Future of American men's skiing goes beyond Bode
The departure of Bode Miller, the team's most successful skier, and longtime speed star Daron Rahlves, thrust others like Ted Ligety, Steve Nyman and Marco Sullivan into lead-the-team roles, pushing them onto the podium.
Starting Thursday in Bormio, Italy, the spotlight will be on Miller again as he closes in on the World Cup overall title in the season's final races. Miller, who left the team in the offseason to ski self-funded, leads Didier Cuche in the overall standings by 169 points and Benjamin Raich, third in the standings, by 269 points.
Races in all four disciplines -- downhill, super-G, slalom and giant slalom -- were scheduled, but Wednesday's downhill was canceled after warm weather and soft snow scrubbed required training runs. That hurts Miller, who was expected to pad his lead on Cuche in the event. (Miller swept the downhill and super-G at Bormio in 2005.) Cuche, meanwhile, locked up the season's downhill title, while Sullivan finished fourth.
Still, the 30-year-old Miller is in the driver's seat. But he's not the only American who may exit the weekend with a crystal globe, the World Cup trophy given to season champions. Going into the final week of racing, Ligety moved into the lead for the World Cup giant slalom title after winning last weekend's race in Slovenia.
Even though he's no longer a teammate, Miller's fellow Americans are rooting for him to win the overall.
"You need a guy like that to bring attention to the sport," Ligety said.
Skiing for the U.S. team in 2005, Miller won the crown for the first time since Phil Mahre in 1983. No hard feelings.
"We're not haters," Nyman said. "Fellow countryman, for sure. It'd be a cool story to do it on his own, kind of like [Marc] Girardelli. It would be pretty sweet to have him maintain that leading status ... I think he's got it. It's solid. He's got it in his head. He's mentally prepared. We'll see. You never really know."
But this time, U.S. team members have their own successes to celebrate. In every World Cup downhill this season, an American made the podium. Besides Miller (five), Sullivan (two), Nyman (one) and Scott Macartney (one) have had top-three finishes this season.
"Our group has stepped up," said Sullivan, who missed almost two years with knee injuries and surgeries after a 2003 crash in downhill training. "Bode's gone, Daron Rahlves is gone. Guys who we relied on in the past to be on the podium every week are gone. Now it's like, all right, we're the leaders, we better make this happen. We just have a really strong core group. We're all friends; the coaches are great. We're all working toward a common goal: trying to win races. It all just kind of clicked this year."
On the women's side, Lindsey Vonn could clinch the overall title this weekend and Julia Mancuso has a chance to land in the top three. If Vonn and Miller sweep the titles, they'll duplicate the 1983 feat of Mahre and fellow U.S. skier Tamara McKinney.
"We always watch them on TV," Vonn said of the U.S. men. "It's fun to see them doing well. It's awesome."
While Vonn and Mancuso are the lone stars of the women's team, their rivalry underscores what the Bode-less men have -- some depth.
With the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver looming, the team hopes to finally have its timing right after falling short of expectations in the past two Games.
After a disastrous 2006 Olympic experience, Miller has said he will not compete in 2010. But there are almost two years left for him to change his mind.
"He said he wouldn't, but his word means nothing," Nyman said with a laugh.
At the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, Miller's two silvers were the only alpine medals the United States took home. Four years later, things weren't much better. In the buildup to the 2006 Games in Torino, Italy, officials set a goal of "Best in the World" and talked about winning eight medals. But only surprise golds by Ligety (combined) and Mancuso (giant slalom) kept the Games from being a complete embarrassment for the U.S. alpine team. Miller not only wound up without any medals, but he also left with a battered reputation after his cringe-worthy performance off the slopes and his unapologetic "I got to party and socialize at an Olympic level" comment.
This year gives reason to hope the team can live up to its own expectations in 2010. Sullivan and Macartney experienced long-awaited career breakthroughs with their top-three finishes, and Nyman won his first medal last season. Injuries can still derail hard-earned momentum, as Macartney found following his gruesome high-speed crash at Kitzbuhel that ended his season in January and left him with a severe concussion. He said he expects to be back training at full speed this summer.
Coaches are high on a handful of younger skiers cutting their teeth on the World Cup circuit, including go-for-broke speed skier Andrew Weibrecht, 22, who had two top-15 finishes early this season, and T.J. Lanning, 23, who had a 10th-place finish.
But the core of the team will be counted on for medals. At 23, Ligety is the youngest but most consistent performer. Sullivan (27), Nyman (26) and Macartney (30) have been on the World Cup tour for years but have lacked consistent results.
It's kind of nice because there's more attention on our team now ... I'm not saying he personally demands a lot, but superstars, you guys like the superstars, fans like the superstars, you know?
--Steve Nyman on life without Bode Miller
"This year, we're ahead of where I expected to be, so therefore we're ahead of where we need to be for 2010," U.S. men's coach Phil McNichol said. "We clearly have a lot of work to do. It's not about age, but we have an inexperienced team. Ted, even though he's matured into a consistent podium skier, hasn't matured into a consistent winning skier.
"Other guys, even though they're in their late 20s and been on the World Cup for a while, have been through injuries and whatnot, [so] they're still immature or less-experienced champions. We have all of next year and another year. We have almost 24 months to get where we need to be."
Ligety, for one, still can't get used to his own success. He was asked recently if he thinks it's odd he's an Olympic champion and Miller is not.
"I just think it's weird in general that I have an Olympic gold medal," he said. "Not that I have one and he doesn't."
Left unspoken is the impact, conscious or not, Miller had on teammates. He's an iconoclast who broke with the team after years of clashing with coaches over training methods, race strategy and even lodging (Miller lived and traveled in his own RV, a sticking point with coaches, even before he left the team). Miller supported his teammates and often tried to deflect attention toward them. But his singular celebrity and contrarian nature took a toll.
Still, Miller and U.S. team members have had a friendly relationship this season, and Miller and his former coaches appear to be civil.
"I see him on the hill but don't really see him anywhere else, and that's the way it was on the team," Nyman said. "He was never around, he was always doing his thing.
"It doesn't really affect us that he's gone," Nyman added. "It's kind of nice because there's more attention on our team now, as opposed to just him. The superstar, you know? He demands a lot. I'm not saying he personally demands a lot, but superstars, you guys like the superstars, fans like the superstars, you know?"
McNichol said he is open to having Miller return to the team, but it would be on the team's terms. Miller currently foots the bill for his own coaches, chef and two RVs, one of which is outfitted with a personal gym. Miller sleeps in the RV, but new team rules require skiers to sleep in team hotels the night before races. Miller's coach, John McBride, who was hired from the U.S. team staff, said Miller puts a premium on having his conditioning and nutritional needs met with his own chef and trainer.
"You keep him happy, he can stay motivated. That's a big thing for him," McBride said.
Miller left the team before the start of the season when U.S. team officials required he pay for his own training last summer. But McNichol said the dispute wasn't about money, but principle -- he wanted Miller to value team objectives and training methods.
Miller said he's happy with being on his own despite the expense involved.
"It's hard to quantify, really, the difference that being independent makes, but I think it's been really positive for me," Miller told Reuters earlier this month. "I feel good. I think a big part of the positive effect has been the dry-land [training] program that I've been able to run. Fitness-wise, I'm in great shape right now. I'm not tired at the bottom of these races and my energy is high, so it's easy to get motivated."
Meanwhile, even the next generation is finding it can look up to people other than Miller and Rahlves when it comes to success for U.S. skiers on the World Cup circuit.
"It's awesome," Weibrecht said of recent results from Macartney, Nyman and Sullivan. "Those guys are a little bit more my age. I've come up, spent more time with them. It means a lot to see those guys really excel. It's awesome because it pushes the whole team. We're a young team, and to have guys that are really firing it in there, it's cool."
Without Miller as a distraction, skiers say team harmony is palpable.
"The camaraderie's really good," Nyman said. "All of the boys are pretty psyched to just push each other and ski fast."
Meri-Jo Borzilleri, a freelance writer based in Bellingham, Wash., is a contributor to ESPN.com.