Sullivan takes over reigns of U.S. downhill team |

Sullivan takes over reigns of U.S. downhill team

Andrew Dampf
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado
USA's Marco Sullivan clears a gate during a downhill training run at the Men's Alpine Ski World Cup in Wengen, Switzerland, Thursday, Jan. 15, 2009. (AP Photo/Marco Trovati)

BORMIO, Italy ” Marco Sullivan doesn’t have Bode Miller’s flare or affinity for drama. It’s his newfound leadership of the U.S. Ski Team’s downhill squad that sets him apart.

When Miller decided to break away from the team and race independently, Sullivan became the de facto captain. While Sullivan may not have been prepared for the role, teammates and coaches say he more than stepped up to the call.

His skiing did, too.

Sullivan posted his first World Cup victory last season and finished fourth in the downhill standings, trailing only Didier Cuche, Miller and Michael Walchhofer ” three of the best downhillers of the last decade.

This season, Sullivan has improved in super-G with two fifth-place finishes, and he placed fourth in the Val Gardena downhill last month.

“Marco has always been kind of the young guy on the team, then as Bode and Daron (Rahlves) have left the team, he’s stepped up as the leader,” said Sasha Rearick, head coach of the U.S. men’s team. “He wants to help the younger guys. It’s a great character he has.

“It’s something that’s maybe not natural to him, but he realizes it’s his turn to step up and be that guy. He does it on competition, but he also does it in the summer for training.”

Sullivan was the guy who lost out in a last-minute ski off to determine the fourth member of the U.S. downhill team at the Turin Olympics. He’ll be looking to straighten out the record at the Vancouver Games little more than a year from now.

Not many downhillers on the World Cup circuit have run the Vancouver downhill course at Whistler, but Sullivan won a Nor-Am downhill and super-G there in 2001.

“I feel like it suits me,” he said in a recent interview.

Sullivan is a straight-shooting, rust-haired skiing fanatic from Tahoe City, Calif. When he’s not hurling himself down World Cup courses at 80 mph, he’s out seeking fresh powder.

“He’s just a good, normal dude. It’s nothing special, but that’s also rare to come across,” said teammate Steven Nyman. “He’s just a good, normal guy. Cool-headed, mountain man. I dig the guy.”

After last season, Sullivan spent a few weeks in Alaska, where he won the Arctic Man Ski and Sno-Go classic ” a race that combines skiing and snowmobiling ” and shot scenes for the legendary ski film director Warren Miller. The film crew based itself on a boat with a helipad in the Prince William Sound and traveled by helicopter for the shoot.

“I’m a skier at heart, and I make my living skiing,” he said. “I’m one of those guys who’s going to find snow somewhere if he’s got free time. I’m not going to go to Hawaii.”

At 28, Sullivan isn’t the senior member of the team, but as a nine-year veteran he has earned teammates’ respect.

“He’s not much older than me, but I looked up to him growing up,” Nyman said. “He’s kind of taking the role of the captain. He’s a good motivator. He’s strong in his head and he’s motivated himself.”

“Sully” was a bronze medalist in slalom at the junior World Championships in 2000, then won the 2001 Nor-Am overall, downhill and super-G championships and finished ninth in the downhill at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.

Then injury struck.

Sullivan dislocated his right knee and tore every major knee ligament in a crash in Beaver Creek, Colo., in Dec. 2003. Not completely healed, he tore his right ACL again in a training crash in France in Oct. 2004.

The result was nearly two complete seasons away from racing.

“That was a big hiccup in my career. I was right where I wanted to be. I was 22 years old, had been top 10 in the World Cup, was on a really good path, and that set me back huge,” he said.

Sullivan spent his time recuperating back home in Northern California tuning skis and driving a snowcat during the night shift at Homewood Mountain Resort.

He had been injured before. During his senior year at North Tahoe High School, Sullivan was co-captain of the football team and played the entire season with a hernia. A tight end, Sullivan blocked for his best friend and co-captain Mike Prado, the squad’s star running back.

Prado is now in the Navy and stationed in Stuttgart, Germany. He came down to the Italian Alps to watch Sullivan’s final race of 2008 in Bormio ” the most physically demanding downhill on the circuit. Sullivan finished 11th, his best career result on the Stelvio course.

“He’s exactly what you see,” said Prado, who wore the official green pompom hat of Sullivan’s fan club, bearing the words ‘Marco Rocks.’ “He’s very personable, always outgoing, very social with everyone. When he does get home, he’ll go to Squaw (Valley) and help out with the little kids.”

When Sullivan won his first World Cup race in Chamonix, France, in the famed Kandahar downhill last January, his first call was to injured teammate Scott Macartney of Kirkland, Wash.

Macartney had crashed head first in Kitzbuehel, Austria, a week earlier and it was 3 a.m. on the west coast when the phone rang.

“Marco and I have been teammates a long time, and we’ve been on the same equipment a long time, too ” Salomon before Nordica. That’s gone really smoothly for two guys on the same product,” said Macartney, who has returned this season. “You would think there would be a battle for fast skis, but we really share information. The whole team is really tight right now.”

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