Team USA? How About Team Tahoe?
BEAVER CREEK, Colo. — Marco Sullivan simply stood in the Birds of Prey finish area Saturday doing his best Superman impersonation.
The 22 year-old Squaw Valley talent kept dodging speeding bullets as candidates from the Austrian, Swiss, French and Norwegian ski teams kept trying to take him down.
Luck, talent and years of training blended together at Beaver Creek, Colo., for Sullivan, with bib No. 7, as he held the provisional lead until the 23rd competitor. He ended the day in a career-best sixth place, and was comfortably outranked by teammate and longtime friend, Daron Rahlves, in third.
“It was cool, I can’t remember the last time I held the lead this long, except at nationals last spring (when he won the super-G title), and I had to watch a few guys come down then. It was pretty nerve-racking here. I was happy — I thought I’d be top 15, but when (reigning downhill world champion Hannes) Trinkl came down and I was still ahead, I knew I’d had a good run. I had no fantasies that I’d win this race — I’m really happy with top 10.
“It was kind of weird (holding the leader board) — it’s never really happened to me before.”
And a bit uncomfortable.
“You have the the camera right in your face,” Sullivan paused and continued with a laugh. “I could get used to that. I know there’s a bunch of good skiers here and I feel really fortunate to beat a bunch of them.”
This World Cup race was mired in controversy since this winter brought new rules governing the start order. After Friday’s last training run — the results determined the racer’s start numbers — many top-ranked racers were penalized with equipment disqualifications. Included in that group was Rahlves of Sugar Bowl, who had nabbed a second-place finish, before being axed due to an illegal knee brace. This put Rahlves back in 37th start position, joined by other veterans such as Lasse Kjus and Kjetil Andre Aamodt of Norway, Hans Knauss of Austria and Freddy Nyberg of Sweden.
This favored Sullivan, who had an unusually early start.
“In Europa Cup, I’ve been ranked top 15, so that means I’ve had good start numbers. Coming to World Cup, I could’ve been way out in the weeds, but the new system worked for the younger guys. The vets who fought for top-15 ranking in World Cup, the faster guys, are slowed down a little bit.
“All the top-ranked guys — Aamodt, Kjus, Daron — usually start earlier, so when the top 30 are done, the race is usually over. Because of all the disqualifications Friday, there were big names running to 40th. The course held up well, it didn’t deteriorate much, so guys like Daron still had a chance. When Daron came through I was screaming for him, even though he was ahead of me. As a team, everyone’s pulling for each other.”
And what did Rahlves have to say about his first podium appearance in two years?
“It’s been tough on me the past couple of years. I’m working with (tuning technician) Willy Wiltz now — he worked on Tommy Moe’s skis back in the day,” Rahlves said.
“There’s a lot of good communication there and with our coaches. I’m just so stoked to have this happen now while we’re in the U.S.”
Not that the U.S. has been any kinder to Rahlves than the European venues.
“Beaver Creek has been a tough place for me — crashes, DNF’s, bad races — everything seems to go wrong here. I was telling myself this was the year I’d come in and try to bring it home for the U.S.,” Rahlves said.
The equipment controversy made Rahlves more focused and determined.
“With all the rule problems, it’s like I was out for revenge, but today I thought that’s all in the past,” Rahlves said. “And the course held up so well. It was better today starting in 37th than when I started ninth in Friday’s training run. I’m just enjoying the moment. I made mistakes today — I did not ski the top that well, but I settled down and got back in the game.”
Getting his equipment dialed in also gave Rahlves more confidence.
“We went back to a boot plastic that was working well for me a couple years ago. We dialed in my Lange’s last week and from day one here in training, I started to get it going. It was time to make it happen,” Rahlves said. “I heard that Marco was in the lead and holding it. I thought that it’d be awesome if I could just step up and have us both on the podium. He did a hell of a job and so did Bode.
“Our team is pumped right now — it feels good individually and also as a real team. There’s a lot of good energy right now and the way it’s going, it’s just going to get better. I’m fired up for Marco, being from Tahoe and a good buddy of mine. Tahoe’s really going to be going off tonight, I can tell you that.”
Sidelined over the summer after his most recent injury, his second dislocated hip while powder skiing prior to U.S. nationals, Rahlves has proven that he’s still got podium power.
“I was off for five months after I got hurt. It was forced time off, so I’ve been hungry to be back on skis,” Rahlves said. “My hip is ready to go, but I had to get there mentally. Basically, I need to stay off super-G skis when I’m skiing fresh spring powder.”
As the current world champion in super-G, Rahlves is used to the media frenzy, while teammate Sullivan had his first taste.
“It’s not a bad thing to have everyone focused on you … it’s pretty good to get the attention,” Sullivan said. “Now, with my name a bit more recognized, it’ll add a little bit of pressure. The same thing happened at Lake Louise last week; even though I didn’t finish the downhill, I’d done top 5 in the training runs, so no one left the finish area until I came through.”
For Sullivan, he’s just one step closer to realizing a friendly bet with good pal and ski team racer Jonna Mendes.
“The first one of us that wins a World Cup has to buy the other season tickets to the Giants,” said Sullivan with a smile.
Rahlves was one of 15 racers who didn’t finish Sunday’s super-G. Sullivan came in 33rd.
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