BEAVER CREEK, Colo. — Before the season, U.S. skier Marco Sullivan was dumped by his main sponsor and demoted by the team.
No hard feelings, though. Years of injuries and inconsistent performances put him in this bind.
To ski on the World Cup circuit this season will cost him roughly $22,000, most of which will be offset through fundraising.
Still, Sullivan considered getting a side job over the summer, just to have more cash flow.
The 32-year-old never considered this: Walking away from the slopes.
Last weekend, racing on new Atomic skis after Rossignol dropped him, Sullivan charged through the downhill course in Lake Louise, Alberta, and changed everything.
Third place. From the 42nd starting position, no less. His first podium finish in nearly four years.
With that, the pressure was beginning to lighten. A big sigh of relief.
Granted, sponsors have yet to call — probably won’t for a little while — and he will still be on the “B” team all season, but at least he’s headed in the right direction. And at least his confidence is surging again.
That’s the power of a podium finish.
“It’s hard to say all this was a good thing,” Sullivan said in a phone interview as he made his way to Beaver Creek, Colo., for the Birds of Prey competition later this week. “But it gave me something to fight for. I had to prove to them that I felt I was worthy to be on the team. That was only going to happen with a good result.
“So, yeah, it lit a fire underneath me.”
The phone calls were tough. Rossignol saying the company was parting ways with him.
And then the ski team telling him it was bumping him down.
He still had his starting spot on the World Cup tour, but only the “A” team is completely funded. He now had to foot the bill for travel costs to and from Europe, meals and lodging. He still had access to the coaching staff, though, free of charge.
It’s a harsh world in this business of ski racing.
But the U.S. team hardly left him dangling and set him up with some powerful trustees, who assisted in defraying some of the costs.
“I reached out to key people and they rallied their friends, raising a lot of money,” said Sullivan, who’s from Squaw Valley, Calif. “I’m not done yet. Hopefully, not a lot of it will come out of my own pocket. But I didn’t have to take on another job — not yet anyway.”
Good thing, too, because this has been a full-time job in itself: Healing his balky back.
Ever since a 2009 crash, Sullivan has been dealing with herniated disks. He took off a portion of last summer, just to let the back settle down. He also found some stretching exercises that limbered up his back enough so he could work out and build up enough strength to finally ski.
Sullivan also missed the bulk of the 2010-11 World Cup season after suffering a concussion when he wiped out during a downhill training run in Italy. He landed awkwardly after a jump and was flipped around, smacking his head against the snow.
It took a while for the headaches to subside so he could return to the hill.
His back still remains a source of irritation.
“Back injuries are tough like that,” said Sullivan, who competed in the South American Cup in September and finished fourth during a downhill race. “I’m managing it in a simple and yet aggressive way.”
Simple and yet aggressive — that almost describes his way of skiing, a style that led to a downhill win in Chamonix, France, in 2008, along with two other top-three finishes.
“It doesn’t seem all that long ago when I was the up-and-comer that everyone was excited about,” Sullivan said.
That early success became harder and harder to match. He hasn’t finished inside the top 15 since a super-G race in Austria on Jan. 22, 2010.
And then came his electric run in Lake Louise over the weekend. From out of nowhere, really. He started in the 42nd spot, hardly a position favorable for a fast run.
He glided through the course, realizing about midway down that he had something special going.
For the first time in a while, Sullivan felt fast on his skis. Really fast.
When he crossed the finish line and glanced up at his time — tied with Austrian Klaus Kroell for third place — he was overwhelmed.
“I was just enjoying the run, enjoying the skiing. When I saw third place up there, it was kind of surreal,” he said. “I don’t really remember the next couple of minutes.”
This was more like the Sullivan of old, before all the injuries.
“It’s a step in the right direction — a bigger step than I expected,” men’s coach Sasha Rearick said. “He’s doing the right things.”
Now, people who haven’t contacted him in years are reaching out through Facebook and Twitter.
“Coming out of the woodwork,” laughed Sullivan, who has a fan club called “Marco Rocks” that shows up in full force for events such as Beaver Creek. “To hear from so many people you don’t really know that are still watching you and saw your name in the news and wanted to reach out, that’s really cool.”
Did he think this — a podium finish — would ever happen again?
“I wouldn’t still be racing if I didn’t think I could still compete,” Sullivan said. “It just makes it all that much sweeter, to have fought back from injuries. To get dropped by sponsors and people start questioning whether you’re ever going to be back on top, it’s definitely tough. Luckily, I was able to add that fuel to the fire and show people I was going to come back.”