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Training, technology and talent takes the U.S. Ski Team to new heights

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    The Alpine World Ski Championships got under way in Colorado this week, where the U.S. team is hoping for some unprecedented medal wins. And in a non-Olympics year, the U.S. is also aiming to grab public attention for a team that has emerged as a power in its own right.

    The NewsHour's Mary Jo Brooks reports.

  • MARY JO BROOKS:

    Nineteen-year-old Mikaela Shiffrin is methodical about preparation. We watched as she warmed up before a series of training runs on her home in Vail, Colorado.

    Shiffrin said she learned from her ski racing parents that a laser-like focus on the fundamentals will bring about speed and success. Last year, she became the youngest slalom racer to win gold in Olympic history.

  • MIKAELA SHIFFRIN, U.S. Ski Team:

    Pretty much my entire career, I have always just focused on making sure my techniques and my tactics and my equipment and everything is dialed in, my strength and my nutrition, and keeping everything so dialed in that when it comes to racing, I can put 99 percent out on the hill and that's enough to win.

    And I don't have to risk that extra 1 percent that a lot of racers risk and end up getting injured.

  • MARY JO BROOKS:

    Shiffrin is one of the bright young stars on a U.S. ski team which itself has undergone methodical transformation. In a sport that has long been dominated by Europeans, the team hopes that this year's Alpine World Championships will cement its ascendancy as a skiing powerhouse.

    Three of the team's other big stars, Lindsey Vonn, Bode Miller, and Ted Ligety, are also competing here. The 30-year old Vonn, who sat out last year's Olympics because of serious knee injuries, has already claimed a bronze medal here in the women's Super-G. Last month, she set the all-time record for wins by a female ski racer, having amassed 64 victories at the sport's top level, and she vows there's more to come.

  • LINDSEY VONN, U.S. Ski Team:

    My goal is just to try to ski my best every day and try to win as many races as I can, world championships, World Cups, Olympics. Just try to keep improving. Keep pushing the limits. And that's what I do. That's what I love about ski racing. It's just you and the mountain and it's just how hard you can push yourself.

  • MARY JO BROOKS:

    Tiger Shaw, CEO of the U.S. ski team, and a former Olympian himself, credits these four superstars for the team's rise to dominance.

    TIGER SHAW, CEO, U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association: They have a personality that elevates everything to a new level. And so we're fortunate to have them. And we encourage that. There's individual personalities. And this is a crazy sport. And having wild, crazy successful people doing it really helps drive it to another level.

  • MARY JO BROOKS:

    But Shaw says the team's success also rests on corporate money that has allowed the team to train more rigorously year-round, whether it's chasing winter in South America or New Zealand or taking to the glaciers in Europe.

  • TIGER SHAW:

    We have learned how to compete in Europe. So, that's the bottom line. This sport is highly contested in Europe. And if you can't handle being on the road two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight weeks in a row, then it's not for you.

    And so the athletes you see doing well now have mastered that.

  • MARY JO BROOKS:

    Six-time Olympic medalist Bode Miller has been a main driver behind this change. His often contentious relationship with the U.S. ski team at one point led him to start his own independent operation. He eventually rejoined the U.S. squad after many of the things he initially fought for were adopted as standard team policy, things like providing better housing, food and conditioning for athletes when they're on the road.

  • BODE MILLER, U.S. Ski Team:

    The strife that I had with the team and the kind of bickering back and forth was productive, actually. I take pride in the fact that I played a role in getting us to where we are today.

  • MARY JO BROOKS:

    At 37, Miller is now the old man on the team. He's raced today for the first time since undergoing back surgery nine weeks ago. After a strong start, he caught his arm on a gate, sending him tumbling down a hill an out of the race. With a huge gash on his leg, he managed to ski to the bottom, where he was greeted by adoring fans.

  • NATHANIEL VINTON, New York Daily News:

    I think downhill skiers are the most interesting athletes.

  • MARY JO BROOKS:

    New York Daily News reporter Nathaniel Vinton agrees that Miller has had an enormous influence in a variety of ways, including improvements in the equipment itself.

  • NATHANIEL VINTON:

    Bode Miller, more than any person in the world, understands ski construction. Throughout his career, he's just demanded a very front-row seat at the factories, the best skis, the best testers, the best equipment, the best execution of his ideas of what he wants.

  • MARY JO BROOKS:

    But Vinton, who has just written a book called "The Fall Line: How American Ski Racers Conquered a Sport on the Edge," says the technological improvements come with a price.

  • NATHANIEL VINTON:

    In the last 20 years, what we have seen is speeds rising because of technology. When you get high speeds, you get some potentially some catastrophic injuries.

  • MARY JO BROOKS:

    He says he's concerned about the widespread practice of icing the race course to make it firmer and faster.

  • NATHANIEL VINTON:

    Race organizing committees are often making the snow harder and harder.

  • MARY JO BROOKS:

    It's actually injected, is that right?

  • NATHANIEL VINTON:

    Yes, you have a fire hose and you have a special bar on the end that goes to special nozzles, shoots the water deep into the snow. The dry air wicks that moisture to the top of the surface, making a glassy, smooth layer of ice that is as hard as a hockey rink.

  • TIGER SHAW:

    You want an exciting sport. And the iciness is actually driven by the needs and wants of the athletes themselves to make the course fair. But the safety controls that we have put into place are extraordinary. So, while the sport is getting more thrilling, they're jumping further, they're going faster, it's becoming safer at the same time.

  • MARY JO BROOKS:

    Another criticism leveled at the U.S. team is that it allocates too many resources to the very top athletes and not enough on developing talent at the lower levels. Shaw acknowledges the problem.

  • TIGER SHAW:

    We now have 195 athletes. And we have added four or five new sports in the last quadrennial. So we're stretched thin. But we're doing our very best to grow the budgets and handle that.

  • MARY JO BROOKS:

    Alpine skiing has never enjoyed the popularity in this country that it has in Europe, where the sport has a devoted fan base and governments fund their national teams.

    Still, everyone here hopes with the rise of the U.S. team, Americans might begin to find some of that passion.

    Two-time Olympic gold medalist Ted Ligety:

  • TED LIGETY, U.S. Ski Team:

    The sport of ski racing will never be one of the major sports, for sure. It's just not possible for the demographics of it and the geographics of it as well. But I think with the success we have had, it's definitely becoming bigger and bigger.

  • MARY JO BROOKS:

    For his part, Miller has a much more cosmic concern.

  • BODE MILLER:

    Are you feeling hopeful for the future of the sport or what? What are you feeling about it?

  • BODE MILLER:

    Yes. If I — I'm not going to be investing in the ski industry anytime soon. I think global warming, there's no question that it's a serious threat to the snow sports. I have been around long enough to really, truly see it. I don't need any researcher or scientist to tell me anything about it. The snow is coming later and it's less.

  • MARY JO BROOKS:

    Mikaela Shiffrin isn't letting herself get too distracted by those larger issues. She's continuing her training for the giant slalom race next Thursday and enjoying the attention the entire U.S. team is getting.

  • MIKAELA SHIFFRIN:

    Hopefully, there's going to be more resources coming into the U.S. ski team, and then we will be able to get them out to all those young talents. And I think that's going to, in and of itself, really help us develop more really passionate, fast ski racers.

  • MARY JO BROOKS:

    The Alpine World Championships continue through February 15.

    In Vail, Colorado, I'm Mary Jo Brooks for the PBS NewsHour.

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