Bode Miller, the United States’ most decorated Olympic ski racer, retired last month.
On Saturday, Miller conceded with a snicker that most American sports fans will have no idea that he left the sport until they tune into the Winter Olympics in two months. It is the nature of the Olympic cycle in North America.
“Ski racing is a once-every-four-years thing for a lot of Americans,” Miller, 40, said here. “But when Americans do turn to the Winter Olympics, they’ve gotten used to our skiers producing incredible, outsize results.”
But just eight weeks before the start of the Pyeongchang Games, a worrisome question lingers: Can the American men’s team keep up with their incandescent counterparts on the women’s team?
It’s not a mixed gender competition, but both men’s and women’s ski racers from the United States have set an extraordinary pace in this decade, winning 13 Alpine medals in the last two Olympics. The split by gender has been almost even, with the men winning seven medals, including four for Miller.
But as the three men’s World Cup races at the Beaver Creek resort this weekend proved, much of the men’s team seems caught in limbo without Miller and other racers of his generation. The lone bright spot at Beaver Creek was a seventh place finish by Ted Ligety, the 33-year-old, two-time Olympic gold medalist in his first giant slalom race since back surgery.
Tommy Ford had the next highest result for an American on the weekend, with a 10th place in the same race. In the super-G and downhill races, no American placed higher than 21st.
The American men’s cupboard is not bare — in fact, it appears to be stocked with promising teenagers and other developing young racers. But it will be asking a lot to expect those budding prospects to be ready by the Olympics in February.
Plenty of powerful ski racing nations go through rebuilding periods, but for the Americans, the timing is bad if some of that renewal overlaps with an Olympic year.
As Miller said: “We are in another phase where a lot of the veterans are moving on, and it’s going to be up to the young guys to pick it up. It’s going to be a question mark.”
Or, perhaps the women, who have two shining stars in Mikaela Shiffrin and Lindsey Vonn, may just have to carry the team. They did their best from Friday to Sunday in three races at the Lake Louise resort in Alberta.
Shiffrin, 22, won her first downhill — a milestone achievement — and also had a third place and a fifth place.
Vonn was leading the first downhill of the Lake Louise event when she toppled to the snow in a hard crash not far from the finish line. She bruised her right hip and did not look much like herself in the next two races. She was 12th in the second downhill and failed to finish a super-G after sliding off the course.
We came into a pretty grim situation,” Miller, now an analyst for NBC Sports, said. “We had an outgoing crew of A.J. Kitt, Tommy Moe and Picabo Street who were all phasing out of their careers. Honestly, they didn’t leave a whole lot behind.”
Miller added: “We were a really young team and had no leadership at all. Funding was horrendous and we were at the very bottom of the World Cup pecking order when it came to everything from lodging to training venues.
“It just so happened that my attitude and Daron’s attitude worked well together; we pushed each other,” said Miller, a six-time Olympic medalist who also won four world championship gold medals. “Something like that can become contagious for the whole team and it blossoms.”
The United States ski team is hoping a similar phenomenon will overtake its next generation of skiers, who, because of modern ski technology, will be fundamentally different from previous skiers who have come through the American pipeline.
Unlike their elders, the youngest members of the current United States team spent their entire lives skiing on shaped race skis, which, because of their parabolic silhouettes, are easier to turn.
The gear is expected to produce racers with a pioneering approach.
“It’s a different style coming up, more arcing of turns and less sliding,” said Sam Morse, a 21-year-old member of the American team who earlier this year won the downhill at the junior world championships.
Morse grew up idolizing Miller and Rahlves but he sees change on the horizon.
“The days of Bode and Daron, it was just like wide-open courses and it was all about how fast can you send it,” said Morse, who like Miller skied at the Carrabassett Valley Academy in Maine. “That’s becoming less of the ticket to win. Now it’s about whether you can be technically clean through some big, fast turns. Those guys were awesome. It’s not that we’ll be better, but we will be different.”