Decades Of Success And Memorable Times At The U.S. Ski Team's "Home Away From Home"
by Brian Pinelli
The U.S. men's alpine team pose for a photo at the Hotel Alpino on Dec. 14, 2022 in Val Gardena, Italy.
Tucked away in the Italian Dolomites is the picturesque valley of Val Gardena/Gröden, a ski racing mecca that has been home to World Cup races for more than half of a century. It has also become a welcoming second home for the Stifel U.S. Alpine Team.
Legends of the sport have all won here – Bernhard Russi, Franz Klammer, Peter Mueller, Kristian Ghedina, and more recently Aksel Lund Svindal and Aleksander Aamodt Kilde.
And then there is Team USA. Perhaps it was an omen when Billy Kidd sent a message to his European rivals at the 1970 FIS World Championships. The Colorado skiing legend demonstrated his versatility to win a gold medal in the combined event, and then adding a bronze medal in slalom. With all due respect, it was two more medals than the host Italians.
It may have taken some time after Kidd’s conquest, but U.S. ski racers continue to make their mark on the renowned 2.2-mile long Saslong downhill course.
This week’s program of double downhills and a super-G mark the 55th edition of the classic races in Northern Italy. Friday’s super-G will be a milestone 100th World Cup race in Val Gardena/Gröden’s dating to 1968.
Unheralded U.S. racer Sam Morse, 26, was the fastest of the U.S. squad in Thursday’s opening downhill.
The Sugarloaf, Maine resident executed a calculated gameplan on the Saslong, exceeding expectations to finish tied 10th, 0.50 seconds behind Austrian winner Vincent Kriechmayr. Morse’s previous World Cup career best was 29th.
“We do like the big jumps, the flow of the track is like none other and the Americans have always done well here because of our free skiing style and the finesse that you need through all of the terrain,” Morse told Team USA in the finish area.
The U.S. team’s most recent success came just one year ago as 6-foot-7 Californian Bryce Bennett slayed the Saslong course, crushing the bumpy Ciaslat section en route to his first career World Cup victory. Bennett added to the three wins that veteran Steven Nyman attained over past years (2007, 2013, 2015).
Bode Miller also made his mark here with a super-G victory in 2006 and three second-place finishes, including a downhill race in 2008 as he led five Americans into the top ten. It was one of the finest days in U.S. downhill ski racing lore.
Despite a somewhat disappointing 29th place result on Thursday, it is evident that the two-time Olympian Bennett and former champion, will always adore all that the Saslong has to offer.
“From top to bottom, you’re always in the air with the big jumps, always dealing with some piece of terrain,” Bennett says. “It just suits our freeskiing style. Even if you have a bad run, you’re always in the finish area thinking that was a lot of fun.”
Ryan Cochran-Siegle competes during the men's downhill at the FIS Alpine Skiing World Cup on Dec. 15, 2022 in Val Gardena, Italy.
The ‘Skiing Cochrans’ in Val Gardena
Yet another American success story here is Barbara Ann Cochran, the mother of Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 silver medalist Ryan Cochran-Siegle. Barbara Ann dashed to a silver medal in slalom at the 1970 Val Gardena/Gröden world championships. RCS also has a second-place finish at the Italian resort, in a 2019 downhill.
“I’ve had some pretty similar results as her, although in different events and eras” Cochran-Siegle says. “She’s still ahead of me in overall accomplishments, so I have to give respect when respect is due. I hope I have a lot of potential left.”
About the team’s stellar track record here, RCS adds: “We have the same traditions, we’re always staying at the Alpino Hotel Plan and the food is just so good there. Having that home away from home feeling, it’s just powerful. It allows us to go onto the hill and just enjoy every day.”
Needless to say, the Dolomites valley has been a special place, filled with loads of “Amore” for the team.
Hotel Alpino in Val Gardena, Italy.
A special place and legendary course
Perhaps it is the vibrant mountain air in Val Gardena or maybe it’s the awe-inspiring scenery? The massive 10,436-foot Sassalungo peak towers above the Saslong race course, providing a spectacular backdrop.
Three-time champion Nyman, Cochran-Siegle, Travis Ganong and Jared Goldberg all have an infinity for the varied terrain of the Saslong, a course revered for its famed Camel Humps section, non-stop jumps, the 56.9% gradient Sochers Wall, and the tricky, bump-infested Ciaslat section, that leads to the finish.
The U.S. guys were respectable, but couldn’t find the necessary speed in Thursday’s shortened downhill. Olympic super-G silver medalist Cochran-Siegle finished tied for 14th, Goldberg tied 23rd, Bennett 29th and Ganong 30th. They’ll make two more trips down at the Saslong – a super-G on Friday, followed by the classic Saslong downhill on Saturday
Notably absent was the three-time winner Nyman. The veteran Utah ski racer informed that he’ll miss the trio of races due to a wrist injury sustained in an accident in Beaver Creek, Colorado. Despite the obvious disappointment, the four-time Olympian expressed his enormous passion for the area.
“Look at this sunset under the Saslong, the Dolomites, the Sellaronda,” Nyman said, showing off the area’s spectacular scenery in an Instagram post. “I love being here, I love the people here, but sorry to say that I am not racing here because of my hand.
“Good luck to my teammates. Let’s Go USA. Bring it. We love this hill.”
While the team’s love for the venerable course and positive local vibes is unanimous, another key ingredient s the warmth, hospitality and comfort that they receive at Hotel Alpino Plan in Selva. Selva is one of the three villages that comprise Val Gardena/Gröden. It is conveniently located just a few miles up the road from neighboring Santa Christina, where the Saslong course snakes down into.
The guys savor team dinners together, enjoying delicious local Italian specialties, and some not so local, prepared by their friendly, kind and hospitable host Babs.
“Last night we had spaghetti carbonara and chicken curry,” says Cochran-Siegle. “Before downhill day, she makes us tiramisu for dessert which is always very good. She feeds us well.”
“Every year the menu is the same – tiramisu I think tonight, it should be good,” Bennett says, his mouth watering over the popular Italian “dolce.”
“It’s Italy – we like it here and feel pretty comfortable here,” the tall downhiller says.
“She knows how to let us relax and be ourselves and that’s always nice too,” Cochran-Siegle adds.
Whatever the exact Italian recipe of delights may be, the U.S. downhill racers success speaks for itself. All in a beautiful valley where the languages of German, Italian, naturally some English in more recent times, and the ancient dialect of Ladino are spoken.
Bennett concedes that his Ladino needs improvement.
“No, no, nope, I refuse,” Bennett says, about attempting to speak the exceedingly difficult local dialect. “I just speak American and that’s it,” he says, with a laugh.
One need not be a ski racing prognosticator to deduce that the team’s love for the place is combination of all of many positive attributes, all experienced far away from more familiar mountains in Utah, Colorado, Vermont and Maine. Val Gardena/Gröden has undoubtedly served the U.S. boys well.
It will be onward to Bormio after Val Gardena, to challenge yet another difficult Italian downhill course over Christmas week. However, it is more than evident that the team will always be thrilled to return to Val Gardena/Gröden.
And it’s so much more than just Babs’ famed tiramisu.
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