The need for speed

The U.S. Ski Team's speed-training venue, which opens Tuesday at Copper Mountain, Colo., is a one-of-a-kind in the world and underscores the big-picture thinking that has driven the American program's relentless drive to become, truly, best in the world. Once, the Europeans snickered at the notion that the American team could be the best.

No longer -- not with the likes of Lindsey Vonn, Ted Ligety, Bode Miller and Julia Mancuso leading the way.

All, of course, are first-rate athletes.

"I get the kicks out of this job when I see our athletes do well," said Bill Marolt, president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Assn since 1996. "That's what motivates me."

Marolt is a first-rate executive. He, and his vision, are a big reason why the U.S. Ski Team -- in all its iterations, alpine, freestyle, cross-country, Nordic combined, snowboard -- have been good at doing something that eludes so many others: developing success.

That's why the opening of the Copper Mountain Speed Center is such a jolt.

It's in keeping with other big Marolt ideas.

Like -- the Center of Excellence, the USSA's three-story, 85,000-square foot headquarters building, which opened in 2009 just east of Park City, Utah. It features state-of-the-art training and sports science facilities.

Like -- the agreement the alpine team announced last month that names the Austrian resorts of Soelden and Obergurgl-Hochgurgl, about an hour from Innsbruck, a U.S. Ski Team partner. The three-year deal names the resort the official European training base for the U.S. men's alpine team through 2014.

That is a big deal psychologically. The Americans are basically setting up camp, and in Austria no less -- where alpine skiing rules in the winter.

Even without all of that, it's a huge gain logistically. Instead of flying back to the States for training or R&R, the idea is -- just pop over to Soelden.

"This is my 12th year on the team," said downhill specialist Marco Sullivan. Because of the Soelden option, "This is the first year I'm going to stay in Europe the entire winter."

Marolt said, "We have really worked hard in vesting in and improving what I'm calling infrastructure. Soelden represents part of that. And Copper Mountain becomes part of what becomes the real foundation for this organization, both in the short and in the long term, for our elite athletes now and our developmental athletes down the road."

The Copper Mountain facility addresses the early-season need for speed. It's a 1.7-mile run and fully netted for safety reasons, just like a World Cup run. Starting next year, it's due to be open Nov. 1.

The U.S. team typically spends summers training in Chile and New Zealand. If snow conditions in those locales are good, then Copper Mountain "becomes frosting on the cake," Marolt said. If the summer season isn't so good, then Copper offers the U.S. team "unbelievable training and world-class snow," with 87 new automatic snowmakers.

A project like this takes time (all in, about 10 years) and money ($4.5 million, all privately raised, money that won't affect USSA's annual budget). Marolt said. "This is a facility that at the end of the day -- it's a game-changer."

Leanne Smith, in her fifth year on the U.S. team, said, "As racers, you want to get great at your craft. It's lap after lap after lap. This new hill is awesome.

"I'm looking out my window at it right now. We are extremely fortunate to have it. You know," she said, "no one else in the world has it."