Marco Sullivan

Bode goes 'epic' in last training run


KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Bode Miller’s first thought in the start house Saturday was that he was going to take it easy on this, the final day of training before Sunday’s Olympic downhill. Then, being Bode, he thought, what the hell. He had an opportunity to express himself in the manner of a great artist at the top of his work.

Which is what he is, as we should all recognize.

Or, as Bode put it later, “It’s a pleasure for me to ski on this track. I would be angry with myself if I had wasted this opportunity to properly run on this track. It tests your ability to the maximum.”

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Bode and the first run -- all good


KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — An Olympic downhill comes along once every four years. It is meant in every way to be a demanding test, physically and, equally, mentally. The men’s downhill course here runs just over two miles, the women’s just under.

Bode Miller meets the press after Thursday's downhill training at Rosa Khutor

When they first encountered the setup here two years ago, Bode Miller was saying here Thursday, “that year it was our most challenging downhill,” and keep in mind the World Cup tour hits all the famous mountains you might want to name in the world.

After winning the first of three scheduled training runs in 2: 07.75, Miller said, “I would say this year it’s equal.”

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Marco Sullivan's "awesome" podium finish

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."

Marco Sullivan ready to run downhill

If you're a downhiller, and Marco Sullivan is a world-class downhiller, you live for races like the one this Friday, the screaming Birds of Prey World Cup stop in Beaver Creek, Colo. It's the premier men's downhill race each year in the United States.

And, this year, it carries a little extra meaning for Marco -- a little something extra to show he's back.

Last year, he was rolling along when a freaky training crash in Bormio, Italy, just after Christmas left him with a nasty concussion -- and, also, a little work to be done on his right knee.

The knee -- not so bad.

The concussion -- bad.

The actual symptoms, he said, lasted about two weeks, the throbbing, the dull headaches, the sensitivity to light.

After those two weeks, he said, he thought he was ready to go.

The doctors hooked him up to machines that measured his reaction times to memory tests -- shapes, numbers and so on.

He definitely was not ready to go.

For a guy like Marco, who grew up in Squaw Valley, Calif., who was on skis at 3, who was racing by 7, this was not good.

As easy-going as he is -- this was definitely not good.

Ultimately, it would take a solid two months until Marco would be cleared to ski.

He "fore-ran" the course -- that's ski-talk for coming down the mountain first -- at the U.S. Nationals, in the late spring. Then he got back with the U.S. team and moved on to training camps in Mammoth Mountain, Calif., in May.

Even then, though, he was skiing "tentatively," adding, "I don't know if it was because of the head injury or if it was because of how long I had been off skis. I wasn't myself."

In September, as is traditional, the American team went down to Chile, in search of Southern Hemisphere snow. It was there -- nearly nine long months after the concussion -- that Marco felt himself again.

"I felt like I could charge without any reservations," he said. "I was charging and skiing well. I knew I was going to be a competitor again."

Last weekend, in Lake Louise, Alberta, up in Canada, Marco got back in the World Cup points, finishing 24th in the downhill, 17th in the super-G.

As if Marco needs yet more motivation at Birds of Prey -- it was here in 2004, during a training run, that he wiped out and tore an ACL. That injury more or less cost him two seasons.

This is his 12th year on the U.S. Ski Team. He has pretty much seen it all.

"I'm feeling  strong," he said. "The equipment's good."

He added, "As you get older, you take more pleasure in seeing your teammates do well. Of course you're still in it to win. It used to be, though that when my teammates won, I was [mad]. Now it's like I'm stoked for the younger guys to ski fast. I want to see our whole team succeed and I'm trying to be a big part of that. We do have a strong team this year. It should be exciting."

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."