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American breakthrough

For Bill Marolt, the 2002-03 World Cup season the best showing by an American squad in 20 years truly was a blast from the past.The current president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association was the director of the U.S. alpine program from 1978 to ’84, the era of the Mahre brothers and the last time the U.S. finished third in the Nations Cup standings (1983).After clinching third overall Sunday, March 16, at the World Cup Finals in Norway (the men were third and the women were fourth), Marolt took a brief moment with The Vail Trail to reflect on this past season and to make it clear third is not nearly good enough in the future.”In the early ’80s, I felt every bit as excited and proud as I feel now, and part of what we’re doing now is building on the success that we had back then,” Marolt said by phone from ski team headquarters in Park City, Utah.With Marolt at the helm, U.S. skiers won five medals three golds and two silvers at the ’84 Olympic Games in Sarajevo. At the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City, the team took home 10 medals, though only two of those (thanks to the heroics of Bode Miller) came in alpine events.Determined to improve on those results, Marolt and his coaches set ambitious goals for 2003 and beyond.”What we saw this year is we had the great Olympic Games, and our theme this year was 2002 isn’t the end, it’s the beginning of becoming the best team in the world by 2006,” Marolt says, referring to the next Winter Games in Turin, Italy.Marolt acknowledges U.S. alpine racers have been big-event skiers in the past, getting pumped and producing to some degree in the Olympics and World Championships but failing to maintain consistency during the World Cup circuit. This season may have put and end to that trend.Here are some highlights of an amazing World Cup season for U.S. alpine ski racers: Americans collected 18 podiums. The U.S. won a team record six medals at the World Alpine Ski Championships, led by Miller’s unprecedented three medals, including two golds (combined and giant slalom). Two U.S. men finished the season in the top 10 overall standings (Miller was second and Daron Rahlves was sixth) for the first time since 1982 when Phil Mahre was first and his brother Steve was third. Rahlves, with seven podiums, finished the season second in the downhill standings, the best U.S. men’s downhill finish ever. He was also the first U.S. racer to win the fabled Hahnenkamm downhill since the World Cup era started in 1967 (Buddy Werner won it in 1959). Kirsten Clark, who won a silver in the World Championships super G, had four podiums and finished third in the downhill standings, the best U.S. performance since 1996. Miller was the only racer on the circuit, men’s or women’s, to compete in every race, finishing with six podiums, second overall and second in the giant slalom standings.Marolt refused to play the “what-if?” game when assessing Miller’s season, in which the budding superstar switched skis and did unexpectedly well in the speed events but struggled in the slalom. A couple of slalom wins would have given the U.S. its first overall champion since Phil Mahre in 1982.”The way you have to look at Bode’s season is he had an awesome year and he competed at literally the highest levels of the World Cup,” Marolt says. “This is a special kid and special athlete, and once again he’s the lightning rod. His year is the best an American alpine skier has had in 20 years.”Emblematic of his season-long struggles in his former signature event (he won three last season), Miller was 17th in Sunday’s slalom in Hafjell, Norway, and missed a gate and had to hike on his final run.It was left up to Miller’s close friend on the team, Erik Schlopy, to preserve third place in the Nations Cup standings with his ninth-place finish in the slalom. Anything less and Norway would have caught or passed the U.S., which finished third overall behind Austria and Switzerland.&quotThere was some good skiing and it was fun to watch, and we held off Norway for third place, so that was nice,&quot says Miller, summing up the Finals.After exploding at the World Championships in February, the U.S. faded somewhat down the stretch, but former Ski Club Vail coach and current U.S. men’s alpine coach Phil McNichol says he’s still very pleased with the season.&quotIt’s been such an emotional roller-coaster with our success,&quot says McNichol &quotWe’ve been in Europe for so long; we had to be leading up to Worlds (Feb. 2-16 in St. Moritz, Switzerland), and everybody’s pretty spent. We torched ourselves… but we were successful and we met ourgoals, so it paid off.&quotIt’s been a great year, but there’s still room for improvement, which is encouraging. These guys can do it.&quotMarolt says the key to taking it to the next level in the 2003-04 season and beyond is sticking to the current plan of setting overall team and individual goals and reloading by investing in development programs and building partnerships with local and regional ski clubs.”We’re seeing that pipeline start to fill up, where we’re seeing good performances at every level,” Marolt says. “We want athletes who win at every level, from the JO’s (Junior Olympics) on up to Nor-Ams and if we can do that, then when they get to the World Cup level, we’re going to have more than just one or two skiers”We had a huge number of athletes who scored points this season, and if we’re going to be the best in the world, we’re going to have to have three or four kids scoring points in every discipline.”Notes: Vail’s Sarah Schleper had the fourth-fastest second run in Sunday’s World Cup Finals giant slalom and finished seventh. Schleper says she recently changed her game plan: &quotThe first run I didn’t try to ski out of myself; I’ve been doing that and going out, so I didn’t want to risk everything, and I did that on the second run, too. It’s probably not the best approach, but it worked for today. I’m glad the season’s over. It’s been tough to get motivated these last days.&quot Sunday was Schleper’s best GS result of the season Julia Mancuso and Steve Nyman gold medalists at World Junior Championships a year ago won their first U.S. titles Wednesday, March 19, capturing the downhill races that kicked off the Chevy Truck U.S. Alpine Championships at Whiteface Mountain, the 1980 Olympic alpine venue at Lake Placid, N.Y. The race was moved up a day to take advantage of cold weather returning to the Adirondacks to stabilize the speed track after unseasonably warm temperatures. Miller, who got to Lake Placid during pre-race inspection after returning to Burlington, Vt., to retrieve missing luggage, was fourth in the men’s race. Schleper, after having her passport stolen in Europe, arrived late for the women’s race, foreran the men’s downhill as her only training run, and finished 13th in the women’s race. She says she plans to train downhill all summer and add World Cup downhill to her regimen next season Marolt was head coach of the University of Colorado ski team from 1969-78, when his teams won seven NCAA titles, and CU athletic director from 1984-96, when the Buffs claimed their first and only football championship, so he has a unique perspective on the saga of freestyle mogul skier and CU football player Jeremy Bloom, who is battling the NCAA to allow him to play football and still be able to accept sponsorships as a skier. “Jeremy has worked hard to find a solution,” Marolt says. “I think that for him to do both will continue to be a challenge, but he’s up to the challenge. They’ve (the NCAA) got their rules and regulations, but they need to make sure they’re treating the athletes fairly.” Bloom is currently appealing a recent court decision on the issue Marolt likes Vail’s chances of pulling off a World Championships trifecta in 2009. The only U.S. resort to host the alpine worlds twice (1989 and ’99), Vail hopes to host the alpine, freestyle and snowboard worlds in ’09, which would mark the first time the three events have been combined. “The Vail Valley Foundation and Vail and Beaver Creek are remarkable organizations, and they do a great job on events,” Marolt says. “And what’s really exciting about this concept of bringing three championships to the Vail Valley in ’09 is it demonstrates why Vail and the foundation are what they are, because they’re always looking ahead and thinking how they can be better; they’re always thinking outside of the box and saying, ‘How can we make it more exciting and better?’ And hopefully the rest of the world will look at it that way too.”


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