Marco Sullivan’s long trip to the top
November 27, 2008
FRISCO, Colo. ” With few exceptions, a World Cup ski racer’s career generally follows a linear ascension. It begins when the racer is young, flimsy and raw, honing his talent on the junior circuit. It peaks when he is seasoned, thick and polished, competing in front of tens of thousands of Europeans who chant his name.
There might be a few blips along the way, but mostly the progression sticks to a predictable spine.
Then there is the route Marco Sullivan took. His line looks like the stock market on crack.
Sullivan, a Tahoe City native and former Squaw Valley Ski Team prodigy, finished fourth in the World Cup downhill standings last winter and won his first Cup race in nine years on the national team, riding a magical run to victory at Chamonix.
He enters this season, which begins with the opening World Cup speed races in Lake Louise, Alberta, this weekend, as a legitimate threat to win the season downhill championship, the most coveted crystal globe not tied to the overall title.
To a casual observer, that would seem a logical destination for a racer who schussed onto the scene with as much promise as Sullivan. Yet to anyone who knows even a sliver of his tale, such lofty aspirations only magnify the smothering depths from which he rose. …
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Sullivan’s promise inspired great expectations early on. When he was 13, his uncle, Mark “Sully” Sullivan, coached the Squaw ski team then as now. And whenever Sully happened to run into Daron Rahlves, there was something he liked to say.
“Watch out for Marco,” he’d tell Rahlves, then a 19-year-old U.S. Ski Team newby.
“I was like, ‘Who’s Marco?'” Rahlves recalled. “Back then, he was just this little kid.”
Sullivan joined Rahlves on the national team when he was 19. By then Rahlves was on his way to winning more World Cup downhills than any American man in history, but Sullivan was smart. He watched Rahlves like a hawk his first few years, as well as Bode Miller, Hermann Maier and Stephan Eberharter, learning what he calls “the aggressiveness you have to have in a race.”
“They definitely embodied raw power, and full-on commitment on the hill,” Sullivan says. “They were there to win. It was really cool to see.”
In 2001, the same year he earned his first World Cup start, Sullivan, then 21, swept the super G, downhill and overall titles on the NorAm tour, one of the premier feeder circuits to the World Cup. He was accomplishing his goal on a regular basis, which was to win any event he entered.
The next year, U.S. coaches took a chance and put him on the Olympic roster as an injury replacement. Never mind that his best finish in five career World Cup races was 27th; in the premier alpine ski race there is, the Olympic downhill, he took ninth. Rahlves, the No. 2 American that day, finished 16th.
Two years later, having cemented his place as a top-15 downhiller on the world level, Sullivan began to be cast as the heir apparent to Miller and Rahlves.
“Nobody ever said it to my face,” he says, “but I knew.”
His linear progression looked like only a handful that came before it. He was on the road to superstardom.
Then he hit a pothole at 70 miles per hour. Disaster.
He missed a gate on the famously treacherous Birds of Prey pitch in 2003, but instead of pulling up, he skipped the next gate and pointed his skis toward the bottom of the mountain. He hit the final jump, where he’d usually be carving a turn and slowing down, on a straightline.
“Popped it,” he says. “Didn’t really expect too much. I did a mute grab, just f—— around, and crashed hard. Dislocated my knee. Tore the ACL, MCL, ripped my meniscus in half, stretched the LCL, PCL, everything was just totally jacked up. That was the beginning of two years of surgery. And hell.”
He adds: “I still take some crap for that.”
A lot of ski racers move around in their youth, so when people call them the hometown kid, it can be a stretch. Sullivan, however, is the real thing. His father has worked as a unionized heavy equipment operator in the Tahoe area for 40 years, and his mother used to work in human resources at Squaw, in part so she could get Marco and his older sister, Chelsea, ski passes.
Sullivan played through a hernia his senior year as co-captain of the North Tahoe High School football team. Never complained much about the pain. All he has ever wanted to be, he says, is a team guy.
Which was precisely what hurt the most during his numbing two years away from racing (he tore the same ACL 11 months after the Beaver Creek crash during a camp in Tignes, France). He was without a team.
He retreated to Truckee, where he tuned skis at the Start Haus and groomed the 4 p.m.-to-midnight shift at Homewood Mountain Resort to help pay his mortgage.
Sullivan tried not to let his inner despair affect his outer persona, but Jonna Mendes, one of his best friends and a former teammate on the national team, recalls how difficult those times were.
“He was lonely,” she says. “He put himself in a very solitary environment.”
At his worst, Sullivan dropped down to 183 pounds, far from the bulletproof 217 he carries now.
“I was just not in that great of a place mentally,” he says. “Wasn’t sure I was going to be back on the team.”
In hindsight, Sullivan says, he didn’t respect the sport enough. He was a hot young skier from Squaw, where the mindset “was never bust it out at the gym,” it was go ski hard, go rip, and the rest will take care of itself.
“It took me a long time to realize that training super hard is part of the puzzle,” he says.
When he returned from the second knee tear, in the fall of 2005, the national team thrust him straight into World Cup races in accordance with the injury-protection clause built into his “A” team status.
People who have been around long enough, though, know what kind of knee injuries can doom a career. Which is why when Sullivan went 39th, DNF, DNF, 50th in his first four races, nobody was surprised.
Then came the blip in the line, the sign of life. He took 14th and 16th in two of the hairiest downhills on tour, Wengen and Kitzbuehel, right before the Turin Olympics. He was named to the U.S. team on the strength of those results.
Despite not racing in the games, he’d given himself a crucial shot of confidence ” something that he has always recognized as being “so easy to lose, and so hard to gain.”
He took fourth in a World Cup race the following season, then used that confidence to break into the elite last winter. On Jan. 26, the day he won in Chamonix, he stood sweating at the bottom of the course, perched in front of all the TV cameras, for a solid hour as Bode Miller, Didier Cuche and Michael Walchhofer ” the deans of the World Cup downhill circuit ” all tried in vain to match his time.
It was, he said, “the moment I’d dreamed of.”
People who had known Sullivan throughout his career celebrated the result as if it were their own brother pulsing all that joy.
“I’ve been with the team for a while,” says men’s head speed coach Chris Brigham, who joined the national team in 1994, “and I’ve seen a lot of special days from a lot of different athletes. But that was one of the top ones for me.”
Sullivan’s fortune continued through the end of the winter. He won the Arctic Man snowmobile-skiing race in Alaska with partner Tyler Aklestad, then spent 10 days filming a heli-ski segment for this year’s Warren Miller movie, Children of Winter.
It was a good year to be Sullivan’s wallet, as well. When he won in Chamonix, he said, “I made more money that day than any year in my ski career.”
He is one of two U.S. alpine racers sponsored by Sprint this season. And he re-signed with Nordica, a brand that had never won a World Cup downhill before he did it, through the 2010 Games.
In his young 20s, Sullivan might have soaked that stuff up and walked around oozing it. Not now. This summer he upped his training and crashed at a friend’s house in Park City, Utah, so he could work out with Per Lundstrom, the U.S. team’s conditioning guru, as often as possible.
He wrote down new goals and began viewing his place on the World Cup entirely differently during training sessions.
“There are times,” he says, “when you think you’re gonna puke and you wanna stop. And you just run a little refresher through your mind, like, what’s Cuche doing right now, what are the Austrians doing.
“I’ve had more workouts this season where I’ve pushed myself to the edge than any year in my life.”
On the snow, Brigham estimates Sullivan, 28, has increased his giant slalom training by 50 percent, a huge amount for someone who never races the discipline. In doing so, Sullivan developed a scrappiness on the steepest, most technical courses, which had eaten him up before, Brigham said. Even Rahlves noticed.
“He’d always been a cruiser, a glider,” said Rahlves, who won the X Games gold medal in ski cross the same day Sullivan won the Kandahar downhill. “But he was never a fighter. That’s one thing he changed last year.”
Rahlves added: “He’s got the overall package now, and way more confidence than I’ve ever seen in him.”
And yet the one thing everyone says when you ask them about Marco Sullivan is you’d still never know he’s a serious ski racer. He rarely brings it up when he’s hanging out, never mentioned it while he was home grooming and injured, and he grins so much that it’s tough to go there sometimes.
“My two lives,” he says.
Sitting in a Colorado bakery for lunch between early November training sessions, Sullivan wears a T-shirt fraying at its collar under a zipper hoodie, as dark threads dangle from his dirty 49ers hat.
He beams that contagious, easy grin of his as he talks about the two Audis he’s been given to drive this winter. But he puts far more energy into how he feels about his dad, who only a few years ago finished paying off the credit card he’d used to pay for Marco’s and Chelsea’s junior ski careers.
Turning to business, Sullivan’s eyes tighten. The smile disappears.
“My number one goal this year,” he says, “is winning the downhill title.”
He knows he’s an underdog. He doesn’t care. “I want to be the best,” he says.
Which calls to mind something Andy Lindsey said recently about Sullivan’s attitude when the racer was at his lowest point. Lindsey, a former football teammate who has known Sullivan since elementary school, was grooming with Sullivan back then.
“He’d show up smiling, happy, ready to go ” nobody on the crew ever saw him down,” Lindsey said.
“He never lost hope.”
Devon O’Neil is a freelance writer based in Breckenridge, Colo.
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