|Travis Ganong reacts after crossing the finish of the men's downhill in Red Tail Stadium at the 2015 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships on Feb. 7, 2015 in Beaver Creek, Colo.
BEAVER CREEK, Colo. — Travis Ganong now knows he belongs.
On the Birds of Prey downhill course at the 2015 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships, the 26-year-old Californian skied an almost perfect run and won his first medal —
a silver — in a big alpine championship. Ganong finished 0.24 seconds behind winner Patrick Kueng from Switzerland. Beat Feuz, also Swiss, rounded out the podium.
“There’s so much pressure here in front of the home country and a hometown crowd, my friends and family,” Ganong said. “I couldn’t really sleep last night. I woke up and said, ‘OK, I’ve skied my whole life. I’ve trained so hard the last couple years. I love to ski, let’s just go out and have some fun.’”
This is the first time a U.S. male skier has won a medal in a world championship downhill since Bode Miller and Daron Rahlves went 1-2 in 2005.
Miller was slated to race the downhill today and would have been a favorite to win, but he pulled out after severing his right hamstring tendon in a crash in the super-G on Thursday.
For Ganong, it was a performance that began at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games almost exactly a year ago. While his teammates struggled in the soft snow above Sochi, Ganong finished fifth in downhill — the top American result.
“In training for the last three to four years, I’ve been really fast against all the people in the whole world,” he explained. “It’s just been a matter of time to finally figure out how to do that in a race. After the Olympics getting fifth, then my podium in Kvitfjell (world cup right after the Sochi Games), then top-10s for the whole year after that. It’s a process, and it’s building and building and building. And it built toward this moment. Hopefully this is just the beginning.”
Ganong announced his arrival right after Christmas this year. In Italy, at the Santa Caterina World Cup, he won the downhill.
Then in January, his momentum slipped.
“He’s been making step-by-step progress for years,” said Sasha Rearick, men’s head coach. “Those steps on the last rung on the ladder have been challenging. He got to the top a month ago. Then you get there and go, ‘How do you stay here?’ He skied miserable in Wengen and awful in Kitzbuehel. He had a great evaluation after Kitzbuehel and said, ‘This is what I’ve got to do. Here’s what I need.’ He put that plan in place and put the execution in to make that happen.”
Ganong also took confidence from friend Rahlves, the retired American ski racer who won the Beaver Creek World Cup downhill in 2003 and 2005. Two nights ago, Ganong watched video with Rahlves of his 2003 run. They also rode the chairlift this morning and inspected the course together (Rahlves was a forerunner).
Rahlves told him: “Go have fun, stick your nose in it, sniff out the fast line and go for it. There’s no reason to hold back.”
Ganong trusts Rahlves, whom he’s known for years, and the former champion’s words instilled confidence. He told Ganong, “You’re a great skier, you can do this, it’s easy, come on.”
Ganong’s silver medal was one of many highlights for the U.S. Ski Team in men’s downhill. Steven Nyman finished a hair off the podium in fourth — 0.03 seconds behind Feuz.
“I know where I lost it,” Nyman said. That’s all I can think about.”
The big 32-year-old downhiller went too straight off the top flat onto the steeps and had to jam a turn to get back online. Other than that, Nyman skied so smoothly that he almost looked slow. He knows this course well, having finished on the world cup podium here three times.
“I was hammering,” Nyman said. “It was so cool. I was tucking in places I’ve never tucked and just charging down the hill and giving it everything. I’m happy with my run. It was really cool to come down to this (roaring crowd), in the lead by a couple tenths.”
His run inspired Ganong, who in the end would be the skier to bump Nyman to fourth.
“I heard he was in second place, so I was like, ‘If he’s fast, I can be fast,’” said Ganong.
Running 35th, Andrew Weibrecht was leading the race until dumping a half-second off the final jump. He held on for ninth place.
Jared Goldberg, who ran first, ended up 20th. The 23-year-old said he rode the chairlift before the race with drunk guys dressed as chickens, and their levity relaxed him.
Despite the fact that he was not at the starting line, Bode Miller helped fire up the team.
“He said to hammer it,” said Weibrecht, who saw Miller before the race.
“The great champion that everyone expected to do something unfortunately had a bad accident,” said Rearick, referring to Miller. “The rest of the guys stepped up. Hats off to all the guys.”
Weibrecht and Nyman are now excited to compete in men’s super combined tomorrow. The race combines one run of downhill with one run of slalom. Neither Weibrecht nor Nyman is known for his slalom skiing, but both were jovial about their chances.
“Hopefully, we can keep the ball rolling,” Nyman added. “We got the combi. I might even race that thing. I got some slalom skills in these legs!”
They were also happy for their teammate.
“Congrats to Travis,” said Nyman, adding with a laugh, “obviously, I’m pissed. But he laid it down.”
As for Ganong, he’s heading home to Squaw Valley.
“I woke up this morning and thought to myself, ‘I’m in this spot, I’ve dreamed of being here and I’m here,’” he said. “I love to ski, and I get to go ski powder in a day-and-a-half when I go home. Let’s have fun, lets go ski another day.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.