Who needs Bode when you’ve got Ted?
The Associated Press
ALTA BADIA, Italy – The U.S. men’s ski team is doing just fine without its former star.
Bode Miller’s bio no longer appears on the team’s Web site, but there are plenty of other skiers still listed and they are performing just as well, if not better, than their former teammate.
Miller broke away from the U.S. squad this season to train and race on his own. In his absence, four other men have recorded top-three finishes and Ted Ligety is sitting fourth in the men’s overall World Cup standings, three positions ahead of Miller.
“Usually it takes some time to rebuild, but right now the guys are in great shape,” men’s head coach Phil McNichol said.
Truckee’s Marco Sullivan started things off by finishing second in the downhill in Lake Louise, Alberta, for his best career result. Steven Nyman followed that up with a runner-up finish at the team’s home downhill in Beaver Creek. Last weekend, Scott Macartney earned his best result in nearly two years by placing third in the downhill classic in Val Gardena.
“It’s always nice when your top guys stumble to have someone else jump in like Scottie in Val Gardena,” McNichol said.
Ligety leads the team with three top-three finishes: two in giant slalom to top the discipline standings and one in slalom here Monday.
“We’re not normally known for our depth and it’s cool to see so many different guys on the podium,” said Ligety, the Olympic combined champion.
Miller’s only podium finish was second in a super G in Val Gardena.
“We miss him quite a bit but it’s allowed us to get closer as a team and take care of the guys that want to be here,” McNichol said. “The staff in particular has come together more, too.”
In recent seasons, McNichol appeared worn out at times and even on the verge of retirement after endless confrontations with Miller over team rules.
“It was emotional for me because I invested a lot of time in Bode,” McNichol said. “But at the end of the day I respect his decision. He has to do what’s best for him. I mean that’s truly American. But it’s also truly American to be a team. If he decided to be a lone wolf, that’s his decision.”
Miller’s main problem with the U.S. federation was that it didn’t allow him to sleep in his motor home at races. This season, Miller not only has his RV, he also hired a bus to house and transport his new personal coaches, made up mostly of former U.S. staff members.
Miller has named his breakaway squad “Team America.” Conforming with World Cup rules, he still wears a U.S. uniform when he races, but puts on his red “Team America” jacket as soon as he takes his skis off.
It’s hard to imagine the Austrian team would have let a skier as talented as Hermann Maier leave or the Italian squad would have let Alberto Tomba split during his heyday. But McNichol rejected the idea that the U.S. team should have met Miller’s needs.
“If there is any one word to describe the U.S. Ski Team and its relationship with Bode Miller that would be accommodating. I’ve been looking after Bode and accommodating him for a long, long time,” said McNichol, who has been a member of the U.S. staff for 10 years. “Bode took it upon himself to say he’s bigger than the team.”
Most of the skiers on the team respect Miller’s decision.
“It’s tough because we don’t get to train with him,” Ligety said. “But he was in his RV before so you didn’t see him much anyway, so I don’t think there’s that much difference. He’s got to do what he’s got to do. He’s his own individual. It’s something that makes sense for him.”
With Miller on his own, other members of the team have been assuming leadership roles.
Nyman took it upon himself to tutor World Cup rookie Andrew Weibrecht for his first downhill in Europe, in Val Gardena.
“He pretty much went through the whole course with me,” Weibrecht said. “He was the one who told me it’s no big deal and that it’s easier than it looks. Everyone else tried to tell me horror stories. Steve tried to help me out.”
Two weeks earlier in Beaver Creek, Weibrecht charged from the 53rd start position to finish an astonishing 10th in his first World Cup downhill. He didn’t finish in Val Gardena.
While Weibrecht is one of the youngest members of the team, Erik Schlopy is the oldest.
In fact, Schlopy, 35, is one of the oldest skiers on the circuit.
“Marco Buechel’s got me by a year, but I’m up there,” Schlopy said of the Lichenstein skier.
Schlopy missed most of last season with a knee injury but had no doubts about returning.
“Why wouldn’t I want to keep going? Ski racing for a living is one of the greatest gigs out there,” said the Buffalo, N.Y., native, who won the bronze medal in giant slalom at the 2003 World Championships.
Dane Spencer, another giant slalom specialist, is back this season after returning from a life-threatening “hangman’s fracture” in his neck that occurred during a crash in February 2006.
“Schlopy and Dane Spencer are the moral leaders of the team,” Ligety said. “Those guys are the old guys that have been around for a while and have the experience and the stories.”
Miller also has plenty of experience and McNichol warns against overlooking him.
“I still have contact with him,” McNichol said. “It’s just different now because he has his own setup. But don’t count Bode out. He’s still fast. Hopefully he’ll keep on winning, because he’s still wearing that red, white and blue uniform.”
Miller and the U.S. team will be back in action Dec. 29 at the annual downhill in Bormio, Italy, one of the longest courses on the circuit.