Team USA looks to regain glory at its home course
‘It’s our one chance of the year to show our U.S. fans what we can do’
Special to the Daily
On one of the most challenging courses of the FIS Alpine World Cup circuit, American men have had more success at Beaver Creek than at any other stop in their annual monthslong chase for the perfect combination of fitness, tactics, snow conditions and equipment preparation — and perhaps a little luck. Twelve of their 128 victories since the inception of the World Cup in the winter of 1966-1967 have occurred at the Birds of Prey. For a handful of those wins, another U.S. racer also stepped up onto the podium; Americans have finished second or third 15 times. Most memorable was a snowy Saturday in 2005, when the U.S. finished first, second and fourth in the giant slalom. Quipped Finland’s Kalle Pallander, who was third, said, “I felt I was at the American championships.”
For a group of men and women who spend the bulk of their competitive ski days on the other side of the planet, it’s both comforting and nerve-wracking to race “at home.”
“It’s our one chance of the year to show our U.S. fans what we can do,” said Travis Ganong prior to the 2019 Birds of Prey weekend. Ganong, a resident of Tahoe City, California, was a silver medalist at the 2015 Alpine World Ski Championships on the same course, and has two World Cup wins in his career. “I hope it inspires a lot of kids.”
The most successful American racer on the Birds of Prey course is Ted Ligety, winner of five consecutive giant slalom races on this hill between 2011 and 2015 — four World Cups plus the gold at the 2015 World Championships. Throw in another World Cup GS win, three GS podiums and a podium each in super-G and slalom, and Ligety’s legacy is impressive. Only Hermann Maier (AUT) and Aksel Lund Svindal (NOR) have more World Cup wins at Beaver Creek, with six each.
“I think the pressure is good in a way,” said Ligety prior to the 2019 events; he retired earlier this year to focus on his growing family and business pursuits from his home in Park City, Utah.
Just before Ligety, Americans Daron Rahlves and Bode Miller lit up the Birds of Prey racecourse, with Rahlves the first one on the podium in 2002, in downhill, and on the top step for the same event a year later. Compact, superbly fit and focused, Rahlves was always ready to uncoil a fast run on a demanding course; he won twice and was on the podium three times (twice in downhill, once in giant slalom). Miller is one of America’s most decorated Alpine athletes; his four wins and three podiums at Birds of Prey are part of a stellar collection of 33 World Cup wins — most of any American male — plus six Olympic and five World Championship medals. Miller and Rahlves pushed each other, which often brought out the best in both. Three times they were first and second at Birds of Prey — once in 2004 (downhill), and twice in 2005 (downhill and giant slalom).
“My intensity and ability to push the limit is my advantage,” said Miller prior to the 2013 races. “If I’m not the top, then I’m one of the top (racers).”
Ligety and Miller were first and second in the 2013 giant slalom, and Ligety (second) shared the super G podium in 2015 with Andrew Weibrecht (third), a fan favorite with his wild rides and spectacular recoveries at Birds of Prey.
From Rahlves, Miller and Ligety to the current crew of racers — a mix of veterans and up-and-comers — all point to the course preparation as a major factor in their success.
“The Talon Crew does amazing prep from top to bottom,” said Steven Nyman in 2019.
Nyman is working his way back from a string of injuries in hopes of having the run of his life at the Beijing Olympics.
“The three best (downhill) turns on the World Cup are those going into the finish,” he said.
Nyman has been on the downhill podium three times at Birds of Prey.
“It’s by far the best Super G course on the World Cup,” Ligety said,
In 2019, Tommy Ford put together two impressive runs for his first World Cup win — by 0.80 seconds — in the Birds of Prey giant slalom. He would go on to finish fifth in the GS standings that season, which was shortened by the pandemic, leaving a number of races uncontested, including two giant slaloms. A nasty crash at Adelboden, Switzerland, earlier this year left him initially unconscious and with a knee injury that he is still working to overcome.
Ford’s first Top 10 World Cup result came in 2017 at Birds of Prey, starting a string of strong World Cup results. He was sitting in fourth in the GS standings for the 2020-2021 season at the time of his injury.
“It’s a really fun course,” said Ford in 2019. “It’s challenging to keep your head in it.”
Also making his way back from injury is Ryan Cochran-Siegle, who scored his first World Cup win last December at Bormio, Italy, in super G just 10 days after his first podium at Val Gardena, Italy, in downhill.
It’s also possible that River Radamus — fresh off a sixth-place finish in the opening giant slalom of the season at Sölden, Austria, that included a remarkable first-run save to avoid crashing — will race super G at Birds of Prey. He grew up in the Vail Valley and no doubt has spent hours of time on the course, racing or otherwise. He’s never finished in the points in previous World Cup attempts at Beaver Creek, but momentum is in his favor.
Bryce Bennett is also psyched to race on a course he calls “one of my favorite places on the tour,” he said, adding that the Talon Crew is by far the best at preparing a race hill. His best result is a ninth in the downhill in 2018, and after a couple of seasons on “the struggle bus,” as he calls it, he’s ready to make his mark in 2021-2022.
There is no GS at Beaver Creek in 2021, but with a downhill and two super G races and history on its side, it’s a reasonable bet that Americans will be stepping up onto the podium in Beaver Creek in December.