Sarah Hendrickson

Bill Marolt pivots to Tiger Shaw

When Bill Marolt took over 17 years ago as president and chief executive officer of what is now called the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Assn., he proclaimed its goal was to be the "best in the world." For sure, the United States had produced great skiers: Andrea Mead-Lawrence, Billy Kidd, the Mahre brothers, generations of the Cochran family, Bill Johnson, Tommy Moe, Picabo Street, the cross-country racer Billy Koch. Absolutely, unequivocally, the American union was blessed with mountains east and west, even north in Alaska.

When Marolt took over, however, his goal was audacious. The U.S. Ski Team had enjoyed limited international success for about a decade. Its cash situation was, to be gentle, precarious. "Best in the world"? Little wonder the Europeans -- who dominated the winter scene -- might have laughed. Heartily.

With Wednesday's announcement that Tiger Shaw is due to take over for Marolt after next February's Sochi Games, the time is now to give credit where credit is due.

US Ski Team Speed Center Grand Opening

The United States is now a Winter Games powerhouse. Why? Because of the U.S. Ski Team.

At the Vancouver 2010 Games, the U.S. team won the medals count, with 37. Again -- why? Because the U.S. Ski team won 21.

A little comparison, for those who might yet be stuck in the past, or can't -- or don't want to -- get past their feather boas:

It is absolutely true that in Vancouver Evan Lysacek won gold in men's figure skating. But in the ladies' individual skating competition, no American won a medal of any color. That marked the first time there was no medal in women's singles since 1964, underscoring -- despite the massive hype and drama television loves to play up -- the weakness in the U.S. skating program.

That has not changed. At the 2013 worlds, U.S. women managed to finish fifth and sixth.

Reality, geography, politics and power check:

The 2014 Games are, of course, in Russia, where Vladimir Putin is president. The costs for those Games are already north of $50 billion. Mr. Putin did not oversee the spending of that much money not to win important medals. In Russia, figure skating is important (recall the judging controversy at the 2002 Games). Outside of South Korea's Yuna Kim, who is ethereal, who thinks the Russians aren't going to run away with the figure-skating medals?

The corollary? That leaves the real action in Sochi in the mountains.

Which leads back to the U.S. Ski Team, which has been planning for Sochi since even before Vancouver.

For instance, in 2014 because of new events added in 2011 by the International Olympic Committee, there will be 48 medal opportunities in snowboarding and freeskiing, up from 24 in 2010.

In these so-called "action sport" events, U.S. athletes have been at or near the top of the world rankings over the past seasons.

Meanwhile, in alpine skiing, Ted Ligety won three golds at last year's world championships. And Bode Miller is only the greatest all-around male skier the United States has ever produced.

The U.S. women, to echo the slogan, are the world's best:  Mikaela Shiffrin, just 18, is the No. 1 slalom skier anywhere, Julia Mancuso one of the top big-event racers ever. Lindsey Vonn, the most successful female ski racer in American history, a four-time World Cup overall champion and the 2010 Vancouver downhill gold medalist, now has something to prove; she is making an ahead-of-schedule recovery from last February's knee injury, cleared for on-snow training and heading Friday for Chile, the ski team's other big announcement Wednesday. Vonn's original target to be back on skis: November.

In cross-country, Kikkan Randall and Jesse Diggins and, for that matter, the entire women's relay team are for-real contenders to win the first Olympic medals for the U.S. in the discipline since Koch in the 1970s. On the men's side, Andy Newell is in the hunt, too.

The Nordic combined team proved the breakout stars of the Vancouver Games. Billy Demong and Todd Lodwick figure to be back. And the Fletcher brothers, Taylor and Bryan, are killer fast on skis. Any sort of jumping and the skiing will take care of itself -- which the rest of the world knows full well.

Sarah Hendrickson won last year's women's ski jumping world championships -- though she suffered an injury to her right knee in a training jump last week in Europe.

Back to snowboarding: the U.S. roster is so good and so deep that Shaun White, the two-time halfpipe gold medalist, is going to have to compete, and hard, to defend his title.

These are just some of the faces and names that will be on TV come February.

As complicated as Bill Marolt's job is, it's also thoroughly elemental. It's USSA's job to put these athletes in position come next February to deliver peak performance.

The record shows that few, if any, sports organizations have been run as well as the U.S. Ski Team since 1996.

Indeed, few organizations anywhere are now run with the vision -- and the winning culture -- of the ski team.

Since 2009, USSA has been headquartered at the Center of Excellence in Park City, Utah, where staff, trainers, coaches and athletes across all the disciplines mingle in a building that is part office and part state-of-the-art training center -- the better to exchange stories, ideas, laughs, whatever. This is how a common culture is not only built but nurtured.

This fall will mark the third season of the Copper Mountain Speed Center in Colorado -- where racers can, early-season, train full-on downhill, with speeds of 80 mph and jumps of 50 to 70 meters.

For 16 of the last 17 years, USSA has recorded a balanced budget.

It has an endowment that now measures $60 million.

All of this is, in large measure, thanks to the leadership of Bill Marolt.

"I think if I've done one thing," Marolt said, "I brought focus and a sense of direction that ultimately everybody bought into. And out of that focus and direction, you can create that culture of excellence. Then -- you can create a lot.

"More than anything, I brought the sense of focus."


That is what Shaw inherits. This is his challenge and his opportunity.

An alpine skier himself who raced in the 1984 Sarajevo -- under then-men's coach Bill Marolt -- and 1988 Calgary Games, where he finished 12th in the giant slalom and 18th in the super-G, Shaw has since gone on to make himself into a successful businessman.

Shaw recently served as a senior director at Global Rescue LLC, responsible for business development and new markets. Before that he was director of inventory strategy at Dealertrack, overseeing a wide range of automotive retail sales issues.

Marolt will turn 70 in September. Shaw turned 52 last Saturday.

It's one more mark of Marolt's professionalism that there was a process to recruit, identity and put in place his successor. Shaw will become chief operating officer Oct. 1, then move into the top job next spring.

"I'm going to be involved right away in whatever Bill wants as he tutors me," Shaw said in a telephone interview, adding about Sochi and referring again to Marolt, "It's his show. The Olympics are his show. He built the institution to get the athletes to the podium, all that infrastructure.

"What I hope I learn in the time I spend under him is what has made him so successful. The primary goal of mine is to keep us No. 1 in the world, whatever it takes. What he is doing works. We want to emulate that, replicate that and -- improve on it."


Sarah Hendrickson's Italian fairy-tale victory

Sarah Hendrickson's victory Friday at the ski jumping world championships made for an emotional victory high in the Italian mountains that seemed like something even a Hollywood scriptwriter might not offer up for fear it would seem, well, not real. But it really happened.

Hendrickson is just 18. She out-jumped Japan's Sara Takanashi in a thrilling duel to win the 2013 worlds.

On the jumps in the narrow Italian valley where her coach grew up. The jumps the coach's father helped build. At the championships the coach's mother was so excited to have here -- except that she passed away, unexpectedly, just a couple weeks ago.

So Sarah went out and won the contest -- for herself, of course, and her mom, dad and brother, who were there watching, and the entire U.S. team, cheering her on, and of course, her coach, Paolo Bernardi, who as it happens is one of the world's nicest guys and, obviously, a first-rate coach.


Jessica Jerome of the United States finished sixth.

Five jumpers, including Jerome, hit jumps of 100 meters or longer, and what was abundantly plain Friday -- this could have been seen two years ago at the world championships in Oslo but for many got lost that day in the fog -- was that women's ski jumping doesn't have to prove anything to anyone any more.

It's just one more winter-sports discipline, with depth and talent. The big fight before the Vancouver Games over whether it belongs -- that's yesterday's news. Next February in Sochi, it will make its Olympic debut.

What that means is there are already better stories in women's ski jumping than the issue of ski jumping itself.

Among them: Sarah Hendrickson. Sara Takanashi. And Paolo Bernardi.

Hendrickson's victory makes for the second significant U.S. teen victory in just a few days at a winter world championship. Mikaela Shiffrin, 17, won the slalom title at the alpine world championships last week in Austria.

Sarah Hendrickson is from Park City, Utah. She grew up on the 2002 Olympic jumps there. She is the 2012 World Cup season champion.

Sara Takanashi is already the 2013 World Cup season winner; she clinched that title last weekend in Slovenia.

Bernardi is from Predazzo, Italy. That's the little spot where the ski jumping potion of the Nordic world championships is being held this week -- on the very ramps his dad literally helped construct.

Three years ago, at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, Bernardi was a ski tech for the U.S. Nordic combined team. What that means, in plain English, is that he waxed skis. That was his job.

It happened after Vancouver that he was hired to become the U.S. women's ski jumping coach. He has not only helped develop their ski jump talent, he has developed a culture within the team of trust and confidence.

Because Predazzo is home, Predazzo has become something of a second home for the U.S. team. They go there to train. They know the hill. They like the hill. At last year's World Cup, a two-day event, Hendrickson won both days -- and on the second jump on second day, she jumped way out there, 108 meters.

Last month, as the women's tour was in Japan, Bernardi's mother, Gina, passed away.

He left the tour and -- this is how it is -- some foreign-tour coaches stepped in to help the U.S. athletes. He rejoined the team at the stop in Ljubno, Slovenia.

Hendrickson consults with U.S. coach Paolo Bernardi at the 2013 ski jumping championships // photo courtesy Sarah Brunson and  U.S. Ski Team

Before her first jump Friday, even though she knew the hill well, Hendrickson would say afterward, "My heart was beating and everything was shaking."

Why? Probably because it was the worlds. And because Takanashi had whomped the field in Ljubno and that coming into the worlds she -- Hendrickson -- "definitely had doubts."

Then it all settled down and, on her first jump, she rocked it for 106 meters.

Takanashi jumped 104.5.

"The first jump is important for me mentally," Hendrickson said. "If I have a good first jump, I know I can have a good second jump. If I have a hard first jump, sometimes I mentally shut it down, so it was really important for me."

On their second jump, both went 103.  "I had to stay strong and do my jump regardless of what the results were after the first round," Hendrickson said.

With style points, Takanashi finished at 251.

Hendrickson -- 253.7.

Jacqueline Seifriedsberger of Austria took third, with 237.2.

"This is hometown for Paolo -- born and raised," Hendrickson said. "His dad built these ski jumps. I've had an amazing relationship for the past two years he's been coaching. To share this with him in his hometown is awesome. No words need to be exchanged. Just hugs and happiness."

"When we all went out to celebrate with Sarah, we were pretty much all crying." Jerome said. "I think that as a team we do really, really well together."

There's a traditional champagne toast in the U.S. team hotel after a gold medal. At the one late Friday, Paolo Bernardi took note of everything, his dad, his mom, the jumps, what Sarah Hendrickson had done, and then he said it was the most important day of his life.

And then he popped the champagne.

It happened, really, just like that.

Best in the world -- believe it

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.

But no.

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.

For real.

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."

Sarah Hendrickson's flying feat

There are those select few who willingly strap skis to their feet and throw themselves off jumps and into the air. They fly and they say it's the greatest feeling in the world. Until Saturday, there had never been a World Cup event at which those few sanctioned to do so had been female.

Now that event is history, and the books will forever say that the winner of the first World Cup ski jump -- on the same hill in Lillehammer, Norway, used by the men at the 1994 Winter Games -- was a 17-year-old American. Her name is Sarah Hendrickson. She didn't just win. She won big. She flew long and strong.

"There's nothing else you can ever imagine," she said afterward in a telephone interview. "There's nothing else in the world that can compare. There's not one time you don't have that wonderful feeling. You love the sport. And flying through the air is what you train for every day.

"When I jump, I forget about everything that's around me."

Sarah's first jump Saturday was 100.5 meters, seven-and-a-half meters longer than anyone else; her second was 95.5, again well out in front. She scored 277 points for the win. Coline Mattel of France took second with 247.7 points, Melanie Faisst of Germany third with 245.5

Nearly 50 jumpers from 15 nations competed Saturday; this first-ever women's jump World Cup tour includes 14 events at nine venues in seven countries. The women have been jumping on the lower-level Continental Cup for seven years. They are due to make their Olympic début at the 2014 Sochi Games.

It is way too soon to be forecasting Olympic prospects for Sarah, or for anyone else. Even so, her development is a classic study in exactly what American officials said would happen as a result of the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City.

She was born in Salt Lake and raised in Park City, 35 minutes up Interstate 80, where many of the alpine and the jumping events of those 2002 Games were held.

Sarah has been on skis since she was 2. Her older brother, Nick, who is now 20, is on the U.S. Nordic combined team. "Jump far lil sis!" he posted Saturday to his Twitter account.

In 2002, during the Salt Lake Games, the locals' access to what is now Utah Olympic Park in Park City was naturally closed down, Sarah remembers. There were some small hills at the Canyons Resort and, she said, "I started [jumping] because I saw my brother doing it."

She said, "You start out using your alpine skis. Gradually, you switch to jumping skis. I haven't stopped since."

In 2010, Sarah became the only American -- male or female -- to win a medal in a junior world ski jumping championship, winning bronze.

This week, it was clear Sarah was the strongest in the women's field. On Friday, she was first in both training rounds and had the longest jump of the day, 98 meters.

The issue Saturday, really, was whether she could hold it together mentally.

As it turned out -- no problem.

"Today she was unbeatable," the U.S. women's coach, Paolo Bernardi, said. "At the moment she looks like a dominator. She is mentally two, three steps ahead of everybody else. She is in the zone."

She's only 17. You'd never know it.

"At the U.S. team, we have been training for quite a few years now," Sarah said. "We train for competition. Once you get to the jumping level of training, you have to train like you're competing. Ski jumping is a huge, huge, huge mental game. That's a huge part of it.

"What helps me is just relaxing and always thinking that I have more opportunities to come. If a particular jump works out -- awesome. If one doesn't work out, ok, I have another opportunity."

This first World Cup opportunity, though, forever marks Sarah as something special. "It's a nice history what is going on: Sarah is the perfect player, the perfect actor, for the viewers at home," Bernardi said.

Sarah said of winning: "It's fun." She laughed. "For sure."