BEAVER CREEK, Colo. — The landscape is a familiar one. Nearly two decades ago, Bode Miller was a young hotshot on skis as the top American racers — stars like Tommy Moe, Picabo Street, A.J. Kitt and Kyle Rasmussen — were wrapping up stellar careers.
“The reality is we came into a pretty grim situation. . . . They didn’t leave a whole lot behind in terms of stuff for us to know, to win,” Miller said. “It was all kind of a mystery.”
Twenty or so years later, Miller is retired and the finish line is in sight for many of the top racers from his generation. Alpine skiing in the United States isn’t exactly at a crossroads, but just a couple of weeks into a new World Cup season — and a couple of months away from the PyeongChang Olympics — it’s increasingly clear that the torch is hoisted, waiting for a younger crop of American racers to grab it.
“It’s going to be a question mark of how it moves from now,” said Miller, who is a race analyst for NBC. “We are in another phase like that where a lot of veterans are moving on and [it’s] up to the young guys to pick it up.”
The first few weeks of the new season have not provided the most optimistic glimpses of what the Olympics might hold for the top U.S. Alpine skiers. Particularly on the men’s team, decorated veterans coming off injuries are showing signs of rust, and younger racers haven’t come close to finding the podium.
Steven Nyman, the 35-year-old three-time Olympian, has made the trek to two World Cup stops but hasn’t felt comfortable enough with his injured knee to race. Ted Ligety, the 33-year-old who has also been to three Olympics, has missed most of the past two seasons because of injuries. He has entered two super-G races this year, including Friday’s at Beaver Creek, and failed to finish either.
In that race, Andrew Weibrecht was the top U.S. finisher, posting the day’s 21st-best time. And in Saturday’s downhill race on the Birds of Prey course, the American racers fared no better; Bryce Bennett was the top U.S. competitor, finishing in 21st place.
On the women’s side, Lindsey Vonn, who missed much of last season with a broken arm, made her season debut Friday at Lake Louise, Canada, a familiar course where she has posted 18 career wins. But in the downhill race, she tumbled and crashed into the safety netting, leaving the Alpine world breathless for several seconds. She tweeted later: “Well that hurt . . . I’ll be sore tomorrow but will rest up tonight and barring anything major I will be racing. Can’t keep me down!”
For the American men, much of the PyeongChang podium prospects could hinge on how Ligety and Nyman progress in these next two months. Nyman took part in training runs and served as a forerunner the past two days in Beaver Creek, skiing the course ahead of the competitors.
He shredded the ligaments in his knee in January and knew that recovery would be a process. After missing a full summer of training, his goal was to be 100 percent by PyeongChang, not Beaver Creek, so in these early stages, success is measured by progress more than podiums.
“My main focus is February,” Nyman said. “I know I can compete at the top level and I don’t want to come back until I know I can compete for that podium.”
Ligety, a gold medal winner in the 2006 and 2014 Olympics, tore his anterior cruciate ligament in January 2016. He returned to competition nine months later but lasted only a month before a back injury sidelined him. Last January, he opted for surgery, ending a second straight season early.
“This is actually the first time in a couple of years that I’ve actually felt healthy,” he said last week.
He’ll hope to jump-start his season Sunday in the giant slalom, competing on a friendly mountain where he has posted six career wins and reached 12 podiums.
“I think the best way to prepare for the Olympics is having a good World Cup season. . . . For me, just having these week in and week out races is great preparation,” he said.
Perhaps more than recent years, the World Cup season will serve as a measuring stick, as skiers and coaches will constantly be checking finish times — in addition to joints, backs and confidence levels. Aside from Ligety and Nyman, the only other U.S. men on the World Cup circuit who have scored a podium are Travis Ganong and Weibrecht, who surprised many by winning Olympic medals in the super-G at each of the last two Winter Games.
His success on the Olympic stage is why many will be monitoring the progress of Ligety and Nyman but also keeping a close eye on some younger racers — guys like Bennett, 25, and Jared Goldberg, 26, both of whom are in search of a breakout season.
“The U.S., more than any country on the planet, is known for producing incredible results for guys you couldn’t have predicted,” Miller said.
“We’re a little bit of a maverick culture. We go big at big games. Because skiing is not a major sport for us on a daily, weekly, yearly basis, the Olympic cycle is more pronounced in our country than most of the big skiing nations.”