Is the alpine World Cup circuit opens this month in Aspen, Colo., astute race fans will focus not only on the pre-Olympic form of World Champion Daron Rahlves and recovering Olympic gold medalist Picabo Street, but on Bill Marolt, the U.S. Ski Team's no-nonsense boss. Five years ago, even U.S. team coaches chuckled in private after Marolt vowed his skiers and snowboarders would win 10 medals at the Salt Lake City Olympics, four more than in 1998. "If you aren't willing to put it up on the chalkboard, you're never going to get there," he said at the time. Now, after years of slow but steady improvement capped by a breakthrough alpine season in 2001, the U.S. does indeed have a legitimate shot at double figures, a feat that would give its sponsor-laden uniforms as much exposure in Salt Lake as the Mormon Temple.
Let it be said that Bill Marolt has moxie. Born to the son of a second-generation Aspen silver miner who went to work as a bartender at the Red Onion when the Midnight Mine finally closed, Marolt grew up in an era when the town's hardscrabble residents struggled to put food on the table. He was a quarterback and linebacker for Aspen High's eight-man football squad and a skiing phenom-a 1964 Olympian and a national champion in slalom, GS and downhill. "He was tough as nails," recalls Olympic teammate Billy Kidd. "Even then, you saw a focus and determination that were unusual."While Kidd and Jimmie Heuga won Olympic medals in 1964, Marolt eventually turned his burning competitive fires to coaching. His University of Colorado ski teams won seven national championships from 1969 to 1978, before Marolt accepted the job as alpine program director of the U.S. Ski Team in 1978.
The next half-dozen seasons would prove to be the U.S. Ski Team's halcyon years, though they were not completely without controversy. The alpine team won a record five medals in the 1984 Olympics. Yet several U.S. Ski Team members from that era still seethe at the very mention of Marolt's name. To motivate the team, Marolt set lofty goals for Olympic qualifying. Only the athletes who proved they had a reasonable chance to win a medal would be sent to Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, so several otherwise qualified skiers watched their lifetime dreams evaporate.
"It was controversial then," Marolt admits, "and it still is." The non-Olympians continue to argue today that the team still would have won five medals if they had been allowed to participate. Even 1984 gold medalist Phil Mahre has said that Marolt just happened to be in the right place at the right time for those early-Eighties U.S. successes.
If so, it seems to be a long-term trend. After leaving the ski team in 1984, Marolt returned to the University of Colorado as athletic director, where he inherited an anemic football program that eventually won a national championship under head coach Bill McCartney in 1990. "I learned about the business of sport at CU, and I learned it from the top down," Marolt now says. His penchant for aggressive goal-setting was reinforced by McCartney, who from day one vowed to beat perennial national powerhouse Nebraska-and eventually did.
Marolt returned as CEO of the Ski Team in 1996. He took control of an organization that was on the verge of financial and psychological collapse. While many criticize Marolt's "my-way-or-the-highway" approach to coaching, his administrative and leadership skills are unquestioned. In five years, the Ski Team's athletic budget has increased from $4 million to $12 million, and there has been a renewed focus on coaching, development and sports science. And the team now has plans to build a $22 million training and office facility in Park City, Utah.
Success on the hill has been harder to come by and, again, it hasn't happened without some gnashing of teeth. Marolt does not believe in private coaching arrangements, so slalom ace Kristina Koznick will again pay her own way and function as a one-woman team in 2002. And several athletes cllashed loudly with Marolt over his desire to have them train year-round at the Ski Team headquarters in Park City.
Yet with the Opening Ceremonies just more than two months away, Bill Marolt's chalkboard message is working. The 2001 alpine team had its best finish in the Nations Cup in 17 seasons, since the year Marolt left the team. The athletes who chose to train in Park City over the summer are raving about the experience, and saying they are better prepared than ever. Meanwhile, history, Olympic protocol, the home-snow advantage and the U.S.'s success in the relatively new freestyle and snowboarding disciplines might well produce 10 medals, especially with a little help from the quadrennial Games' all-important four-letter word: luck.
When a U.S. skier settles into a World Cup starthouse, the racer has a meager 3 percent chance of winning a medal, according to Ski Racing magazine statistician Hank McKee. Put five rings on the race bib, and the American's odds get three times better. This is partly because Olympic regulations cap the number of athletes a nation can enter, so powerhouse Austria is limited to just four or five racers, even when it has a dozen who could win. But it's also due to the fact that Americans, who ski on the World Cup in obscurity, view the Olympics as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to grab the spotlight-and to cash in on it. The fact that the Olympics are "in our house" in 2002 will only help.
Marolt and crew hope the alpine squad can match Sarajevo's haul and take home five medals. Nine U.S. skiers have been on the podium in the World Cup-Rahlves, Erik Schlopy, Bode Miller, Chad Fleischer, Street, Koznick, Caroline Lalive, Kirsten Clark and Sarah Schleper-and having half of them come through in Salt Lake is not entirely out of the question.
The team really needs a big effort from freestyle skiing and snowboarding, events invented in America. The U.S. has dominated the moguls and aerials the way Austrians dominate alpine events. That includes regularly winning the annual Nations Cup and 20 percent of Olympic medals. History says the freestyle team will earn 2.4 medals, but it is hopeful of four or even five. Likewise, U.S. snowboarders have led the world and could leave Salt Lake with anywhere from two to five medals. Throw in nordic combined skiers Todd Lodwick and Bill Demong-plus long-shot ski jumper Alan Alborn-and Marolt's goal of 10 medals is attainable.
Especially if the team enjoys the good fortune so necessary to prevail in a big event. In '98, Street won the Olympic super G by .01 seconds (the medalists were all within .03 seconds). An ill-timed headwind could have blown her off the podium. Last season at the Worlds, Megan Gerety was headed for gold when she made a tactical error, knocking her down to the worst major-event finish imaginable: fourth, .07 seconds off the medal stand.
Given the added vagaries of wax, weather, course-setting and a dozen other variables, Marolt's bold prediction of 10 medals is akin to Bill Gates not only promising shareholders record earnings for the year, but also guaranteeing Microsoft stock will reach an all-time high over a particular fortnight in February 2002. During the actual Games, fate may play a larger role than Bill Marolt's iron will. But by setting an ambitious goal five years ago, he moved the organization to this point. Come February, the rest is up to the athletes.
For daily coverage of the U.S. Ski Team, go to skimag.com.