Home sweet snow for Americans
BEAVER CREEK – The U.S. Ski Team’s Steve Nyman is happy to be at Beaver Creek for many reasons.One of them is the lack of polka music.”In Kitzbuehel, it’s wild,” the American speed specialist said of the World Cup’s legendary stop in Austria. “We’re sleeping in the middle of the city, and they have these towers of speakers strewn throughout the city, blasting Austrian polka music all five days we were there. The hotel’s so hot, and you open your window and all you can hear is polka music, and you close it and you can’t sleep because it’s too hot.”Nyman and the Americans are home this week for Birds of Prey, the only American stop on the tour. That means big beds – a very important factor for the 6-foot-4 Nyman – a familiar routine, fan support, and in the last three years, a winning tradition at Beaver Creek.The American men painted the podium red, white and blue last year with five appearances on the steps, including golds from Daron Rahlves (downhill) and Bode Miller (giant slalom). The aforementioned dynamic duo also won DH here in 2003, and 2004, respectively.But with Rahlves’ retirement after last season, the American men have a different look in 2006. Bode is still Bode, a force and character unto himself, but for the team to continue its success, especially at Birds of Prey, the newer faces on the team, like Olympic combined gold medalist Ted Ligety and Nyman among others, need to step up.Rahlves’ influenceRahlves occupies a special place in the hearts of Birds of Prey regulars. By winning a transplanted DH from Val d’Isere, France, in 2003, the California native became the first American male to win at Birds of Prey and the first to win a downhill on American soil since the early 1980s.The next two years, Miller and Rahlves delighted the home crowd by swapping the top-two spots on the podium. Miller and Rahlves were 1-2 in the 2004 DH. Before the 2005 downhill, Rahlves predicted he would win at Birds of Prey, and delivered with Miller right behind him in second. The next day, the two flipped places with Miller doing the honors in GS.With Rahlves now pursuing other athletic ventures, there’s no mistaking his absence.”I feel fortunate enough to have raced last year alongside Daron,” Nyman said. “Daron was awesome to me. You could go to him with any question. He was more than willing to share information with me. I’d inspect with him or slide by him and say, ‘What do you think about this?’ He was great. … “I’ve got to take that knowledge into this year. He was very successful here at Beaver Creek, and it showed. I witnessed his passion. I witnessed the way he approached this race. He was so into it – this and Kitzbuehel, it was his love. He wanted to win here, ad he did it. He would always step up here. I hope I can take that intensity into this hill as well.”With Rahlves’ departure, Ligety’s profile on the team has risen, especially after winning at the Torino (Italy) Games. While Ligety doesn’t want to profit, per se, on Rahlves’ absence, he also doesn’t presume to assume that his new-found fame can replace America’s most accomplished downhiller.”It’s a detrimental loss to the ski team. He’s such a great guy to have around,” Ligety said. “He was always willing to help you with a downhill or a GS. He was also a great guy to have around as far as attitude.”Young gunsThe cupboard is by no means bare for the Americans. It’s hard to assess the American men this season, given the stop-and-start nature of the season. The Soelden, Austria, opener in October was wiped out because of the well-documented poor snow conditions in Europe, which likely will also claim next weekend’s stop in Val d’Isere at today’s Captain’s Meeting.In Levi, Finland, earlier this month and Lake Louise, Alberta, a small early-season sampling, the U.S. Ski Team went without a podium. Ligety was hampered in Levi by a right-hand injury, now much on the mend, while Miller has been adjusting to new equipment, factors which are understandable.On the other side of the coin, Jimmy Cochran posted two top-15 finishes in Levi, a breakout performance. Nyman won downhill training in Lake Louise and posted a career best 17th in DH and 20th in super-G, his second-best result that discipline.Now on home snow, the Americans hope to take the next step.”We had everybody from the A Team to the development team training side by side,” Nyman said of preseason training. “I think it’s good for everybody to mesh and see what other people are doing and see the speed that we have. I know we have guys on the team who can win and consistently compete on the World Cup.”Ligety captured bronze here in last year’s slalom, but he had been trending in the right direction, like some of his current teammates, in the early part of last season.”I actually would consider my breakout race last year my first race in Soelden,” Ligety said of his GS in Austria. “I came from 64th to eighth (from the first to the second run). That was a super big move up. It’s pretty hard to do on a regular basis. You rarely see anybody move up that much. That second run just gave me the confidence to come into Beaver Creek and lay down my best race in my best event.”Experience at the Beav’With the hope that it is trending in the right direction, the team hopes that the home-snow success continues, starting with Thursday’s super combined, the first of four scheduled events for Beaver Creek.With Cochran, Bryon Friedman, Erik Schlopy, Scott Macartney, Marco Sullivan, J.J. Johnson, Erik Fisher, not to mention his Bode-ness, Ligety and Nyman all on tap to ski this week, the team is ready to tackle its home hill.”I’m excited for (super combined) because it’s going to be one more opportunity for me to ski the slalom hill before the race which is pretty big, especially on a hill like Beaver Creek which is pretty long with undulating terrain,” said Ligety, whose strength lies in the technical events.”It’s always fun to have another event in our home town. I always love racing in the U.S. I’m sorry we don’t have more races over here.”Joking that downhill is “an old man’s type of race,” Nyman believes that having spent a year on the circuit will help him this week.”You learn your mental approach. You learn the courses. … We revisit these venues every single year,” he said. “You learn the little tricks and trades on the way down. The more miles you get on that course, the more comfortable you are.”Last year was exiting, but this year the motivation is to take it to the next level, take it to the level where I can win on the World Cup. Last year, I built a foundation. I know what’s going on. This year, I know I can win, and it’s within my expectations.”Sports Editor Chris Freud can be reached at 748-2934 or firstname.lastname@example.org.