Downhiller Nyman senses US history in Wengen

Posted Jan. 14, 2011, at 3:55 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 14, 2011, at 6:07 p.m.

WENGEN, Switzerland — Downhill racer Steven Nyman is aiming to extend a great American tradition when he takes on the historic Lauberhorn course Saturday.

It was exactly 27 years ago at Wengen that the United States got its first men’s World Cup downhill win when Bill Johnson tamed the long, quirky track that twists beneath the Eiger and Jungfrau mountains.

Nyman also has been inspired by the Wengen victories of Daron Rahlves and Bode Miller, his former and current teammates.

“The runs that those guys put down a few years ago were inspiring,” Nyman said Thursday. “Just so gut-wrenching and intense, how hard they were pushing the whole way down.

“My first World Cup year was the year Daron won and it blew my mind,” said Nyman, a 28-year-old from Sundance, Utah.

Rahlves’ success in 2006, which came 11 years after fellow Californian Kyle Rasmussen made Wengen his first career win, started a three-year stretch of U.S. dominance.

Miller delivered back-to-back in 2007 and ’08. He was denied a hat trick in 2009, finishing runner-up to Switzerland’s Didier Defago with U.S. teammate Marco Sullivan third.

In one of many Wengen traditions, podium finishers are ferried by helicopter down to the village for a news conference in an elementary school.

“I want that helicopter ride at the end,” said Nyman, who was fifth fastest in a final training run Wednesday. Miller was 14th.

The longest World Cup downhill this year at 2.75 miles, it includes the tour’s fastest and slowest sections on a 2½ minute journey.

Racers hit 87 mph on the Haneggschuss straight having earlier slammed on the brakes to navigate an S-bend and emerge at 44 mph.

They hurtle off the signature Hundschopf cliff jump, negotiate one passage that’s just 10 feet wide and pass through a low tunnel bridge carrying the cog railway trains that take them to the start.

“In between every section you have time to think and feel,” Nyman said. “It’s super intense, then a walk in the park. There’s a lot of thinking time.”

The Lauberhorn was “designed by nature,” said Michael Walchhofer, the Austrian veteran who leads the downhill standings this season.

“If you wanted to design a new course like that, it could not happen,” said Walchhofer, who won in 2005 when Miller was third.

The 35-year-old Walchhofer is in his farewell season, while old rival Didier Cuche — twice runner-up to Miller — appears set to return next year.

The 36-year-old Cuche would be a hugely popular winner if he can give the knowledgeable Swiss crowd a third straight home success.

Defending Lauberhorn champion Carlo Janka feels he’s an outside bet to repeat.

“Maybe I don’t have the same confidence like last year,” said Janka, who is winless in defense of his World Cup overall title.

Janka finished second in the super-combined event won Friday by Ivica Kostelic of Croatia, the overall World Cup leader. Kostelic will start wearing bib No. 2 Saturday and likely have the best of soft snow conditions.

The home team also looks to all-rounder Silvan Zurbriggen, the surprise downhill winner at Val Gardena, Italy, who is having a career-best year at 29.

On the eve of the 81st Lauberhorn meeting, Nyman is keenly aware of the sense of history. Fellow Sundance resident Robert Redford filmed scenes in Wengen for skiing’s all-time classic movie more than 40 years ago.

“I’ve watched ‘Downhill Racer’ in the past and it was filmed here in this hotel,” said Nyman, speaking in the lobby of the Beausite Park where the U.S. team stays. “There’s an intensity here.”

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