Once he awoke Sunday morning, T. J. Lanning of Park City, Utah, made a point of looking at photographs from the previous day on the Internet, just to make sure he was not dreaming. The confusion was understandable.
Before Saturday’s downhill in Val Gardena, Italy, five American men had never finished among the top 10 in a World Cup race.
“Obviously, it was a historical day, an emotional day,” Lanning said during a telephone interview late Sunday night. “To see that many U.S. Ski Team jackets standing up there together, it was amazing. You usually see that many Austrian jackets.”
Austria, Alpine’s reigning superpower, was not left out of the picture — Michael Walchhofer won the downhill on the classic Saslong track in 1 minute 50.57 seconds — but the moment belonged to North America.
Bode Miller of Franconia, N.H., the defending World Cup overall champion, was 38-hundredths of a second behind Walchhofer to lead the American onslaught. Two Canadians, Manuel Osborne-Paradis and Erik Guay, finished third and fifth. All seven American starters finished in the top 30 to claim coveted World Cup points, another first.
The most surprising result came from 23-year-old Erik Fisher of Middleton, Idaho, a supposed afterthought as the 52nd racer to start. Fisher missed nearly all of last season while recovering from surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament. But he skied one of the most aggressive lines of the day to slide into seventh place, his first career top-10 result.
Marco Sullivan of Tahoe City, Calif., was fourth; Steven Nyman of Provo, Utah, was ninth; and Lanning wound up 10th.
Saturday’s results were preceded by a personal-best fifth-place finish by Sullivan in Friday’s super-G and followed by a fourth-place result by Ted Ligety of Park City, Utah, in Sunday’s giant slalom in nearby Alta Badia. (Miller and Andrew Weibrecht of Lake Placid, N.Y., were the only two American skiers to race Saturday and Sunday, and they spent Saturday night traveling to Alta Badia.)
The results seemed to show that the young United States men’s team has come into its own nearly a year before the 2010 Vancouver Games. There certainly were questions of who would fill the void after the record-breaking speed specialist Daron Rahlves, a 12-time World Cup winner, retired from Alpine’s elite circuit after the 2006 season. Miller opted to race independently that same off-season. Miller won his second overall crown last season.
“What you’re seeing is a group of guys who have come together,” said Sasha Rearick, the Alpine coach for the United States men. “It’s not just one guy. The whole group wants to fill that void.”
There were hints of as much two years ago, when Miller won the early December downhill in Beaver Creek, Colo., and three other American skiers — Nyman, Scott Macartney and Sullivan — followed him into the top 10.
Ski racing can be a particularly cruel sport, as evidenced by the travails of Lanning, Fisher and Macartney, of Kirkland, Wash., who finished 15th in Saturday’s downhill.
While teammates like Sullivan, Nyman and Ligety were making headway on the World Cup circuit the last three years, Lanning, 24, was just trying to stay healthy after being sidelined for the majority of that time with knee, back and ankle injuries. He said his result Saturday showed what he was capable of when at full strength.
Macartney is also rounding into the form that earned him two World Cup podium finishes before a brutal crash in January at the famed Hahnenkamm in Kitzbühel, Austria, briefly put him in a coma.
Macartney, 30, is the oldest of the six United States ski team racers who earned World Cup points over the weekend. Rearick said World Cup racers, especially those who specialize in the speed events, usually did not hit their peaks until their late 20s. That only bodes well for a group that is committed to making one another better every day.
“About four years ago, this group came together and said, ‘We want to create a positive environment, one that is supportive of each other, but is also challenging,’ ” Rearick said. “We’re in a really unique situation. We compete in a sport that 90 percent of the time, we’re in Europe. The rest of the time, we’re in South America or New Zealand. We’re on the road, living in hotels. It’s extremely important to have that tight, cohesive group. It’s a tight family.”
And right now, given its recent success, that family is certainly enjoying its time together.
“You have to have fun with this,” Lanning said. “It’s work, but it’s more fun than it is work. When you work as hard as we did this past off-season, when you see these results coming early in the season, it’s just so much fun. We want to keep the momentum going.”