U.S. team still work in progress

12/7/2009 - Olympic Sports

BEAVER CREEK, Colo. -- As competitors and fans alike rushed from Beaver Creek to beat a snowstorm following the completion of the Birds of Prey event, reigning World Cup champion Aksel Lund Svindal sat patiently in an interview room answering questions about the weekend's races. The Norwegian talked about his two third-place finishes, the three impressive victories by Switzerland's young Carlo Janka and then gave a rundown of the U.S. ski team.

Svindal praised Ted Ligety ("Definitely one of the best GS skiers in the world"), wondered how well Bode Miller will fare in his return ("I feel like he's an amazing athlete, but I'm not really sure what you're going to see because he hasn't been skiing that much") and complimented Andrew Weibrecht on his rising success ("Everyone used to look at him as a crazy skier. He would just go for it until either he was faster or exploded"). At one point, Svindal paused and asked whether a rundown of the entire U.S. team was required.

Umm, no, but what do you think of America's overall depth?

"To be honest," Svindal said pleasantly, "my attention has been on the Swiss team because they performed a whole lot better than the American team, so I apologize for not really noticing everyone."

No apology necessary. Heck, most Americans notice the U.S. ski team only during the Olympics, judging the team on its results over those 14 days rather than its World Cup performances over the previous 1,446. After all, we can concentrate on only so much between scoring our fantasy football and basketball teams, filling out our NCAA tournament brackets and holding our rotisserie baseball draft.

Speaking of which, how many American skiers should we draft on our fantasy Olympic team?

The obvious first pick for your alpine team should be Lindsey Vonn, the two-time women's World Cup champ who won twice at Lake Louise, Alberta, (and missed a third victory by hundredths of a second) over the weekend. As for the men, the consensus is this is one of their deepest teams.

The men, however, failed to reach the podium in their only home race of the season at Birds of Prey. On the other hand, they had two fourth places -- Miller in the downhill and Ligety in the giant slalom -- and skied away healthy Sunday unlike the previous weekend in Alberta, where T.J. Lanning suffered season-ending knee and neck injuries.

"We're off to a reasonably good start and we know where we are," said Bill Marolt, president of the U.S. ski team. "We can build on where we are and I think we'll get better. We've got a good blend of experience and youth."

The experience is provided most noticeably by Miller, perhaps the best skier in U.S. history. He won the World Cup overall title in 2005 and 2008, but Americans, of course, probably remember him most for his race flops and late-night carousing at the 2006 Torino Olympics. Long at odds with the U.S. team, Miller left the squad to race independently in 2007. He cut his season short last season and decided to return to competitive skiing and the American team only at the end of September.

"It's just different now. It's always different," Miller said when asked how this year compared with the run-up to Torino. "Every season you have different feelings and different situations. But right now, the racing been fun, the training's been great and the team is good, so everything is positive."

"He came back with the idea that he wanted to do a great job this winter all the way through," Marolt said. "We've looked ahead and he's looked ahead. The opportunity for him is good and he's going to take advantage of it."

Asked whether Miller has changed, Marolt replied, "He's always been ... he's ... like I said, we're going to look ahead."

In other words, no more "60 Minutes" interviews, please.

Miller provided a vintage, exhilarating Bode run with his fourth-place finish in the downhill Saturday, but he still needs to regain leg strength from his long time off.

"The best guys in the world want to stay within 95 percent of peak fitness," U.S. ski coach Sasha Rearick said. "When you take that much time off, you're going to be down from that. Since he came back in October, he's busted it hard, but it takes time. It takes time for the physiological things to happen, it takes time for the neurological timing to get back, time to get the strength back. You can't get it back in two months. It's impossible. Bode's worked hard and put the time in. But it's going to take some time."

Miller was one of three Americans in the top 15 of Saturday's downhill -- Weibrecht was 11th and Marco Sullivan was 15th -- which was better than the Austrian performance. It wasn't a fluke. Five Americans (Miller, Lanning, Sullivan, Steven Nyman and Erik Fisher) finished in the top 10 at the World Cup stop in Val Gardena last season, while Scott Macartney and Weibrecht finished in the top 15.

The technical events didn't go as well for the Americans at Birds of Prey. Miller and Tim Jitloff had trouble with their goggles in the heavy snow that fell during the first GS run Sunday and only Ligety and Jake Zamansky advanced to the final run. Ligety lost a chance at his second podium finish this year (he was second at Soelden) when his ski almost went out from under him near the bottom of the course. He recovered, but finished behind Svindal.

"The depth is good, it's there," said Zamansky, who finished 25th. "We're just struggling a little bit on race day, especially the tech team to get us all down on the second run. I know we're capable of it."

The U.S. teams head over to Europe this week, where it will compete for podium positions -- and for space amid the tire ads on page 7 of American sports sections -- over the next two months before returning to this continent, and our attention span, for the Vancouver Olympics in February.

"I think we have a lot of improvement to do in Europe," Ligety said. "We've had a slow start to the season. There's easy improvement from here."

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His Web site is at jimcaple.net.