U-S- ski team

U.S. Ski Team: on its game

There once was a time when the Europeans scoffed at the U.S. Ski Team. The Americans have the icy low hills back east and the amazing Rocky Mountains, Sierras and Cascades out west, and yet every winter the Americans would roll into the World Cup tour and maybe there would be the occasional breakthrough -- Phil and Steve Mahre in the 1980s, for instance -- but not the sort of consistent, across-the-board dimension that would make the Euros, the Austrians in particular, snap to and say, whoa, the Americans are so for real.

Ladies and gentlemen, that time is now.

Know, too, that the 2014 Sochi Olympics could well be the U.S. Ski Team's moment in the sun, testament to the culture behind its claim to be "best in the world."

Once, that notion seemed so audacious as to be absurd.

Now -- well, at the 2013 alpine world championships, which wrapped up Sunday in Schladming, Austria, the U.S. won more gold medals -- four -- than any other nation.

Ted Ligety won three gold medals, the super-G, super-combined and then his specialty, the giant slalom. Teen Mikaela Shiffrin won the slalom. Julia Mancuso, as ever a big-game racer, took bronze in the super-G.

Mikaela Shiffrin joins in at the closing ceremony of the 2013 world championships // photo courtesy Tom Kelly and U.S. Ski Team

The U.S. team's performance came even though Lindsey Vonn -- the Vancouver 2010 downhill winner and indisputably the best female skier the United States has ever produced, with four World Cup season titles and 59 World Cup wins -- tore a knee apart in the very first event, the super-G. She has vowed to be back for Sochi.

Further, Bode Miller -- before Ligety, no question the best American male skier of all time -- is taking the year off to give a knee time to heal. Nolan Kasper, who probably would have been a medal contender in the slalom, crashed in December and is out, too.

There are many, many reasons the U.S. team has risen to the top.

Among them: sponsor support; cutting-edge scientific and training methods; the opening of an early-season speed-racing training base in Copper Mountain, Colo.; a winter-time training base in Sölden, Austria, to reduce back-and-forth travel across the Atlantic; summer training in Portillo, Chile, and down under in New Zealand.

It all goes back, however, to culture -- the idea that the Americans not only can but should win and, moreover, that they're all in it together.

This is the notion behind the 85,000-square foot Center for Excellence, the ski team's headquarters in Park City, Utah, that doubles as world-class training center. It's not just the alpine team that works out there. The cross-country team, the freestylers, the Nordic combiners, the guys, the women, the teenagers, the athletes in their 20s and 30s -- everyone.

That was the idea when the place opened in 2009 -- it was where the U.S. Ski Team, all together and altogether, would work out. It's how culture happens.

Skiing is an individual sport. And yet the U.S. Ski Team has bridged the gap. It is, indeed, a team.

You see it now in small but utterly revealing ways.

After her divorce, Vonn found a welcoming home with the women on the U.S. team. There were hugs all around in a conference room in Lake Louise, Canada, when she said, simply, "I want to be your teammate," and from then on -- that's the way it has been.

Last month, the U.S. women were talking -- with admiration -- about Chip White, for 17 years a U.S. team coach, now in charge of the speed team (events such as the downhill).

"If we miss a day of skiing, he is so bummed," Leanne Smith said. "He is just sad and inconsolable and feels like it's his fault. He cares so much. He knows all of us at a personal level and wants to see us to what we are all capable of."

Vonn -- this was before her injury, obviously -- said, "He cut his finger off," with a table saw last fall, "and he was still out on the mountain. He had one hand all taped up and he was still carrying gates around and wrenching in gates and working just as hard as he always does, even though he was in excruciating pain."

Shiffrin and Vonn are now known to paint their fingernails together. Shiffrin is 17, Vonn 28. Vonn was one of Shiffrin's childhood heroes.

Ligety is also 28. It would be so easy for there to be a do-not-cross sign between the men's and women's teams, which travel all winter on different circuits. Instead, here was Shiffrin after her victory Saturday, underscoring the connection:

"Ted was so inspiring these world championships. It's really hard to have a good race every few days and that's what he's done. You get tired and you're trying to extend your mental capacity for an entire two weeks. He seems to have done it flawlessly."

The U.S. Ski Team is, of course, more -- way more -- than just the alpine team.

Even as the posters came down and the bags got packed in Schladming, consider what else was going on that was relegated to the back pages, if that, of America's newspapers -- the stuff that come next February will become front-page news at the Olympics:

At a test event in Sochi, American halfpipe freeskiers Torin Yater-Wallace and Gus Kenworthy went one-two. Seven of the 12 finalists: American.

Also in Sochi, Hannah Kearney -- the 2010 Vancouver champion -- won in moguls with Eliza Outtrim second; Heather McPhie took fourth on a tiebreaker. Six U.S. women made the round-of-16 semifinals. On the men's side, Patrick Deneen took second.

In Davos, Switzerland, at a cross-country World Cup sprint, the final tune-up before the Nordic world championships this week in Val di Fiemme, Italy, five Americans -- three women and two men -- qualified into the heats, with Andy Newell taking his best finish in three seasons, fourth in a classic sprint. He now stands second in the World Cup sprint standings. Kikkan Randall leads the women's sprint standings.

At another World Cup tune-up Sunday before the Nordic worlds, this one at Ljubno, Slovenia, American women ski jumpers finished third, fifth and seventh. Japan's Sara Takanashi won the event and clinched the World Cup title.

Does all this guarantee anything next February in Sochi? No.

Does it, however, mean things are headed in the right direction? For sure.

The U.S. Ski Team won 21 of 37 American medals in Vancouver. In 2010 there were 24 medal opportunities in snowboard and freeskiing; in Sochi, that number will be 48. It's easy to see: the action in Sochi figures to be up in the mountains.

"We had great success in Vancouver and we worked really hard to position ourselves to use that success and that platform to continue to push for another really successful Olympics," Bill Marolt, the president and chief executive officer since 1996 of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Assn., said in a telephone call from Sochi.

"The momentum we are seeing this year is going to be really motivating. The success will focus the athletes and the coaches and I think we'll get a really good effort next summer, with a lot of really good hard work. I think it will go up a notch from what we've done. We'll go in fully prepared, with no stones unturned, and see where we are where it's over."


The Lindsey Vonn concussion conundrum

Lindsey Vonn nailed down three World Cup season titles in what was, by any measure, a great weekend of skiing -- another chapter in her formidable career. Vonn, racing in Tarvisio, Italy, locked up the downhill, super-G and super-combined titles. She cut the lead her good friend Maria Riesch of Germany holds in the overall points race to 96 -- making it at least possible, if not probable, that Vonn could yet win that, too. Six races remain; the tour resumes Friday in the Czech Republic.

The Tarvisio weekend was capped by a 1-2-4 U.S. finish in the super-G -- Vonn, Julia Mancuso, Laurenne Ross -- and what makes it all the more compelling is that Vonn is back skiing, and obviously skiing well, after a Feb. 2 training crash in Austria that produced a nasty concussion.

Which raises this fascinating conundrum:

Is Lindsey Vonn one more hard fall on the head away from disaster?

Or is what Lindsey Vonn is doing now, with her brilliant skiing, the essence of championship performance?

Her will to compete, well documented after other crashes and spills, is ferocious. Isn't that what separates a champion -- a true champion -- from the rest of us? And isn't that, in large measure, why we watch sports -- to be inspired by the likes of Lindsey Vonn?

In simple terms: by seeing greatness? The rest of us, to reduce this to its basics, can only dream of flying down a mountain at 70 miles an hour.

But should she?

Where does the line get drawn -- and who gets to draw it?

Doctors? The U.S. Ski Team? The New York Times? Lindsey Vonn herself?

The concussion prompted Vonn to withdraw Feb. 14 from the back half of the two week-long world championships in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany.

She finished seventh in super-G, pulled out after the downhill portion of the super-combined and then, on Feb. 13, took silver in the downhill. At one point, she said she felt like she was "skiing in a fog."  After the downhill silver, the said she thought it best to rest.

That downhill came with considerable controversy. Some thought she shouldn't have skied at all.

The New York Times' Alan Schwarz may very well win a Pulitzer Prize -- if so, deservedly -- for all he has done to change the national conversation about the effects of concussions on football players and other athletes.

In an "analysis" headlined "Concussion Protocols Fail Vonn," a story that ran the day after the Garmisch downhill, Schwarz made it abundantly plain that one slip and Vonn could have become "her sport's Dale Earnhardt."

He said she and the U.S. Ski Team "appeared to hit the trifecta of concussion no-no's: they called the injury mild, blindly followed so-called concussion tests, then discounted clear signs that her injury remained."

At her first races back on the World Cup circuit, in late February in Sweden, Vonn told the Associated Press that what she called the "tabloid gossip" had gotten to her in Garmisch.

"No one was really listening to what I was saying, either. It was definitely a really hard time for me," she said. "Some people were saying that I shouldn't race because it's too dangerous, and some people were saying that I'm just making it up, that it's not even true. You know, it's like tabloid gossip."

The Times, meanwhile, hardly seems about to let the matter go. The U.S. Ski Team organized a conference call Monday with Vonn. Another first-rate Times reporter, Bill Pennington, who knows both skiing and Vonn, asked three questions -- two of which related to her mental health.

"Hindsight is 20/20," she said. "But I still think we made good decisions. I think we made decisions that were right at the time and I trust the decisions that we made. I got a lot of support from obviously my husband," Thomas, a former ski racer, "and the doctors and I think that is what has gotten me through it.

"But I really think the decisions we made were right. I am happy right now that's over and I can finally put that behind me and I'm looking forward to trying to compete in the next races."

"Not to harp on this," Pennington said, "but there were a lot of people, especially here in the States, that were concerned for you, that were worried you were taking unnecessary risk. What would your answer be to that?"

"I mean, well, I think we made the right decisions, like I said. I think it's really easy for someone to be an armchair quarterback. But I was there. My doctors were there. And we made decisions based on the facts that we had. And, like I said, I think they were the right decisions. So obviously people were concerned but, you know, I had great doctors, great people looking out for me -- we were always, always very careful."

Is "careful" enough?

To be obvious about it, there's nothing "careful" about alpine racing in the first instance. It involves managed risk.

All of life, for that matter, involves managed risk.

As a practical matter, perhaps the U.S. Ski Team ought to re-visit its protocols to ensure they are state-of-the-art.  Too, it ought to seek to join in what the NFL is learning about concussion research and helmet safety.

As for Lindsey Vonn: If the protocols are medically appropriate, and she passes them, and she wants to ski, she should ski. Flat-out. Life is for living.

And if, by the way, Lindsey Vonn somehow manages over the final six races of the 2011 World Cup circuit to overtake Riesch, it would make for an astonishing comeback.

"If I were to win the overall title, it would be the most rewarding, I think, of my career," she said Monday on that same conference call.

It would, indeed, be incredible. Then again, she is an incredible athlete -- the best alpine racer  the United States has ever produced.



U.S. ski team on the rise

If only skiing were like the NFL in these United States, Lindsey Vonn and Ted Ligety would be famous like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. A ski fan can dream.

A weekend like the one the U.S. ski and snowboard team enjoyed this third weekend of December underscores the enormous American talent now on display on mountains all over the world -- a thing that over the years could not always be said about the Americans.

Individual talent, yes. Consistent talent, no. Now, though, there's consistency, and consistency is the hallmark of any great program.

In this post-Olympic season, the weekend showing also highlights the enormous backstage commitment, continuity, purpose and leadership it takes to get the athletes in position to deliver their best -- the systems that include trainers, technicians, coaches and, at the top, longtime U.S. Ski and Snowboard Assn. boss Bill Marolt.

Click here to read the rest of the story at TeamUSA.org.