BEAVER CREEK, Colo. — The last time Bode Miller competed in a world championship in Vail-Beaver Creek, he was a 21-year-old ski racer who had yet to stand on the world cup podium. His best result at 1999 worlds was an eighth in slalom.
But what he remembers best is how dominant skiers like Austria’s Hermann Maier and Norway’s Lasse Kjus were at those championships.
Kjus won the giant slalom and earned silver medals in slalom, combined and downhill, while he tied with Maier for the super-G win. Maier also won the downhill.
Fast forward 16 years and Miller sees the current U.S. Ski Team returning to Vail-Beaver Creek as a powerhouse on both the men’s and women’s sides, with the ability to dominate, if not as much as Kjus and Maier, then close to it.
“It’s incredible to come in a bit the way the Austrians were that year (1999) where they felt like the podium was theirs in every event,” Miller said in a press conference on the eve of the 2015 FIS World Alpine Ski Championships.
Although men’s head coach Sasha Rearick has yet to announce who will compete in the men’s super-G, scheduled for Wednesday, he faces a tough challenge. The men’s team simply has too many proven winners. Five-time world championship medalists Miller and Ted Ligety lead the team. Close behind are Steven Nyman and Travis Ganong, who have both earned world cup victories this season. And Andrew Weibrecht is aiming for another big-event medal in super-G to match his Olympic silver and bronze medals in the discipline.
Despite not having raced yet this season, Miller will likely compete in the super-G. Now 37, Miller underwent back surgery in November to repair a herniated disc. But he has eight podium finishes on the Beaver Creek courses, dating back to 2004, and he is also a five-time world championship medalist.
Miler foreran the downhills at the Wengen and Kitzbuhel world cups in January, skiing aggressively.
“That was the last step before I could feel comfortable coming in and putting the gas pedal down and race,” he said. “As far as what I had hoped to have happen, everything went as well as I could have hoped. I’m here and ready to race.”
When asked if he has recovered 100 percent, Miller did not answer definitively. He said that he has no pain while sitting, and the injury no longer restricts his movement while he’s skiing. He has trained hard, so far with no problems. But back injuries can flare up with no warning. Still, Miller won’t back down.
“Coming in here for the world championships, if Sasha is going to put me in there, I’m going to try to win the races,” Miller stated.
Ligety also wants to win races, though he knows his chances of defending his three world championship titles from 2013 are slim. He won the giant slalom, super-G and super combined titles at that event.
“Obviously defending all three would be a dream come true,” he said. “But I don’t think that’s necessarily the most realistic expectation, so I’m not really getting nervous about it.”
Ligety admitted that his giant slalom has not gone as smoothly as in previous years, where he dominated the discipline. But he has won one world cup giant slalom this year. And it was on the Beaver Creek course in December 2014.
“If there’s a hill where I would have confidence without necessarily skiing well, this would be the hill,” he said. “I feel like I’m skiing better now than I have in a while this season. This is a hill that I like, and I feel really comfortable trying to push the limits on it.”
Nyman also likes the courses at Beaver Creek, particularly the Birds of Prey downhill, where he finished third in December.
“The hill is one of my favorites on tour,” Nyman said. “It’s just a well-rounded hill. It has everything, all the great aspects of a good downhill: big air, good gliding, steep pitches, high, high speeds.”
Happy to be skiing in front of a partisan crowd, Nyman was full of catchy phrases when talking about his approach at this world championships, such as “you’ve got to risk it for the biscuit.”
“I got some ideas in my head how to approach it again,” he said of the downhill, scheduled for Saturday. “You gotta push for medals, so that’s my approach.”
The U.S. Ski Team has shown at the previous two Olympic Winter Games and world championships that medals beget medals. So expectations are high for the team to start off the men’s and women’s super-G races this week with podium performances.
U.S. Ski & Snowboard Association CEO Tiger Shaw is excited about the team’s prospects, and not just from the team veterans.
“I like to say that I hope we do better than I expect and nearly as well as I hope,” Shaw said. “Our fingers are crossed. We have lots of superstars, and we have some underdogs that are quite capable too. Events like these and the Olympics are where the underdogs often shine. So we’re hoping for a few of those, too. They could come from any country, but we hope they come from our team.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.