Lips turning blue, they shiver in ice baths, unable to escape. Only the cooperation of teammates solving mental puzzles and completing physical challenges can release them from the water’s frozen grip.
“For the first guys in the ice it was brutal,” says John McBride, head speed coach for the US men’s ski team. “We didn’t work together as a team, we weren’t communicating effectively.”
Plunging his team in ice is a technique McBride learned from US special forces and is part of his quest to take American downhillers back to the top.
To make them ski faster, he trains the brain. And his methods are somewhat extreme.
In the search for the next Bode Miller, McBride subjected his squad to a Navy Seal training camp, and “scared” them on a climbing expedition on one of Colorado’s most difficult “14ers.”
It is all in pursuit of one goal. For all of Lindsey Vonn’s success, no American man has ever won the season-long downhill crown, despite Miller and Phil Mahre winning World Cup overall titles.
The last US Olympic downhill champion was Tommy Moe in 1994, and not since Daron Rahlves in 2003 has a US skier won the iconic Kitzbuehel downhill. Of the current squad, only Steve Nyman and Travis Ganong have won races on the World Cup downhill circuit.
McBride is a man on a mission to change all that.
“The top tier [of ski racers] are all extremely fit, all talented, all work hard, 95% are extremely passionate about what they do. That final mind piece can be a game changer,” McBride told CNN Sport by telephone from his home in Aspen.
“The mental skills package is the deciding piece between being an athlete that’s contending to be on the podium versus an athlete who is 10th on any given week.”
‘Band of brothers’
For the Americans, who spend so much time away from home on the predominantly European circuit, McBride’s starting point is to foster an environment “where guys not only push and pull off each other but support each other and believe in each other.”
“The team component in skiing racing is often overlooked because it’s an individual sport,” he says. “We spend so much time on the road together it’s an important piece of the puzzle,” he says.
To reinforce the idea, US teammates Marco Sullivan and Steve Nyman forged the concept of the “American Downhiller” as a cultural identity to bond the team as they take on the battalions of Austrians, Swiss, Italians, French and Norwegians.
“I sort of see it as a band of brothers,” says McBride, who is on his second stint with the US team after four years with the Canadians and a spell coaching Miller when he competed independently for Team America and won his second World Cup overall crown in 2008.
“They all have an understanding of what it means to be downhillers. It’s different to slalom skiers. These guys push each other to the edge of destruction.
“When you’re going 90mph down a hill you know that if you go into the red room (the fence) there’s a good chance you’re going to be injured.
“There’s a lot of consequence to what these guys do and creating this band of brothers, this ‘American Downhiller’ concept is something the guys can take pride in and support each other and hopefully encourage others to be a part of.”
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Pushing the limits
To help forge that bond and to “push the individual envelope” he took his team on a four-day special forces training camp in Malibu, California – with a program devised in conjunction with close friend Dr. Andrew Walshe, head of high performance at Red Bull and former sports science director at U.S. Ski & Snowboard.
To replicate stress situations with real consequence – to simulate a race environment – the team undertook a series of breath holding challenges, first on land, then under water.
“Once you get in the water everything changes,” says McBride. “It’s different, there are consequences, you can’t just suck in air. You can’t cheat.
“It’s scary, and it pushes you in a way that is very mental. You have to reach down and find a different place mentally and that can be hard to do in our normal every day lives. All the guys realized their limits are not necessarily where they think they are and they could do more than they expected.”
The tangible benefit for downhillers is to help them achieve a relaxed state of alertness and focus before and during a race “where your performance and stress meet in a place where you can execute your highest level, which can be very valuable,” says McBride.
The ice exposure was an exercise in team work and reliance on others. While some plunged into the freezing water, others had to figure out puzzles and run hill sprints up sand dunes before they could climb out.
“The first guys were blue by the time they came out,” said McBride. “But everyone learned from the experience and we got better at it.”
He added: “I’m sure they weren’t psyched, but if I’m pushing guys to a place where they’re not happy, but it’s potentially productive in the big picture, I’m OK with that.”
This summer McBride also took his team to Colorado on an overnight expedition to scale the 14,130ft Capitol Peak, one of the most difficult and technical of the “14ers.”
“What was important was how we support each other, how to stay engaged if you’re scared and talk about and figure it out,” he said.
“I know it scared some guys. These guys are very comfortable going 90mph on a pair of skis, they know their world and have been doing it for a long time. Even fearless downhillers getting put in an environment that is foreign can be stressful and that’s the plan.”
For the physical part of the puzzle, training for downhillers is “extensive” and combines strength training to resist the G-forces in turns and high-impact landings on jumps – “all these guys can squat twice their body weight multiple times” – with aerobic and high-intensity anaerobic training to build their ability to be powerful for the duration of a race.
On the special forces camp in California the skiers performed a mile rescue swim dragging a body followed by sprints up sand dunes or loaded wheelbarrow pushes or pulls wearing a harness “for two minutes uphill at maximum exertion.”
“A good testimony to the fitness levels of alpine ski racers is that over history guys like Bode Miller have won the Superstars contest against greats in NBA and NFL and the Olympics and other sports,” said McBride.
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‘Better than the rest’
Summer training in Chile or New Zealand or Norway helps with technique work, such as turns, the tactics of which line to ski and practising form in the air off jumps. Wind tunnel testing helps with aerodynamic form in the tuck.
McBride acknowledges that the best skiers also have an X-factor, starting with Miller.
“Number one, he was an incredible athlete with an incredible sense of timing and mental ability,” he says.
“He was very poised under pressure in competition. And he could look at a course quite quickly and recall details that were extremely important to going fast.
“When he trained, he trained hard. He pushed things all the time – that was what allowed him to push his envelope when he raced.
“He knew what was important for him to compete at the highest level and he was able to pull it off. That wouldn’t necessarily go over very well with a coach if you weren’t able to pull it off, but he was.”
McBride concedes that “phenomenal” athletes like Miller or Vonn “don’t come along every day and are uber talented,” but insists the US team “need to continue to push the envelope of how we can do better, to stay up with the other nations, or be better than other nations, that’s our goal.”
The US speed team spends a lot of time with the Norwegians, who from a small base have two of the world’s standout stars in Aksel Lund Svindal and Kjetil Jansrud.
But when faced with the might of Austria or Switzerland, nations which have ski racing in their DNA, McBride accepts the USA has something of a hill to climb.
“In a country like Austria ski racing is the national passion. In America ski racing is not the national passion, there are so many distractions,” he says.
“Alpine skiing is a European sport, so there’s a different cultural piece there, with different support from the community and national level.
“The financial piece is always a challenge. In this country it’s an extremely expensive sport and it’s tough for families to make that their primary goal in life to support their children in ski racing.
“It doesn’t mean we can’t do better, it doesn’t mean we don’t have the athlete base because we do. We need to figure out how to encourage them to be part of what we do and figure out how to nurture them.”
It’s a work in progress, but having seen Miller and Rahlves go close to World Cup downhill titles, McBride insists he is an “optimist.”
“Have we been able to pull it together to make that happen. No? But I think it’s possible,” he says.
“We’ve got guys who can win a title if they’re healthy. Steven Nyman and Travis Ganong are in a place where they can be contenders.”
The American downhillers are gearing up for winter in the fast lane.