Truckee’s Sullivan back on track with U.S. Ski Team
Two years is an awfully long stretch between races, but U.S. Ski Team downhiller Marco Sullivan is rarin’ to go after a frustrating hiatus. Following a summer of ski team camps and gym sessions, the easygoing Sullivan of Truckee feels more than prepared for the coming race season.”My body is feeling good,” he said. “I’m just trying to get my brain wrapped around competing. My knees are feeling about 90 percent, and I’m just working on the confidence to huck my body down the hill.”In December of 2003, Marco was at Beaver Creek, Colo., on the gnarly Birds of Prey downhill course. After missing a gate, he pulled a frisky jump maneuver off the final air. Landing, he dislocated his right knee and tore three ligaments. The previous winter, the well-liked racer had placed a career-best sixth on the same course.Sullivan immediately found himself in the middle of controversy – ski team head Bill Marolt accused the young racer of taking unnecessary risks. Teammate Daron Rahlves stepped in to defend Sullivan, stating that essentially elite racers are where they are because they are risk takers.Bode Miller – never one to ignore a good brouhaha – agreed, saying that “just going out of the gate at Kitzbuehel is a hundred times riskier than what Marco did.”The storm passed and Marco focused on physical therapy.
“Basically, I haven’t raced now in two seasons. Starting in December of ’03, that’s when I crashed the first time, doing my little stunt,” said Sullivan with a sheepish smile. “Then I was back racing after a year of rehab and I crashed again early last season after being back on skis for only two months. In that crash, I tore my ACL, again on my right knee, and spent last winter away again from racing.”Old family friends from his Tahoe City childhood offered Sullivan a night job grooming the slopes of Homewood. During the day, he worked for the racer-oriented Starthaus Ski Shop in Truckee, owned by former race tech Jim Schaffner.Of his day job, Sullivan said, “Working at the Starthaus kind of kept me connected to the whole race scene. After I got hurt, I’d missed the entire winter before, so when this happened again with my knee, I was pretty bummed. That’s one reason why I took the grooming job. I just wanted to be away from racing. But then when Jim called and asked me to work for him, it was actually pretty good for me. “I’d see a bunch of young racer kids who’d be fired up to have me tune their skis. I worked on a lot of downhill skis and I’d see the kids’ enthusiasm for racing and they’d offer me a lot of encouragement. And I definitely needed that, whether I knew it or not.”Even for injury-free ski team racers, workouts and staying fit are a constant for the athletes. And after a long winter of not skiing, a Hawaiian vacation was an ideal getaway.”I went over to Maui with (teammate) Julia Mancuso,” he said. “Her family has a house there and she was headed over to train with this ex-racer/coach Scott Sanchez. He trains a lot of windsurfers and big wave surfers. I’d spent the whole, long winter in Tahoe and I needed to get away – have a change of pace, a change of scenery, so it sounded good to tag along with Julia.
“We trained for over a month and that was a catalyst for me to get back in shape. Scott kind of kick-started my base fitness level and that set the tone for the rest of the summer,” the 25-year-old Sullivan said.By summer, South Lake Tahoe surgeon Dr. Terry Orr gave Sullivan the go-ahead to join the team on snow. “Luckily, it was a long winter and I was able to get in a few days skiing this past spring,” Sullivan said. “But my knee still wasn’t feeling that good. I didn’t get into gates until August of this year, down in New Zealand. Then I started downhill training in Chile. We had some pretty big jumps and just to get in the air again and get going fast reminded me of what it’s all about. You kind of forget how fun it all is.”But coaches needed to harness Sullivan’s competitiveness to help him avoid any additional setbacks. “My competitive nature has me wanting to come back and just beat everybody the first day back, but my coaches have me on a certain progression, where it’s OK if I’m not racing like normal the first few races, or even the first year,” Sullivan said. “I need to pace myself and realize I’ve been out for a long time. I will be back to where I want to be, I just have to be smart and not get injured again. Now, it’s just the building blocks to get back to 100 percent.”Naturally, on hand when Sullivan attended those summer camps was the ski team’s head speed coach, John McBride. Asked about Sullivan’s recovery, coach “Johno” said, “I think Marco has kept his injury in perspective and he’s been patient in his rehab and his return to racing this second time. He’s been busting his butt with conditioning and he’s skiing well technically. I’m sure that by the time he gets to his first race, Marco will have even more confidence in his knee and his skiing will reflect that. Plus, it’s just great having Marco back with the crew – he’s a great team member.”
And one of those team members is Rahlves, a fellow Truckee resident, who Marco refers to as “a good friend and a role model.” Rahlves, who holds claim as the U.S.’s all-time best downhiller, spoke enthusiastically about his pal.”Marco has some skills to take him to the top. He can make me hurt from laughing at his antics, but also make me envy his touch on snow,” Rahlves said. “All the time he’s spent skiing in Tahoe has turned him into a gliding machine, with an insane touch in long, gliding turns. I always try to watch him at races. He knows how to find speed and let it roll. And I like his attitude: laid back but ready to give it hell when the time comes. He skis with his soul.”Those skills have already put one Olympics on Sullivan’s resume; considering the upcoming festivities in Torino, he has set high goals for the winter. “Lake Louise is a great opening race for me,” he said. “It’s pretty mellow (terrain) as World Cups go and I’ve had good results there in the past. Then I’ll go to Beaver Creek the following week, which is a lot more aggressive course, but I’ve got more time on that hill than any other.”And obviously, it’s an Olympic year, so to make the Olympic team is a huge goal. That’s all based on World Cup results from December and January. Basically, Daron and Bode are in for super-G and downhill, so that leaves just two more spots and there’s probably six or seven guys fighting for those.””Coach” Rahlves offered his buddy one last bit of advice:”Marco can learn a few things, and the biggest one is believing in himself. He has incredible talent and must see that he has what it takes to live out his dreams,” Rahlves said. “The other important quality he must never lose sight of is determination. He’s gone through a lot of tough times lately, but he must hammer through it. Talent only takes you so far – nothing can substitute for desire. I want to see Marco live his dream as much as he does. Marco can make it happen.”