Three weeks ago, in Sochi, Russia, Bode Miller, America's best male Alpine skier, smashed his left knee coming off one of the jumps on what will be the Olympic course at the 2014 Winter Games. He tried to ski through the pain the next weekend at the World Cup stop in Bansko, Bulgaria. But it wasn't good. So Miller flew back to the United States, to have the knee scoped at a clinic in Vail, Colo.
If you know Miller and his ways, you know he could well have called off his season right then and there.
From the get-go, Miller had purchased a round-trip ticket. He was always intending to go back to Europe, back to the next stop, in Crans Montana, Switzerland -- underscoring the incredible culture that is at the core of everything the U.S. Ski Team does, manifested in its motto, "best in the world."
That slogan was so easy to make fun of when the Americans were anything but. But look now, and understand the success that is across the board, from alpine to cross-country to snowboard to freestyle to ski jumping and Nordic combined, and these are just a few of the many examples:
Lindsey Vonn on Sunday won a super-G at Bansko, her 10th World Cup victory this season, 51st lifetime. The 18th super-G win of her career, she is now the World Cup leader in the discipline. Vonn is way ahead in the World Cup overall points race for the 2012 season.
Cross-country skier Kikkan Randall leads the World Cup sprint standings.
The incomparable Shaun White is, plainly put, the best snowboarder on Planet Earth. Kelly Clark has 15 straight halfpipe wins.
Moguls artist Hannah Kearney won 16 straight World Cup races.
Sarah Hendrickson has six World Cup ski jumping victories.
Tom Wallisch has won every slopestyle contest this season but one.
For every Vonn, by the way, there are many, many others. The Americans have depth.
The U.S. women's alpine team, for instance, currently leads every other country in the world in the downhill standings, including the vaunted Austrians and Swiss. Racing in Sochi earlier this month, for instance, four of six American starters made the top-10: Vonn, Julia Mancuso, Stacey Cook and Alice McKennis. And Laurenne Ross was 18th, Leanne Smith 26th.
Someone ought to do a Harvard Business School case study about the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Assn.
There are huge corporations that could learn a lot from the U.S. Ski Team. Business-wise. Culture-wise. Success-wise.
All those things are intertwined.
When Bill Marolt took over, USSA had revenues of $8.14 million. That was for the fiscal year ending April 1996.
The fiscal year ending April 2012? Revenues will total $24.75 million.
At the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, the U.S. team won 37 medals, best in the world. The U.S. Ski Team accounted for 21 of those 37 medals.
Miller won three in Vancouver, including gold in the super-combined; Vonn won two, including downhill gold. The breakout story of the 2010 Games: the four medals won by the American Nordic combined team, testament to 14 years of consistent funding, improved coaching and training.
Marolt, USSA's president and chief executive officer, stayed the course with the Nordic combined program.
He also, over his tenure, has directed initiatives that produced the Center of Excellence, the Park City, Utah, facility that opened in May, 2009, that serves as USSA's all-in-one training center and headquarters; the Speed Center at Copper Mountain, Colo., which gives alpine racers early-season training; an ongoing partnership with 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic venues that includes, among other things, roller ski train development at Soldier Hollow; and an overall organizational focus on what's called "sport science," everything from cutting-edge advances to simple stuff like making sure American athletes drink enough water on airplane trips.
Staying hydrated on those long-haul flights, U.S. sport scientists have found, makes a huge difference in keeping the athletes healthy so they can actually make use of those training days when it's winter Down Under but summer in the Northern Hemisphere.
A new initiative: combining sports and school in an academy. If you are, for instance, Mikaela Shiffrin, and you are turning 17 in two weeks, and you have already made a World Cup podium (Dec. 29, bronze, Lienz, Austria, slalom) but you might have designs on college and beyond -- why should you or your parents be put to that either-or?
"We want to send that message to parents," Marolt said. "This is a big commitment, a big family commitment of time and resources. They're thinking, 'If my child gets to the point where they could be an Olympic great, I'm going to have to make a choice: academics or athletics.' We don't want them to have to make that choice. They can be both."
Marolt, along with Luke Bodensteiner, USSA's executive vice president for athletics, are big believers in the vision thing and in the concept of culture driving the mission. Both, it should be noted, are former Olympic athletes -- Marolt in alpine skiing in 1964, Bodensteiner in cross-country in 1992 and 1994.
"We started with the idea of 'best in the world,' and … they thought I was nuts," Marolt said. "But you can't change it unless you put it out there. And we have done that."
Bodensteiner said the brilliance of "best in the world" is that it is one, "super-aspirational," and, two, easy to understand and translate.
He explained: "When Bill came on and said, 'We are the best in the world, or aspiring to be the best in the world,' he has never wavered from that. That is a very visible pronunciation. That goes all the way down to the deepest levels possible, down to a race in a tiny mountain somewhere. It's a simple concept but also so powerful and people feel good about being brought in.
"Part of the evolution of that statement -- and it has been interpreted so many different ways, us saying we are the best when we were not but it is something that a lot of people have aspired to -- is that it has been a filter for every decision we have made for the last 16 years: Is this going to make us better or not?"
Bode Miller, as things turned out, ultimately did have to call off the rest of his season. He got to Crans Montana and the knee just didn't hold up. But it wasn't for lack of trying. Or buy-in.
"I'm still having fun and as long as skiing is enjoyable, I'm going to continue to do it," Miller said in a statement issued by the U.S. Ski Team.
Marolt, in an interview before Miller's season would come to a close, said, "One of our strengths is the idea that we tried to create a team. Not just an athletic team but an entire organizational team where everybody buys in, everybody understands what it is you try to do. Everybody multitasks and does more than is required.
"That is what makes us so good, everybody pulling on the rope at the same time and in the same direction. That is a hard one. It is difficult to achieve, because of the personalities and the profiles of every individual, from the chairman of the board to the person answering the phone in the lobby. But it's a good team, and the team is our strength."