Since 1998 the slogan of the U.S. ski team has appeared as wishful hyperbole on the team's website and in press releases: "Best in the World!" Although that boast has yet to be backed up on the slopes, last winter the U.S. turned in its finest season since 1983, finishing third behind Austria and Italy in World Cup points.
Buoyed by that performance and with the 2006 Olympics a little more than a year off, U.S. coaches have set a lofty goal of eight medals for this season's World Alpine Championships in Bormio, Italy (Jan. 29--Feb. 13)--two more than the team's best showing, in 2003. The U.S. also expects to make a strong run at the Austrians and the Italians in the World Cup standings.
But achieving that "best in the world" billing may be too much to ask this season--the U.S. is a good team with too many question marks. Last year Bode Miller and Daron Rahlves finished fourth and fifth, respectively, in the World Cup overall standings, the best performance by an American duo since the Mahre brothers went first and third in 1982. Miller and Rahlves are proven racers, but there is a dearth of dependable and healthy skiers behind them. The women's team, though less talented at the top, is younger and deeper than the men's, with Julia Mancuso and Lindsey Kildow, both 20, capable of breakout seasons.
So who are the best hopes to amass World Cup points and win world championship medals this season?
Bode Miller Last year's World Cup leader in giant slalom skied to a resounding victory in this season's debut GS last month on the glacier in Soelden, Austria. Miller won six races in 2003--04 and was in contention for the overall crown until the final weekend, when he faded to fourth. Once an impetuous phenom prone to crashes, Miller at 27 is looser and wiser. If he gets it together this year, he'll be the first U.S. skier to win the overall World Cup in 20 years.
Daron Rahlves Last year the former motocross daredevil and world champion jet skier solidified his claim as the greatest male U.S. speed-event skier ever. He pumped his career victory total to eight, with downhill victories at Beaver Creek, Colo., and Sestriere, Italy, and Super G wins at Kvitfjell, Norway, and Kitzb�hel, Austria. It was the second triumph on the treacherous Kitzb�hel hills in as many years for Rahlves, 31--he won the famed Hahnenkamm there in 2003--certifying him as a big-hill racer. "Americans don't always like the tough courses," says Austrian superstar Hermann Maier, "so full respect to him because he can win anywhere."
Erik Schlopy After winning his first championship medal in 2003--a giant slalom bronze at St. Moritz--Schlopy tore his left ACL last November in Park City during the second race of the season. By May the hard-nosed Schlopy, 32, was back in a wind tunnel perfecting his tuck, and he has been training in Austria since October with Miller, who's often as aggressive on his skis as Schlopy is cautious. Schlopy's specialties are the technical events (slalom and giant slalom) that require sharp, decisive turns, so the early-season races will test his knee.
Kirsten Clark The team's most talented female skier may also have the best sense of humor. Last January, Clark ended her season when she sailed spread-eagled into a restraining net during a race in Haus, Austria. She suffered a sprain in her right knee, a torn ACL in her left knee and a broken right wrist, but said, "At least now I know I can do the splits." Clark, 27, is the only skier, male or female, with four consecutive U.S. downhill titles, but she has never won an Olympic or world championship race.
Kristina Koznick For the second time Koznick, 29, has left the U.S. team program to train on her own. The rift is an outgrowth of her departure in 2001, when the U.S. federation failed to renew the contract of Dan Stripp, a team coach with whom she was having a relationship. Koznick, who sells Tshirts on her website to raise money for the travel and training expenses normally paid by the U.S. ski team, remains the top American hope in the slalom and giant slalom.