BY SCOTTIE BIBB I JULY 16, 2013
|Marco Sullivan posing during a U.S. Olympic Committee/NBC Olympics
photo shoot in late April 2013 West Hollywood, Calif.
For as long as he can remember, Olympic downhill skier Marco Sullivan has had a need for speed.
A participant in the downhill and super-G events at the 2002 and 2010 Olympic Winter Games as well as four World Championships, Sullivan has always known that, more than anything else in the world, he wanted to be skiing.
At 2, he was on skis. By 5, he was racing down mountains.
“I was lucky enough to grow up in Tahoe City, Calif.,” Sullivan, now 33, said. “It’s really close to Lake Tahoe and a bunch of other ski areas.”
Sullivan’s uncle headed up the ski racing team at the Squaw Valley resort — where the 1960 Winter Games were held. Squaw Valley was where Sullivan’s mother also worked.
“My sister and I would hang around Squaw and wait for my mom to get off work,” Sullivan said. “Because she worked there, we got free lift tickets. My sister and I spent most of our time after school skiing.”
By age 7, Sullivan was racing with Squaw Valley’s Mighty Mites program and was hooked on the rush of going fast on skis.
“One of the great things about growing up in a skiing community is the support for the sport,” Sullivan said. “If you were a member of the ski team, you could get out of class in the afternoons and go skiing. The ski coach would give you a grade for your P.E. class.
“It worked out really well for me. I was pretty much able to ski seven days a week for my entire childhood.”
By 10, Sullivan had started traveling to Far West Skiing competitions (a division of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association). The majority of the competitions were held close to home, within the Tahoe Basin, because of the availability of numerous ski resorts within the geographic area.
“I did well in those races and, when I was about 15, I started racing nationally,” he recalled.
The competitions served to solidify Sullivan’s desire to participate in the sport to a more significant degree.
“At that level, I realized that I really loved it (competitive skiing), and I was pretty darn good at it. That’s when I got serious about it,” Sullivan said.
“Serious” for Sullivan meant making the U.S. Ski Team at 19 and embarking on international travel for competitions. It also meant conquering some of the most serious competitive courses in the world, often at speeds exceeding 90 mph.
“When people hear that we’re traveling that fast, they immediately think we’re crazy and that it’s impossible for us to have any control at that speed,” Sullivan said. “I’ve been skiing since I was 2 years old, so I’ve basically built up this skill set that means I’m pretty much completely comfortable going that fast on skis.”
The unfortunate reality, however, is that sometimes even the best of the best catch an edge, hit an icy patch, or are unable to dig an edge deep enough on a turn, leading to what can be serious, even career-ending injuries.
|Marco Sullivan competes during the Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup
men's downhill training on Jan. 16, 2013 in Wengen, Switzerland.
In December 2010, Sullivan suffered a horrific crash during a practice run at the World Cup race in Bormio, Italy. The first skier out of the gate during the training session, Sullivan lost control while landing a jump. He was airlifted to a local-area hospital in Sondalo, to undergo tests for possible head injuries.
Sullivan later missed the majority of the 2011-12 season due to a back injury, but he fought his way back to health and a place on the U.S. Ski Team.
“After my injury, I was still on the team, but because I had missed so many races the previous season I didn’t accumulate any points, which meant that I lost a lot of my funding,” Sullivan said.
“I got a lot of help from the ski community. They really came together and raised the money that I needed to focus on my training and get back into competitive form. I was on the podium on the first (World Cup) race of the season, in Lake Louise (Canada). That was really a defining point in my career. I was able to come back, even though a lot of people had written me off.
“It’s definitely a big mental battle to get back on your skis after you’ve had a big wreck. It kind of comes with the territory, I guess.”
In the offseason, Sullivan is busy living a life similar to that of the surfers featured in the seminal 1966 documentary “The Endless Summer,” only with skis instead of surfboards.
“We do chase the snow a lot, because it’s hard to emulate skiing in the gym,” Sullivan said. “We travel down to the southern hemisphere in the summer. We go to Chile and New Zealand. We ski on Mount Hood in Oregon. We’re trying to ski on snow for about nine months out of the year. It requires a lot of travel, but we’re doing what we love to do.”
Seemingly unable to get enough of the snow and adrenaline, for the past three years Sullivan has participated in Alaska’s Arctic Man competition.
The event, which combines downhill skiing and snowmobile racing, takes place in a desolate area of Alaska, approximately halfway between Fairbanks and Anchorage. Skiers begin the race at a summit elevation of 5,800 feet and descend nearly 1,700 feet in a span of less than two miles. After meeting up with their snowmobile-driving teammate, the skier is towed by a rope back up the 2 ¼ miles back up the mountain at speeds nearing 90 mph. The skier and driver then separate and the skier descends a second mountain to the finish line.
The competition is indicative of Sullivan’s “go fast or go home” approach to life.
“We broke the four-minute barrier this year,” Sullivan said with pride. “That’s a course record.”
When he’s not barreling down a mountainside at breakneck speeds, Sullivan is passing on his love for the sport to the next generation of up-and-coming skiers.
Earlier this year he was invited by two-time Olympian and fellow downhill skier Stacey Cook to coach children at a ski camp at Mammoth Mountain Ski Area.
“It was so cool,” Sullivan said. “About 60 kids came to the camp. We helped them develop their skills, and I think that’s really fun."
“I’ve spent so much time acquiring knowledge about downhill skiing; I think it’s important to pass that knowledge on to the younger generation. It’s such a great sport, and you can see that in the faces of the kids when they go off a jump for the first time, or do something they’ve never done on skis before. It’s pretty rewarding for me to see that.”
It seems the only time Sullivan is away from the snow is in the late spring and early summer months, when the snow is truly elusive.
That time is spent mountain biking and in the gym, working with weights to help develop the muscles required for racing down a mountain at up to 100 mph.
“In the summer I ride a lot. I’m pretty much out on my bike, up in the mountains every day,” he said.
The training has been ratcheted up a notch for this season, as Sullivan has his sights set on competing in his fourth Olympic Winter Games.
“It would be huge for me to qualify for the Games in Sochi,” Sullivan said. “It’s such an honor to represent your country and be recognized as one of the best in the world at what you do.”
He finished ninth in downhill in the Winter Games in 2002 and was 23rd in the super-G in 2010. He is looking for a medal in Sochi.
“It’s an elusive podium,” he said. “The last two times I’ve been to the Games I was pretty much a long shot for a medal. I’d like to go into Sochi having a solid chance at being in the top group that’s on the podium."
The first men’s downhill and super-G races of the World Cup season take place over Thanksgiving weekend at Lake Louise Ski Resort in Alberta, Canada, before the circuit moves to Beaver Creek, Colo. for the annual Audi Birds of Prey races, the sole domestic World Cup stop for the men.
“You’ve got to be on your game starting with the first race of the season,” he said. “In every race everyone wants to win, but if you’re finishing in the top 30, you’re scoring World Cup points and ascending in the rankings. Everyone is skiing well, but you might not take that extra risk for the points for the victory.”
The Olympic Winter Games, however, are a completely different story when it comes to laying everything on the line.
“At the Olympics,” he said, “it’s the opposite of that. Everyone is taking every possible risk to win the race. Even though it’s a lot of the same guys who are racing every week in the World Cup, it’s just that added excitement of the Olympics that gives everyone more intensity.”
“Because that’s the ultimate glory — Olympic gold.”