The Birds are back
The North American segment of the World Cup circuit is under way, and not since Steve and Phil Mahre stormed the skiing world 20 years ago have expectations been so high for an American men’s team.Until this year, there was little change in the story of the Birds of Prey World Cup since its inception on Dec. 4, 1997. For years it was all about Hermann Maier, the ski racer who has dominated the Birds of Prey course with seven victories in the 10 events in which he has participated. A near-fatal motorcycle accident in August of 2001 sidelined the great Austrian racer, but this year he is slated to make his return to the very Maier-friendly course.But even Maier’s robust figure and courageous story is taking a backseat to the historic rise of a U.S. Ski Team that has suddenly taken the driver’s seat in alpine skiing as Beaver Creek prepares for a men’s Downhill on Dec. 6 and men’s Super-G Dec. 7. Both races begin at 11 a.m. and the stadium finish area can be accessed by bus from the base of Beaver Creek mountain.In 2002-03, Daron Rahlves officially became the most successful U.S. downhill skier of all time, marking a third-place podium spot here on the Birds of Prey course before earning one of the great honors in the sport: his name painted on the gondola above the famed Hahnenkamm downhill course in Kitzbuhel, Austria. The Hahnenkamm victory marked the first American win in Kitzbuhel in 44 years.Where once there was much hope but little chance that home-snow advantage would propel the U.S. team onto the podium, now there is an excitement made legitimate by a U.S. speed team that ranked six racers in the top 50 of World Cup Super-G standings and four in the top 35 in downhill standings.Rahlves brought in a second overall downhill ranking on the World Cup circuit last year, edged out by Austrian Stephan Eberharter. Eberharter also took first place in the overall World Cup rankings, beating out New Hampshire’s Bode Miller by a mere 233 points.Miller’s explosive performance last season seemed to invigorate the American team into its deepest ranks. With the bar raised, skiers like Marco Sullivan, Erik Schlopy, Chip Knight, and Jake Fiala began skiing above their previous levels.Miller has already one two World Cup GS races this season (at Soelden, Austria and last weekend at Park City, Utah), and likely will race at Beaver Creek in his pursuit of the overall title. At a press conference following his win in Utah Saturday, Nov. 22 the first for an American man on U.S. soil since 1984 Miller did not seem intimidated by the return of Maier. Nor did he seem to think the Hermannator’s dominance in Beaver Creek would be a motivating factor.”Like I’ve said before, I don’t need any external motivations. But I think Hermann is great. Everyone knows how scary he was at the top when he was at his prime,” Miller said after his win.”He was always a little bit cold, to the media I mean. I always thought he was rather one-dimensional. But it’s obvious he has gone through things that have definitely changed his life and you can see that. I’m not surprised he took that determination he always had into his rehab and training.”The courseThis season’s Beaver Creek World Cup squad is sure to include Miller, Fiala, Sullivan, and Rahlves. According to former teammate and Vail downhill racing legend Chad Fleischer, they will face one of the most difficult and demanding courses in the world.The race begins with a relatively flat section, which Fleischer says puts a demanding load upon a racer’s equipment.”The flats up top put the skis to the test,” the recently retired Fleischer says. “It’s a way for the (ski company representative) to showboat the way they make a ski go. The only thing I can compare it to is the way a mechanic tunes a car for the track.”Once the racers hit Screech Owl, everything changes.”You drop over the brink, and from there on out its one of the most technically demanding courses in the world it’s jump, tuck, jump, tuck, jump, tuck,” Fleischer says. “The finish jump is huge, and pretty insane, because on the falls people start pushing the line to the limits, and either the legs give out or the body hangs on and they get a great result.”The event will be covered by ESPN and NBC, with air times TBD.