A Bend resident since 1999, Steve Porino, 43, was raised primarily outside Chicago, otherwise Connecticut, Vermont, Colorado, California, Utah and Oregon. His father, who grew up ski racing in Italy and Switzerland, passed that passion to his four kids. After graduating from the steeps of Illinois’ Wilmot Mountain—vertical drop 256—Porino took up at Vermont’s Burke Mountain Academy, where his heritage played out on longer and steeper runs. Porino raced for the U.S. Ski Team from 1988–1992 and two years on the World Cup. After racing, he began a career in broadcast that spans sideline reporter with NBC, to play-by-play and analyst with Versus and Universal Sports.
We scheduled around 50 to 60 days of on-snow training before the racing season, which runs from November to March, mostly in Europe. By summer, it was Chile, Argentina and New Zealand. By fall, it was Alpine glaciers and Rocky Mountains. All of that amounted to less than an hour of in-motion, downhill-specific training. You learned a lot about focus and imagery. The beauty of downhill racing is that snowfall can easily delay an event. So either you are skiing powder in the Alps, or racing down them at 80 mph. It’s a good life, even before you touch on the social and cultural experience.
No one likes to hear this, but the straight facts are that an Olympic medal is easier to win than a World Cup. A nation can field as many as eleven athletes in a World Cup, and if you are, say, Austria, more than half of those skiers could win. The Olympic field is limited to four per nation. But that discounts entirely the psychological component of this once-in-four-years chance at fame. The value placed on an Olympic versus World Cup medal is so much greater in the U.S. than in Europe that it defies comparison. Interestingly, save for the Bode Miller debacle of 2006, when his 22 previous World Cup wins led to zero Olympic medals, Americans have shown to be almost four times more likely to win an Olympic rather than World Cup medal. Historically, the U.S. has had limited success on the forty or so World Cup races held each year, but they show up come Games time. Washington’s Debbie Armstrong never won a World Cup race, but she won an Olympic gold in 1984. The same year, Gresham, Oregon resident Bill Johnson won his downhill gold medal after only four career World Cup starts, though one was a win. He added two more victories that year and then disappeared into the ether. In 2006, two 21-year-old Americans Ted Ligety and Julia Mancuso won Olympic Gold medals having never won a World Cup race.
“What holds my interest is that Miller only started training in earnest in September. He’s going to enter Vancouver with a freshness he’s never experienced.”
Even the most sophisticated, high-speed, high-def cameras steal so much of the speed, pitch and peril from downhill racing. To stand on the sideline as a racer passes at 70 or 80 mph is a thunderous and breathtaking experience that invariably makes me wonder: What the hell was I ever thinking? The killer is the panning camera. It takes a skier traveling around 100 feet per second and suspends him, almost static, in the middle of your screen. It flattens pitches that are frequently much steeper than your roof, and washes out surfaces so hard the skis’ edges may penetrate as little as 5 millimeters into its ice. That’s hanging by a thread when you consider the forces can jump briefly over 10 g’s (or more than a ton for the average-sized downhiller). On the upside, today’s high-speed cameras do get closer to the truth. They can slow down the action to where you see a fully contracted thigh bounced around like a bag of water, and watch how rigid skis writhe over the snow.
I find it’s the moment more than the location that makes the most lasting impressions. Like the summer of 1988. We went to train in Las Lenas, Argentina. We flew to the middle of nowhere then drove another two hours. Then we got 9 feet of snow in three days. So the powder was ours and ours alone. As with the people, there was also a wonderful scarcity of boundaries, laws, and, frankly, safety. That to me is the true mountain experience. It means you can ski anywhere, and whatever happens is both your adventure and your fault. The arid snow of the Andes stayed light for days. On day one, I learned to do a backflip on skis. By day three, it was a double back. We spent evenings jumping from the hotel’s third story into the snow … because no one stopped us.
For sheer ambiance, beauty and history, there is no place like Wengen, Switzerland. You take a 100-year-old cog railway to a little town scribed into a mountain that faces the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau. No cars are allowed. Transport is by foot and, if you’re a kinder, by sled. Restaurant pubs perched high on the mountain stay open late, and they’ll gladly rent you a sled to careen home on.
Miller is back. I don’t think he’s as potent in all disciplines, but I have to imagine he’ll be more disciplined with his nocturnal choices. If so, he’s got medal potential in four of five disciplines. He’ll be helped by the distraction Lindsey Vonn will provide. She will be America’s media darling going into Vancouver. She was, without a doubt, the best all around skier in the world last year and is the best American female ever. She is every bit as dominant as Miller was in his prime, but more consistent. This is a skier who has set a new standard, training eight hours a day. After winning the World Championship downhill last year in France, she gracefully maneuvered through interviews and appearances that lasted until 9 p.m. At that time, she turned to me and politely excused herself. She had ninety minutes of training to get in before bed. Ted Ligety, gold medal winner in 2006, also has the nerve for big races. If he continues the momentum he’s shown in the last two years, he’ll be a favorite in giant slalom and an outside hope in slalom.
The flighty Julia Mancuso, the other American gold medalist from 2006, is more of a wild card. If she commits herself, she has the talent for two medals.
There’s also a strong contingent of men on the speed side: Marco Sullivan, Steve Nyman, Scott Macartney (Bellevue, WA). All of them have a chance at a medal.
I said this four years ago (and was wrong) but will say it with greater conviction now. This team has the highest medal potential of any the U.S. has fielded. I’m saying seven medals. The record is five from 1984. Vonn: two gold, one other. Miller: one gold, one other. Ligety: one medal. Mancuso, Sullivan, Nyman, Macartney are good for number seven.
Who might surprise us on the podium in Vancouver? One name you won’t hear much, but should, is Carlo Janka of Switzerland. He’s a young talent with absolute nerves of steel. I first noticed his talent two years ago at the Olympic venue. He was 21, and won the second run of giant slalom.
Last year he won a few races under great pressure. Bode Miller hooked a gate to disqualify him from winning the combined downhill/slalom at the 2006 Torino Olympics.
I don’t think we’ll see the vintage slalom skiing Miller inspired us with in the early 2000s. I think we could see it everywhere else. What holds my interest is that Miller only started training in earnest in September. He’s going to enter Vancouver with a freshness he’s never experienced.
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