The U.S. Ski Team once dominated Birds of Prey — can they do it again?
Special to the Vail Daily
The development of the Birds of Prey course at Beaver Creek over 20 years ago brought out the best in many racers — including and especially a trio of Americans with the surnames Miller, Rahlves and Ligety. Collectively, the three have 11 wins on a course known to test a racer’s limits.
Daron Rahlves, the oldest of the three, was the first to reach the podium at Birds of Prey, finishing second in the 2002 downhill. Marco Sullivan (sixth) and Bode Miller (eighth) were also in strong form that day — the first time three Americans finished in the top 10 of a World Cup downhill since 1972. Rahlves was 29 at the time, and though he had only been on a World Cup downhill podium three times to that point in his career, two of those trips were to the top step in back-to-back wins at Kvitfjell, Norway, at the end of the 1999-2000 season. Feisty and determined — and at 5-foot-8, 185 pounds, more compact than his rivals — he was also the surprise winner of the super-G at the 2001 World Championships in St. Anton, Austria, upsetting the favored Austrians Stephan Eberharter and Hermann Maier on their home snow. Six weeks after his Beaver Creek performance, Rahlves became the first American to win the fabled Kitzbühel downhill in 44 years.
American ski racing history had a bright, new chapter to explore.
In 2003, Rahlves would score the first of his two Birds of Prey downhill wins in a race moved to Beaver Creek from Val d’Isere, France. Home snow, often described as grippy, suited Rahlves just fine, as it did for Miller, who first gained attention in 2002 when he won two silver medals (combined and giant slalom) at the Salt Lake Olympics. In 2004, Miller, then 27, made his first appearance on a Birds of Prey podium, finishing second in the super-G that opened the weekend of racing.
Miller and Rahlves often talked about pushing each other to be the better racer in addition to their own internal motivations for success. It’s a familiar scene across sports — what would Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic be without each other to challenge them? They also both liked the challenge of the Birds of Prey course, considered among the most difficult on the World Cup circuit.
“You want to be getting in the gate and everybody to think: We’ve got to watch,” Rahlves said later in his career about his approach to racing. “I love putting down exciting runs that get people going, ‘Whoa.’ That shock factor, blow people out of their mind with the stuff you pull off. You want to be pushing the limits, taking risks and tapping into your total limit.”
To the crowd’s delight, Miller and Rahlves were one-two in the 2004 Birds of Prey downhill, one of five times they finished in the top two spots in their careers — with the added twist of a tie for first at Lenzerheide, Switzerland, later that season. Miller’s victory was part of a 16-day dominance that saw him win in all four available events — slalom, GS, downhill and super-G — at the time only the second racer along with Marc Girardelli to achieve the feat in a single season.
“If you’re happy with what you’re doing, records don’t mean much,” said Miller, always one to speak his mind. “I think it’s just fun to ski four events.”
In 2005, Rahlves got the top spot over Miller in the Birds of Prey downhill.
“I charged from the minute I left the gate all the way to the finish,” he said. “Everything came out and that’s what I’m most proud of, just skiing with my full heart, soul and every ounce of power and determination I could muster up.”
The following day Miller led the one-two charge in the giant slalom. Erik Schlopy, who whacked his left hand on a gate hard enough to break it in the first run, was an agonizing one one-hundredth off the podium in fourth, prompting third-place finisher Kalle Palander (Finland) to quip he felt like he was at an American championship race. On the event’s final day of racing, 21-year-old Ted Ligety would take his first step onto a World Cup podium with a third in the slalom, and wrap up a highly successful weekend in which Americans took five of 12 podium spots.
THE SHRED BEGINS
Ligety’s first GS result at Birds of Prey, in 2005, belied his future success — a DNF in the first run. A year later, with one World Cup win under his belt, he claimed his first podium at Beaver Creek, and has been outside the top 10 only once in 13 races — a first run DNF in 2015. In the intervening 10 years, Ligety earned the “Mr. GS” moniker in part due to his mastery of the Birds of Prey course: five World Cup victories in six attempts, including four successive wins between 2011-2014. A fifth consecutive triumph came at the 2015 World Championships before a raucous crowd. “Any time you get a win in the U.S., it’s awesome,” said Ligety at one point during his streak.
“I mean, Ted, he should ski two or three gates more than the other skiers,” said Marchel Hirscher after losing to Ligety by 1.76 seconds in 2012, a comment that drew a laugh from the assembled media. Said Ligety at the time: “I’m skiing fast. I don’t know if I’m skiing at a different level. I think a lot of other guys have made mistakes. It’s tough to say exactly what it is, but I feel like I’m skiing well.”
Now focusing solely on giant slalom, Ligety would love to recapture the magic that produced three successive GS World Championships (2011, 2013, 2015) as well as three golds in a single championship (2013 at Schladming, Austria, in GS, combined and super-G); an Olympic gold (2014); 17 wins out of 31 races across four seasons, and five career GS discipline titles.
Injuries and Hirscher — who redefined the sport Ligety himself had redefined — took their toll in recent years, but Ligety is again ready to charge. Hirscher is now retired from ski racing, and yet a field of challengers is lined up to try and fill Hirscher’s spot and dethrone Ligety, who has been the undisputed top GS competitor of Birds of Prey over the past 10 years.
It has fans asking: Could history repeat itself?
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There might be part of Hailey Swirbul that is finally beginning to believe she belongs. The 22-year-old cross-country skier is coming off quite a stretch with the U.S. ski team, one that includes her first career World Cup podium and a successful go in the notorious Tour de Ski stage race.