BEAVER CREEK - Sunday was a much happier day for the U.S. Ski Team at the Birds of Prey World Cup giant slalom at Beaver Creek.
Coming off Saturday's debacle in super-G - five of seven Americans were DNFs - Sunday was a big bounce-back. Not only did Ted Ligety win the whole shooting match, but Tim Jitloff, Warner Nickerson and Bode Miller all made the flip and finished in the points, while Ski and Snowboard Club Vail alumnus Will Gregorak made his World Cup debut.
Welcome to the club
The feel-good story of the day had to be Nickerson. In seven previous World Cup starts, dating back to 2005, the 29-year-old had never made the flip. In fact, he wasn't even in the Birds of Prey field last year. He was fore-running it.
So Nickerson was downright jacked to make the flip after the morning run, finishing 24th.
"Four years ago, I raced here and blew out on The Abyss," Nickerson said after the first run. "I was so mad that today was my retribution. It's been four years and I'm going to crush that thing. I had a good run and I'm totally psyched."
After a good inspection for the second run - he described the new set as similar to the first - Nickerson put down two runs in one day for the first time in his World Cup career, earning his first points.
"I'm 29-years-old and It's kind of painful to keep ski racing and not get the results you want, not get the goals you want," Nickerson said. "Today was great. Today was awesome. Hopefully, Ted will crush it and we'll celebrate."
Ligety did, and there was doubtless much rejoicing.
Jitloff's outlook on life has to be much better after Sunday. He was enduring a very tough start to the season. In his last warm-up before Birds of Prey, he went into the netting at a Nor-Am GS in Aspen, which is not exactly how you want to set the tone.
Jitloff ended up 23rd.
"The interesting thing was my goal today was to get down, two runs without falling, and I actually went down on my hip on that second run on the fifth gate, but I saved it," he said. "I lost some speed, but I got down. It feels good to get a finish."
Miller finished, but it was another tough day for the fan favorite. He changed to a new set of Head skis - incidentally, the same style Ligety used for the win - but struggled with the same part of the course that got him in Saturday's super-G. He made the turn too low and ended up in soft snow.
Miller did finish 8.68 seconds of Ligety's pace to pick up points.
"It's always disappointing when you tank out of races," Miller said. "This hill, it's been a trend for me. If I can make it down without big mistakes, I win. If not, I don't. There's not a whole lot of margin in between because it's pretty unforgiving."
Tommy Ford nearly made the flip, but small bobble on Red Tail was his undoing.
Gregorak, a veteran of Ski and Snowboard Club Vail, made his first World Cup start. It did not turn into made-for-TV movie, but first starts generally don't.
Gregorak, who just turned 20 at the end of September, was less than a second off the flip, though there were several racers between him and No. 30.
"You want to have butterflies beforehand. When you push away from the gate, you want them to go away and be all focus," he said. "That's pretty much how it was today. I pretty much got down to the bottom and started to think. My head got away at the bottom."
It was good learning experience for Gregorak, who is now on the same team with guys he grew up idolizing like Miller and Ligety. He's found the team welcoming and realizes that these guys he watched on TV are real people, too. Gregorak likes to talk to the veterans to get an idea of what's in store with the courses, but thinks he has to keep his own skiing style.
Though he didn't make the flip, Gregorak will travel with the team to Val d'Isere, France, and Alta Badia, Italy, to compete in World Cup technical events.
"Now, I've got to go out and race against them," Gregorak said. "It's just that level of competition I have to adapt to, so I can be confident to ski hard all the way down."
Sports Editor Chris Freud can be reached at 970-748-2934 or firstname.lastname@example.org.