The Wall Street Journal
Something strange is happening up in the snow-crusted mountains of Europe and North America. A group of U.S. skiers is trying to execute a takeover of Austria’s national sport.
After hauling in two gold, three silver and three bronze medals in Vancouver last year, the U.S. Alpine ski team has continued to make the Austrians, the sport’s still-reigning superpower, look about as dangerous as two cups of spätzle.
American Ted Ligety won his second World Cup race of the season Tuesday, beating Austrian Marcel Hirscher in the giant slalom at Beaver Creek, Colo., by a hefty margin of 0.69 seconds. Wednesday, when three-time overall World Cup champion Lindsey Vonn races, she’ll be attempting to win her fourth straight Alpine event.
The wins have moved the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association considerably closer to a goal that, when first set in 1997, seemed like a fairy tale: to produce the best Alpine team in the world. “I don’t know that I ever expected us to be this good,” said Luke Bodensteiner, vice president for athletics at the USSA, who has been with the organization for 14 years.
“You train with them and compare times and if you’ve come out ahead you know you’re in good shape,” Mathias Berthold, coach of the Austrian men’s team said of the U.S. skiers. “They’re coming on strong.”
Last weekend at an event in Lake Louise, Alberta, Vonn raced as though the rest of the field had waxed its skis with peanut butter. Vonn, who recently announced she will divorce her husband and longtime coach, Thomas Vonn, skied as though she had not a care in the world, winning her downhill races by an absurd 1.95 seconds Friday and 1.68 seconds Saturday—the equivalent of about 40-50 meters. Then she took the Super G race Sunday by 0.19 seconds.
“The U.S. has always had Olympic champions but not skiers that have won consistently as they do now,” said Herbert Mandl, who coaches the Austrian women’s Alpine team. “They have made the big effort.”
Alexandra Meissnitzer, a former Austrian World Cup champion said Austrians now envy the less-rigid U.S. approach. “We see them as super-cool because they look like they’re having so much fun,” Meissnitzer said. “With the Americans, it comes from the heart.”
The U.S. has produced world class skiers before, but never has it produced so many skiers who consistently land on the podiums at World Cup events. There’s also a pipeline in place with a group of young skiers who are on the verge of breaking into the sport’s top tier in the coming years. “It becomes easier to reach a higher level when you already have a road map to get there,” said Ligety, who is the defending World Cup giant slalom champion.
It should be noted that the Austrian and the Swiss teams have a depth that the U.S. hasn’t been able to match—but that, too, seems to be changing.
You’ve likely heard of Vonn and Ligety, as well as three-time Olympic medalist Julia Mancuso and, of course, Bode Miller, the winner of 33 World Cup races. The U.S. team also now includes emerging talents like Nolan Kasper, 22, who became the first American since 1989 to win a title in the Europa Cup, ski racing’s second tier. Another American, 16-year-old Mikaela Shiffrin is already ranked higher than Vonn and Mancuso were at her age.
The evolution of the U.S. success—and the fading hegemony of Europe—is as much about culture as results. American skiers are becoming viewed, by many, as the marquee faces of the sport.
A promotional poster for the season’s opening event in Soelden, Austria, for instance, featured the mug of a single skier, Bode Miller. “All the kids love Bode—he’s a little different,” Berthold said of Miller, the sport’s risk-taking iconoclast.
In another surprise, the U.S team recently signed a sponsorship deal with the tourism bureau of the Otzal Valley in the heart of Austrian ski country. The multi-year deal, which according to USSA chief revenue and marketing officer Andrew Judelson includes a “significant cash component,” gives the team a winter home that includes housing, training facilities and easy access to top World Cup tour stops. Several top European consumer brands, most notably Audi, have signed as sponsors.
Investment in facilities is also helping move the sport’s center of gravity closer to the U.S.
Earlier this year, the top European skiers descended on Copper Mountain in Colorado, where the U.S. team recently opened a $4.3 million speed skiing training center. The facility offers the only slope of its caliber nearly guaranteed to have quality snow so early in the season.
Of course, the U.S. team has gotten plenty of help from the old empire. “They hired all our coaches,” Mandl said with a laugh. Indeed, Austrian Patrick Rimi, is U.S. skiing’s Alpine director. Austrian Alex Hoedlmoser is the women’s head coach. Austrian Roland Pfeifer is the women’s technical expert.
Money has helped, too. The USSA raised $60 million during the past decade to build its training center in Park City, Utah. Thanks to a 70-member board of trustees that includes some of the country’s wealthiest citizens, the organization has an endowment that has grown by about $10 million the past five years to nearly $40 million. Since 1997 the USSA has added about 17 full-time conditioning coaches, physiologists, nutritionists and psychologists, developed a training plan it shares with hundreds of junior clubs and started concentrating its spending on the top performers.
Mancuso said she feels the U.S. skiers are already the best in the world technically. “I feel like having five of the top 10 skiers in the world is definitely possible for this team,” she said. “It’s all confidence at this level, and sometimes with the European skiers they just have another gear that some of our skiers may not have yet.”