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The 26-year-old Squaw Valley native has been on the U.S. SKI Team for seven years, steadily climbing the ranks from D-Team to B-Team and finally making his debut on the A-Team in 2017 as one of six American men.
As with any professional sport, rankings matter in alpine skiing. Not only does an A-Team nomination designate you as an elite racer—one of the best in the nation—but it also means receiving full funding from the U.S. Ski Team. Athletes on the B-Team, on the other hand, receive a bill charging them between $20,000 and $25,000 to be on the team.
While the U.S. Ski Team has a $36 million budget and spends $28 million on elite athlete programs, the organization supports more than 200 elite athletes across all skiing disciplines, and the $36 million is not enough to go around. When all is said and done, the U.S. Ski Team faces a budget gap of approximately $2 million each year, and athletes not named to the A-Team are required to help bridge that gap by paying $20,000 to $25,000 to cover their travel costs for the upcoming season.
Bennett, who was fully funded by the U.S. Ski Team for the 2017-’18 racing season, ended that same season with six top-20 World Cup finishes and ranked 20th in the world in the men’s World Cup downhill discipline. But he didn’t make the A-Team cut for the following season because the U.S. Ski Team had changed its team selection criteria between the two seasons.
Read more: A Day in the Life of Bryce Bennett
Whereas one top-25 World Cup ranking was good enough to qualify both men and women for the A-Team in 2017, the organization changed the A-Team requirement to one top-15 World Cup rank or Olympic Winter Games medal for the 2018 season. Bennett accordingly dropped back down to the B-Team and was required to raise the funds to compete on the World Cup circuit this season.
A demoralizing way to kick off a new season, to say the least. And yet, the disappointment and frustration seemed to fuel Bennett to the best professional racing season of his career. In his first World Cup downhill race of the season in Lake Louise, Bennett finished 12th, just 0.03 seconds behind teammate and A-Team member Steven Nyman. From that race on, Bennett continued to post personal best finishes and climb towards the podium, at one point coming within 0.03 seconds of nabbing his first World Cup downhill podium. At the close of the World Cup circuit In March, Bennett finished the most successful racing season of his career ranked seventh in the world in downhill.
Keep reading: Three Americans Finish in Top 6 at Val Gardena Downhill
After some much-needed R&R following the World Cup Finals in Soldeu, Andorra, SKImag.com chatted with Bennett about his season, the ups and downs of being a professional racer, and what’s on the horizon for the rising star on the World Cup downhill scene.
SKImag.com: You had an incredible season considering how it started with a nomination to the B-Team. How did that affect you going into the World Cup circuit?
I started the season unmotivated and pretty bummed out on ski racing. The whole way the team selection shook out got to me. Since I’ve been on the team the criteria for making it on the A-Team has been top-25. Then they changed it to top-15, and I was 20 last year. I was just bummed out on that. It just didn’t shake out the way I wanted it to. All last summer I was thinking I wasn’t going to ski race anymore. I’ve been on the verge of quitting for the last four years. The politics are just tough on me, and I’m not the best politician.
So how did the funding piece work out?
We’ve been putting on a B-Team fundraiser in Vail for a couple of years, and there have been a lot of great people who have supported that. So, we got all the B-Team members covered this season. That just takes a huge stress off.
What made you decide to not quit ski racing after last summer?
I was pretty pissed, but then I thought, ‘I’m just going to ski fast, and do it the way I want to do it.’ I made the decision that, right or wrong, this was what I was going to do. I wanted 100 percent ownership of my program. I don’t ever want to look back on my career and have someone else to blame. I want the ownership in my court.
And that’s kind of the way I’ve been operating over the last four years. I do all my summer training on my own. The way I go about the process of figuring out my equipment and my technique—it’s a path I’ve outlined for myself, and I’ve just been following it.
How does that affect your relationship with the team and the coaches?
Our coaching staff is super good. We’re lucky because our downhill crew is a great group of dudes. The coaches—Johnno McBride, Scotty Veniss, and Chris Beckman—have been really good about letting me find my own path. Because, if you’re not competing the way you want to be competing, it’s not that fun.
In the end, what got you motivated again for this season?
I’m super competitive with myself—to an unhealthy degree. My entire approach to a race series, like how I manage my energy, my equipment, my fitness, my race plan and execution—I just want to make sure that I’m doing everything to the best of my ability.
Coming into this season, I knew I was skiing well, but I wasn’t going fast in training. I was probably two seconds out every single day in training. But then I finished ninth at Beaver Creek, and I thought, ‘Sweet, I’m not skiing bad, my equipment feels pretty good, things are going alright.’
It was in Val Gardena, Italy that you really hit your stride this season and started your top-5 finish streak. What clicked for you at that point in the season?
Val Gardena is my wheelhouse of a downhill. It just fits my strengths super well. There’s a lot of terrain—big jumps and a lot of rolls. I love when there’s just huge terrain that people get scared about. That’s where I excel and accelerate. I knew I was going to do well there, and I ended up fourth—so close to the podium. And I thought, ‘Oh my god, I can do this. I’m a podium-contender.’
Then we went to Bormio [Italy], and I’d done kind of well there last year. It rained for two days before we showed up, then it got cold when we got there. The course turned into the bumpiest ice-skating rink. I started worrying that I wasn’t going to do well, after all. When we went through the training runs, it was super scary. Race day came and I was two minutes out from my start, in my own head wondering if people would think I’m a complete sissy if I just don’t start. I had set up a pretty aggressive line that I wanted to ski, but I was scared to commit to it. At 30 seconds before my start, I decided to commit, and it worked out. I was fourth again.
Read all about it: American Bryce Bennett Fourth in Bormio Downhill
You say you like scary downhill courses, but which track still really scares you?
Probably Kitzbühel. I haven’t quite figured that course out yet. The past years I’ve survived Kitzbühel, but that’s about it. This was the first year that I really committed to a fast line, and you just start going so fast so quickly. And it was so bumpy and icy this year. Max Franz broke his heel in the middle of a turn from his foot just hitting a bump—he didn’t even fall. That’s how violent the course is. I ended up 14 there this season, and I was pretty psyched about that.
Given your success this season, what are your goals for next season?
The downhill field right now is super competitive. Everyone has access to really good training, everyone works out super hard, and everyone has really good equipment—so some of the downhills are ridiculously close. The top 30 are only 1.7 seconds out. I don’t think it’s out of reach for me to go for the Downhill Globe. That’s never been accomplished by a man on the U.S. Ski Team, and honestly, it’s possible. There are a few things I can adjust next season where I can find those 0.3 or 0.4 seconds to find the podium every week. Then it will just mean managing those unique races that I may not do well in. If you can be on the podium every single weekend, which is super hard to do, you’re in a position to compete for the title. That’s what Beat Feuz did this season. He just dominated from the beginning of the season, and even though the end of his season wasn’t quite as strong, he held on to the Globe.
Indeed, Bennett’s future looks bright as his hard work and perseverance this year didn’t go unnoticed by U.S. Ski Team officials.
“Mikaela [Shiffrin] isn’t the only success story we have in our alpine team this year,” says U.S. Ski and Snowboard Chief of Sport Luke Bodensteiner. “Bryce Bennett deserves special mention, finishing his season in seventh place in the world in downhill is a very good step forward, and now we want him to use that as a springboard to go even bigger and better next season and with one eye on Beijing 2022.”
Read about all the highlights from the 2018-’19 World Cup racing season on SKIMag.com’s Racing Channel.