With more medals for Bode Miller and Andrew Weibrecht, U.S. ski team living up to hype

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 20, 2010; D01

WHISTLER, B.C. -- When Bode Miller and Andrew Weibrecht climbed onto a podium at the base of the racecourse here, each raised his arms -- Miller a gentle wave, Weibrecht a double-armed pump -- to celebrate. They peered into stands that were still filled with skiing fans. The sight: an American flag on the left; another in the middle; two more on the right. Stars and stripes, they were everywhere, and there's no reason to believe -- over the rest of an already record-setting Vancouver Olympics -- that such an image will change.

"You're seeing a level of skiing out of the U.S. team that we haven't put down in a long time," Miller said, "or ever."

The latter part of that sentence is correct. On Friday, Miller took a silver medal in the super-G, his second medal in as many events this week, beaten only by Norwegian stalwart Aksel Lund Svindal. Behind Miller, with bronze, came the surprising Weibrecht, a 24-year-old who had never before finished better than 10th in any World Cup race of any discipline. And swirling all around was the momentum of a team that has now set an American record with six Alpine medals, one more than the U.S. won in 1984 in Sarajevo.

And to think: There are six races remaining. Lindsey Vonn? Yes, she has her gold in the women's downhill. But she could crash out of her remaining three races, and this entire effort would still have to be characterized as a resounding success.

"It was the Lindsey Vonn show coming in," American Marco Sullivan said. "Now it's turned into the U.S. Ski Team show."

That team is reshaping what might be realistic. When the group arrived here, no American skier had won more than two Olympic medals -- in a career. The multi-talented Vonn, of course, was to be the one to threaten that record in a single Games. Instead, what has resulted has been a full-on group effort.

On Monday, Miller became the first U.S. skier with three career medals. Thursday, Julia Mancuso matched him by winning her second silver of the week, prizes that go nicely with her gold from 2006. Miller countered with his performance Friday, when he won his fourth medal in his fourth discipline; it will join silvers from 2002 in combined and giant slalom, events that are still to come here, as well as the bronze from the downhill earlier in the week.

This game of jingoistic one-upsmanship may never end.

"I've always believed in skiing all the events and tried to win in all the events," Miller said.

That appears to be what the Americans are doing, building on each other's performances and trying to win each race. Over the past decade, the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association has taken some heat for its slogan, "Best in the World," particularly during times when that obviously wasn't the case. That includes the 2006 Games, when Mancuso and Ted Ligety salvaged a potentially disastrous Olympics by winning a pair of golds. The idea, team CEO Bill Marolt has said repeatedly, is that the slogan is a goal, not a statement of fact. That, though, could be changing.

"If a team's momentum is moving in the right direction, everybody's going to feel it and everybody's going to get excited by it," Weibrecht said. "Watching the girls have such strong results right off the bat and having Bode have that great result in the downhill, it sort of started the ball rolling."

That ball rolled right into the super-G, which was staged on a challenging, icy track that hurled 15 competitors off course, including Sweden's Patrik Jaerbyn in violent fashion. Weibrecht was the third of 63 starters, and even his ride looked wobbly in spots. When he reached the bottom, his time of 1 minute, 30.65 seconds was in first place -- a position that he had never before held in a World Cup event, even for a moment. So he thumped his chest with satisfaction.

How, though, could it hold up?

"I expected to make it through to about Bode, and he was going to put a run down like six-tenths faster," Weibrecht said.

That, of course, would be a reasonable expectation, not only because Weibrecht's best World Cup finish in a super-G race was 11th, but because the list of marquee names to follow -- Svindal, Miller, Switzerland's Didier Cuche and Carlo Janka, Austria's Benjamin Raich and others -- was deep and threatening.

Of those, Miller came first, and he skied the top portion of the course flawlessly. He did not, he said, wake up with the same feeling he did the morning of the downhill, when he appeared inspired by the mere idea of being at the Olympics. But he is still, arguably, the most talented skier in the world, and as he barreled down the course, another medal became a distinct possibility.

"For me, Bode is hard to describe . . . because he is a crazy guy," Raich said. "He is a perfect skier. He is the man with the fastest turns, I would say. And he showed that."

He finished all of .03 of a second ahead of Weibrecht, in first for the moment. Eight skiers later came Svindal, who already won silver in the downhill.

"At the start, I thought, 'Put a smile on your face,' " Svindal said. " 'You already have a silver. Go for the gold and see what happens.' "

As it turned out, he was the only one who could top Miller's time, and he did so by all of .28 of a second. To be sure, the Americans' success in this event came by the slimmest of margins. Italy's Werner Heel was only .02 of a second behind Weibrecht, Canada's Erik Guay only another hundredth behind that.

"There's certainly an element of luck involved there," Miller said.

By the end of the day, though, it was clear: The Americans, in these Olympics, have been both lucky and good. And when Miller walked off the hill, signing autographs and posing for photos with fans, the primary remaining question was: How many more medals could he and his teammates possibly win?

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