U.S. Ski Team: Best in the world? | VailDaily.com

U.S. Ski Team: Best in the world?

Ryan Slabaugh

But the reminders of the work to come came as often as the snow. Guys like Daron Rahlves , a 10-year veteran and the reigning world super-G champ, have helped the U.S. team justify its slogan, but with veteran Vail resident Chad Fleischer out for the year with a leg injury, the team is still in chase-mode.

“We can’t be tentative. I’m all about starting out a lot harder than I have in the past,” said Rahlves, a 5-foot-9-inch native of Sugar Bowl, Calif. “I’ve been in a good position and won some races (last season). I’d like to take a title in the downhill and super G.”

Other components of the team are where they need to be. Moguls specialist Jeremy Bloom won the World Cup moguls title and Eric Bergoust won his second-straight World Cup aerials title. Two nordic skiers won World Cup events, the snowboard team dominated the Olympics and the disabled team picked up 41 medals at the Paralympics.

The alpine team, however, doesn’t have the advantage of being in a new sport. History is not on its side.

This season, most likely Rahlves will play second fiddle to Bode Miller, who made a name for himself at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City with a pair of silver medals. The 25-year-old, boosted by back-to-back wins in a 30-hour time period, finished second in the World Cup slalom overall. Head coach Phil McNichol calls Miller’s self-confidence, “intoxicating.”

Miller will need help. Teams like Austria frequently have racers on the podium. When Hermann Meier was healthy, he and Stephan Eberharter dominated the circuit with first and thirds.

With A-teamer Kirsten Clark winning her first World Cup race in 2001, the women’s team has a perfect chance to build a program without the legendary Picabo Street. Street, who retired last season, put the women’s team on the map with her Olympic success in the 1990s. But the women’s team didn’t record a World Cup win last season, though Caroline Lalive’s third-place finish in super G tied the all-time U.S. women’s best.

Caroline Lalive, who podiumed twice last season, has high hopes, along with Vail’s Sarah Schleper, who just missed knocking off reigning World Cup slalom champion Laure Pequegnot of France Monday at Winter Park, during the Chevy Truck Super Series. Schleper finished third.

With racers like Jonna Mendes and Katie Monahan hoping to improve on last year’s disappointments, the talk is of rebuilding, not domination. The goal, they remind us, is still three seasons away.

“I’d like to start strong in the speed events,” said Mendes, a Heavenly, Calif., native. “As always, I’m going for a podium. So far, the training has been great. We don’t need to go to the other teams, to train with the other racers. We find motivation with our own teammates.”

Former Ski Club Vail athlete Lindsey Kildow, 18, has proven to be the best young racer on the entire squad. Her result at the Olympics – sixth in the combined, which was the top U.S. finisher – has her coaches are using the old, “when, not if,” analogy when speaking of her potential.

With all that in mind, the training began for the 2003 season. The women began the U.S. tour in Park City, Utah, Thursday, and the men begin today. The women then head to Aspen next week for a course they haven’t seen in two years, while the men head to Lake Louise, Alberta.

“(Aspen’s) actually pretty tough,” said Aspen’s Monahan, who’s entering her 10th season on the team. “It’s pretty steep. Everyone I know that races say they really like it. It’s challenging. The atmosphere is fun.”

While the women then follow the men to Lake Louise Dec. 6-8, the men return to Beaver Creek for downhill and super-G races on the infamous Birds of Prey run Dec. 7-8. Hometown favorite Jake Fiala, who finished 12th in the combined at the 2001 Worlds, graduated from Battle Mountain High School and lives in Summit County.

“Hopefully, everyone out here will be fired up,” Fiala said. “I’ve had more runs on (Birds of Prey) than anyone. I was a tester when it was first built. Just to be here and racing means a lot. It’s a long season, and it’d mean a lot to be on the podium.”

And the chances of Americans filling all three spots?

“The three of us (Rahlves, Fiala and Marco Sullivan) are leading the way,” Rahlves said. “We have such a small team. We’ve had some good training down in South America in October. This is going to be the best year we’ve had in many years.”

Time, certainly, will tell.

Ryan Slabaugh is a sports writer for the Vail Daily. Contact him at (970) 949-0555 ext. 608 or at rslabaugh@vaildaily.com.

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