’re, ‘Do you want to go through this?’ Then you get to the bottom and you’re like, ‘Cool. There’s no problem.’ I just worked through that in training.”
Andrew Weibrecht could have been excused for feeling like a yo-yo just in this calendar year. On Feb. 19, the 24-year-old had the best moment of his career to date with a bronze medal in super G in the 2010 Winter Games.
His previous best performance at the Olympic/World Cup level was his thriller ride in the 2007 Birds of Prey downhill. Wearing bib No. 52, Weibrecht ended up 10th here.
After the Olympic medal, Weibrecht was even feted with his own day in his home town of Lake Placid, N.Y. Then came a dose of harsh reality. In his return to the World Cup in Kvitifjell, Norway, less than three weeks after his medal, Weibrecht wiped out in training.
Then he blew out his right shoulder and left knee in the Kvitifjell downhill. End of season.
“It was a lot of learning experiences for me, a super high followed by a super low,” Weibrecht said. “I think it sort of helped me grow and made me appreciate what I have a lot more when my body’s super-healthy and I’m able to do what I am able to do.”
Even though the road back has been relatively short as far as physical rehabilitation can go in this sport, Weibrecht admits that he’s been impatient with the process.
“I couldn’t build back from zero all the way to 100,” he said. “It was a lot longer, my first [physical] test I’d had in my nine years with the ski team.”
Weibrecht said he was a little cautious last weekend in the first speed events of the season up in Lake Louise, Alberta. Like Nyman, he was a little uncertain that everything was OK again. But it was part of weekend that was not the opener for which the U.S. Team had hoped.
Miller was solid with eighth in the downhill and 12th in the super-G. Rookie Travis Ganong got into the points for the second time in his career. After that, it was a pretty forgettable weekend.
Sullivan fell into that category. He’s changing equipment, and that takes some time, especially with not much summer skiing available in Chile in New Zealand. But with three career podiums, including a win at Chamonix, France, in 2008 in downhill, he feels the entire team is ready to go this weekend.
“You put pressure on yourself because you want to do well in front of your friends and your family,” said Sullivan, who estimated that there will be 50 members of his fan club in green “Marco rocks” ski hats today. “If there’s one race we’re expected to do well, it’s this one.”
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