Alpine racing is a hard game. The snow is really ice, and it’s often ferociously cold and treacherous out there. The potential for injury is significant. There’s enormous pressure to produce, and if you don’t, you run the risk of having your sponsors tell you thanks but, you know, we’re moving on.
Marco Sullivan has been there and done that.
All of that.
It’s why finishing third, like he did Saturday in the World Cup downhill in Lake Louise, Canada, is all the sweeter.
“When I saw third place,” he said, “it was kind of surreal,” adding, “I don’t remember the next couple of minutes.”
Norway’s Aksel Lund Svindal won the race, in 1:48.31. It was his 17th World Cup victory.
Austria’s Max Franz, who had crossed first in Wednesday’s training run, took second, 64-hundredths behind, for his first World Cup podium finish.
Sullivan and Austria’s Klaus Kroell tied for third, just two-hundredths behind Franz.
Even the U.S. coach, Sasha Rearick, was, well, surprised.
“He’s got the right direction,” Rearick said of Sullivan, adding, “A bigger step than I expected today. But he has been doing the right things.”
Sullivan, who is from the Lake Tahoe area, is one of a number of good guys on the U.S. team. He skied in the 2002 and 2010 Olympics.
That said, he’s now 31 and has been one of the guys for 13 years now.
It was no lock he was going to make this season lucky 13.
Sullivan acknowledges now that his place on the team had seemed in “a little bit of jeopardy.”
He had, he said, been battling herniated discs in his back from a 2009 crash.
Two seasons ago, there was a nasty concussion.
This past spring — after two seasons with not even one finish in single digits — he got dropped by his sponsors.
The ski maker Atomic, though, saw enough to pick him up. That was step one in the comeback.
Step two was time off, and getting as healthy as possible: “It’s still there,” he said of his back troubles. “I have learned to deal with it a lot better. A lot of stretching. A lot of core exercises. Just, I guess, a little maturity as well.”
The summer brought a six-week block on skis in Chile. This fall: more training at the U.S. team’s Copper Mountain speed center.
Sullivan said he never really gave in to concern he might lose his spot on the team.
“If I was healthy and I was on the right equipment,” he said, “I still had the resolve and the drive to still be back on top. It was just a matter of working out the details.”
Before this weekend, Sullivan had three times over his career notched top-three tour finishes, all downhills. He won in Chamonix, France, in 2008. In Wengen, Switzerland, in 2009, he took third. And in Lake Louise, in 2007, he got second — his first World Cup podium.
This, then, was a course he knew well.
Running all week here from starting spot No. 42, he was 25th in training on Wednesday. Then 15th in the second training run, on Thursday.
Then, when it counted, third.
Just before it was Sullivan’s turn to ski Saturday, proceedings were put on hold for about 20 minutes; Italian racer Mattia Casse slid into the nets on the side of the course. He was taken to a local hospital with what was initially described as a shoulder injury.
“Marco did an unbelievable job of executing what he has been working on in his skiing, and the game plan, at the right time,” Rearick said.
“I came up to Lake Louise knowing I could do something good,” Sullivan said. “My goal today was top 10. And to exceed that — it’s awesome.”