With Bode Miller's silver and Andrew Weibrecht's bronze medal in Friday's Olympic men's super-G may be the moment when the torch was passed.
WHISTLER, B.C. — Growing up in Lake Placid, N.Y., you learn a thing or two about passing the torch.
Andrew Weibrecht, who surprised just about everyone but his teammates by winning a bronze medal in Friday’s super-G, was skiing on an Olympic run at Whiteface Mountain not long after he learned to walk.
The 24-year-old wasn’t even born when Lake Placid, year-round population 2,600, hosted its second Winter Games in 1980. But you can’t turn around in America’s most-famous Olympic town without bumping into those five rings.
Echoes of cheers for Eric Heiden’s five gold medals lurk on the skating oval. Kids play hockey on the hallowed ice of Herb Brooks Arena.
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“Probably 50 percent of the kids I grew up with wanted to be an Olympian in one way or another,” Weibrecht recalls.
So you had to figure that when he rocketed down a steep, difficult super-G course on the Dave Murray downhill Friday, Weibrecht felt every millibar of pressure over the gravity of the moment.
Before this day, his best finish in a World Cup ski race had been 10th. His best finish in the super-G, the fast, curvy, evil stepchild of the downhill and giant slalom, was 11th, at Kitzbuhel, Austria.
On the top of this course, Weibrecht got a little loose, one ski coming completely off the snow, the other holding on for dear life, as he performed a modified Franz Klammer recovery on his way down the hill.
After that, he settled into a groove that people in Lake Placid will be reliving for days.
Weibrecht, a 5-foot-6 fireplug of a man who looks as rock solid as those Inukshuk stone statues decorating the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic landscape, smoked the bottom half of the course to a degree few, at the time, appreciated. He was only the third skier down, and his time bore no context.
But as a parade of the world’s greatest carvers struggled, and failed, to adhere to the line he had laid down, Weibrecht started to wonder. Could it actually be? And if it was, how should he act?
“It was the first time I’d ever come down leading,” he said.
Nobody knew just how fast he’d been until the suddenly resurgent Bode Miller, wearing bib 11, stepped to the gate and launched himself toward Creekside, 2,015 feet below. Miller, prancing like an artist atop the course Weibrecht had blasted through, laid down a gorgeous run that nipped his young protégé — but by only three-hundredths of a second.
And there they stood, first and second, Butch and Sundance, the past/present and future of U.S. ski racing, watching the world chase them down Whistler Peak.
Weibrecht, Olympic rookie, and Miller, the two-time all-around World Cup champion who has seen and done it all, came to a consensus:
“We’ve got a lot of big bullets to dodge.”
Indeed, the bulk of the field remained. Didier Cuche of Switzerland was still up there. Michael Walchhofer of Austria, too. Not to mention a squad of hyped-up Canadians desperate to break the U.S. medal stranglehold on their home mountain.
But as the early-afternoon sun warmed and slowed the course, only one of those shots would find its target. Carved-from-steel racer Aksel Lund Svindal — upholding the honor of Norway, whose downhillers have all but owned this event at the Olympics — blew down the course to take the lead by .28 seconds, claiming a gold to go with his downhill silver.
“It was definitely, by far, the most exciting ski race I’ve ever watched,” said Weibrecht, already mastering the understatement. “It feels incredible. To be in the company of Aksel and Bode at any ski race is pretty awesome.”
It was equally awesome to the folks who run U.S. skiing. The two-medal performance gave America’s alpine team six medals in only four events here, breaking the mark of five for a single Olympics set by the Phil Mahre-led 1984 Sarajevo squad. And six races remain.
“Our team is feeding off each other, and that’s one of the things I wanted to bring back,” said Miller, whose fourth medal gave him the most ever for a U.S. alpine skier.
He already has.
Younger skiers say Miller’s impact on the team here has been significant. He has gone from distraction in Turin to touchstone in Whistler, his big-race cool and full-on racing style gobbled up like manna by the rookies. That combination of leadership and youthful exuberance — unthinkable even six months ago — is pushing U.S. skiing to new heights at the 2010 Games.
But Friday belonged to Miller and Weibrecht, the past and the future; two guys who couldn’t look and act more different, but ski the same: one speed, full speed. Years from now, people might look back on this day as the moment U.S. skiing’s torch was passed.
You can’t really prepare for such moments, and the immensity of this one caught Weibrecht off guard.
But he’s off to a good start as the first homegrown Lake Placid medalist since Pete Sears won silver as goalie for the 1972 U.S. hockey team. As the final skiers cleared the course and his medal went from dream to reality, the first thing Weibrecht did was share credit with those who set him on his path.
“There have been so many people that have supported me,” he said. “This has been a team effort. I want to be gracious with it. I want people to be proud of my Olympic medal.”
In a town that 30 years ago this week hosted a little thing called the Miracle on Ice, they already are.
Ron Judd: 206-464-8280 or at firstname.lastname@example.org