Olympic Preview: The Comeback Kids

Timing may be right for strong performance in PyeongChang from U.S. Men’s Ski Team

By Lisa Antonucci

As the world turns its attention this February to PyeongChang, Korea, and the 2018 Olympic Winter Games, the U.S. men’s alpine ski team is focused on exceeding the success it enjoyed in Sochi, Russia, in 2014. Ted Ligety earned his second Olympic gold medal in Sochi, while Andrew Weibrecht also collected his second piece of Olympic hardware. However, serious injuries have put the Americans at risk of missing out on a men’s alpine medal for the first time since 1998.

In 2016, the U.S. men went a full ‘calendar year’ without a World Cup win in any discipline for the first time since 1999. Travis Ganong broke that skid in January, 2017, with a downhill win at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, but that same day, three-time Olympian Steven Nyman suffered a season-ending crash. Ligety hasn’t won in two years, his seasons cut short by a knee injury in 2016 and back surgery in 2017, and veteran Bode Miller announced his retirement this fall, signaling the end of an American ski-racing era.

Never fear, says U.S. alpine team director Patrick Riml, who noted Team USA is more than capable of matching its Sochi success in PyeongChang, and could even surprise with more spectacular performances.

“Yes, we’ve had some struggles with injuries with two of our team leaders – Ted Ligety and Steven Nyman – but both are making strong comebacks,” said Riml. “We also have strong potential from some of the younger guys including Jared Goldberg, who won a FIS downhill in Copper Mountain [earlier in November] among a stacked international field, as well as Bryce Bennett and Tommy Biesemeyer, who have been skiing fast in their prep period training.”

Ligety, who underwent a microdisectomy on his back in January 2017, plans to be strong contender for gold in PyeongChang. He has good memories to draw on for South Korea, too, as it is where he captured his very first World Cup GS victory in 2006.

“I’m excited to have a year where I can be healthy and start to push my skiing,” he recently told NBC Sports. “If I can keep on this trajectory I’m on right now, I know I can ski fast.”

The two-time Olympic champion won the combined event at the 2006 Games in Torino, Italy, and in 2014, he became the first American man to win GS gold and the first in U.S. history to win two Olympic gold medals in alpine skiing.

“When I was winning races a couple of years ago, that’s the level these guys have surpassed. I have to go beyond [that],” said Ligety, who is second only to the great Ingemar Stenmark (46 wins) in men’s World Cup victories, with 24. “I’ve got to raise my game for sure.”

Fast is the name of the game as well for three-time Olympian Nyman, who has been the top American downhiller since Sochi. Nyman suffered a complete tear to his MCL and PCL and a partial tear to his ACL this past January, but once he returns to the World Cup circuit, he is likely to join the Olympic medal conversation. At 35, he’s not much older than the top European speed racers. In the Olympic test event in 2016, Nyman finished third in DH at the Jeongseon Alpine Center in South Korea. Filled with big jumps and a lot of terrain, the newly developed course in Jeongseon fits perfectly within his skill set. According to Nyman, the Olympic course feels like a combination between the dry, grippy, buttery smooth snow at Beaver Creek, Colorado, and the flow at Val Gardena, Italy.

Fellow downhiller Travis Ganong, 29, also could rack up points at any given World Cup. He’s won two World Cup events and had two additional podiums since 2014 and placed second in DH at the 2015 Vail/Beaver Creek World Championships. He has excelled on the big stage, placing fifth in his Olympic debut in the Sochi downhill and earning silver in DH at the 2015 Worlds.

Rounding out the U.S. men’s Olympic threat is two-time medalist, Weibrecht, who posted his most successful World Cup season in 2016, starting with a Bronze at the 2015 Birds of Prey Super G and continuing on to earn a total of five top-5 finishes that season. He followed it up with eight top-30 finishes in 2017.

“Andrew often shows up at big events and is looking to add another medal to his Olympic collection,” Riml noted.

In Vancouver in 2010, Weibrecht grabbed the Olympic super-G bronze medal and then in 2014, produced a truly inspirational run to claim silver. The result added his name to the elite two-time Olympic medalist club for American men, which includes with Miller, Ligety, Tommy Moe and Phil Mahre.

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