Bryce Bennett: US men’s skiing’s great big hope
(CNN)At first glance his 6 feet 7 inch frame might appear aerodynamically inconvenient for the slopes, but American downhiller Bryce Bennett is defying the forces of gravity in spearheading the US fight back to the top of men’s ski racing.
Not since the great Bode Miller in the 2000s, and the giant slalom supremacy of Ted Ligety of five years ago, have the American men had a standout to match female compatriots Lindsey Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin, who have transcended the sport and become worldwide stars.
There have been sporadic successes — Andrew Weibrecht won two Olympic medals in super-G in 2010 and 2014, while Steve Nyman and Travis Ganong have both clinched a handful of World Cup races.
But 26-year-old speedster Bennett is on the right track to fill the void if his performances this season are anything to go by.
The Squaw Valley native has scored two fourths, a fifth and a ninth on the World Cup this season. Stellar results for a skier who was often told he was too big to make it, and who had to overcome major issues finding suitable race boots for his size 15 feet.
“I’ve definitely exceeded expectations,” he told CNN Sport after racing the infamous Kitzbuhel downhill in Austria in January. “To keep that level of skiing high is very stressful every weekend.
“My equipment is in a good place and I have more confidence on these tracks. Over the last three years I’ve been refining my skiing and ingraining habits so come race day it doesn’t matter if I have the flu or my dog dies, I’m going to ski that way 10 out of 10 times.” (His dog Wiley is safe and well)
‘Knack for speed’
Bennett first took to skis at the age of two, a product of ski-mad parents who met while working at Alpine Meadows resort near Lake Tahoe.
He was on the Squaw Valley Mighty Mite program, where he dreamed of competing at the Olympics, and entered the US team in 2011 after impressing coaches at a spring try out.
His early years on the team were spent tackling his equipment issues and he didn’t quite make the Sochi 2014 Olympic squad. But he signalled his intent the following year when came from a start number of 57 to finish sixth in a World Cup downhill the Val Gardena, Italy.
Bennett has risen steadily up the standings in recent years, from 34th in downhill in 2016 to inside the top 10 this season. He also placed 16th on his Olympic debut in the Pyeongchang downhill last year.
He says his size can be a disadvantage, but he insists it also enables him to generate a lot of power in turns. His strength, he believes, is his mental ability to manage himself down the course.
“He’s been skiing exceptionally,” former US star Daron Rahlves told CNN in Kitzbuhel.
“For a big guy you’d think he’s at a big disadvantage with the wind catching in his chest but you watch what he’s doing with his skis and his feet, it’s awesome.”
Former world champion Rahlves, who won 12 World Cup races, added: “One, it’s technique and having that knack for speed, but two, it’s his head — he’s very confident and going out there trying to own it. He’s got a good future ahead of him.”
His team mates include the 30-year-old Ganong, who has scored two World Cup victories and won a silver medal at the 2015 world championships, and veteran Nyman, 36, a three-time World Cup winner. Both, however, are coming back from knee injuries which have derailed recent seasons.
Bennett admits the men’s team have long been overshadowed by the US women. Vonn, who retires after the World Championships this week, is the most successful women’s ski racer of all time with 82 World Cup wins, while Shiffrin has already amassed 56 victories at the age of 23.
“How those girls go about their skiing is incredible,” he said.
“How Mikaela just dominates every weekend, and the same with Lindsey at times — or 82 times — that hasn’t really happened on the men’s speed side ever. We’re trying to be consistent every weekend. We’re all capable of it but it’s easier said than done.”
Band of brothers
The men’s team is a tight-knit unit, bonded by the “American Downhiller” identity dreamed up by former member Marco Sullivan to help ease long weeks on the road competing against the hordes of talented Europeans.
“The American Downhiller is us against the world, basically,” said Bennett. “Marco started this idea and it took off. What comes of that is pretty special. We’re all friends, we’ve been together so long it’s like a brotherhood — it’s just about keeping people in line and not being a d**k.
“It’s about keeping US skiing strong, so people are like, ‘I want to be an American Downhiller.”
To help foster the team ethic, US speed coach John McBride organised a training camp with US Special Forces last summer. Activities included physical team challenges with ice-bath penalties and underwater breath holding exercises to push their mental envelope.
“That was really cool, managing your thoughts in a very stressful situation,” said Bennett, a former BMX racer and keen fisherman on the Truckee river back home.
“We also did some bike intervals where we raced straight up this mountain for 17 minutes.
“When we came back they said you’ve got to match that time, but all of you have to match that time so you have to work together. We weren’t even close, so we had to do it three times. It was brutal.”
Bennett confesses he was fearful of the daunting Hahnenkamm downhill track at Kitzbuhel on his first few visits and only now has the belief to attack on the most demanding courses.
“I don’t think I was there mentally and I just didn’t quite have experience to do it and that scared me,” he said after a career-best 14th at Kitzbuhel.
“I’m not the guy who’s like, ‘Screw it,’ and going 100% without really knowing. I like to process it and I didn’t have that here, ever. Now I’m to a point where I can actually commit to the skiing and actually accelerate through turns.
“The difference between sliding the top of the turn and rolling to the edge clean, the ski just accelerates away from you and it’s like ‘wow’ — it’s pretty gnarly when you do that. It feels cool, but you’re like, ‘I’m going fast.'”
Unleashing that speed is what it’s all about for the American Downhillers.
Miller, Ligety and co. have left big shoes to fill — but Bennett’s size 15s could be just the right fit.