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Waiting game begins at Whistler

WHISTLER, British Columbia -- Alpine skiers are great waiters. Not that kind of waiter (although sometimes that kind, too, because if you're not at the highest level of the sport, like Lindsey Vonn and Bode Miller, you sometimes need another job, too; but that's a different discussion). Waiters. As in: They are very experienced at waiting.

Most of them have been skiing since they were still learning to form two-syllable words. They have free-skied in epic powder and on bulletproof ice. They have sat in crowded little ski lodges, with boot bags stacked in the corner and tables crowded with cooling bowls of chili and clam chowder, while snow (or rain) subsides, wind dies down or grooming is finished. It's in the job description. (I was once the parent of a junior ski racer and marveled at the amount of patience required just to participate).

As I type this stuff, I am sitting in the "media sub-center" at Whistler Creekside, a branch of the sprawling Whistler Blackcomb Ski Resort. Whistler Blackcomb is a truly beautiful place. At least I think it's a truly beautiful place, but the fog hasn't yet lifted long enough to get a really good feel for it. The "media sub-center" is a two-story wedding tent wedged into the mountainside near the finish area for the Olympic ski races, and at this moment it's ... wait a second while I walk over to the glass door ... It's ... Pouring rain. The official temperature is 39 degrees.

The men's downhill is scheduled for Saturday morning at 11:45. The women's combined (one run of downhill and one run of slalom) had been scheduled for Sunday, but that's gone, now, because the women have not been able to complete the required one training run and Saturday's was cancelled. I would not wager heavily on the men's downhill going off as scheduled.

As all this unfolds I think back to a conversation I had in December with former U.S. Olympic racer Jonna Mendes. Mostly we were talking about Vonn, but at the end of the conversation, Mendes said to me, "So, is anybody talking about the weather up there?" I said, um, I guess. Maybe a little. Mendes said, "Well, they should be, because I've been to Whistler a bunch of times, and I've never experienced more than a couple consecutive days of good weather, and certainly not two weeks straight." Smart lady, as it turns out.

(Whistler was once a regular stop on the World Cup circuit, but hasn't been since the mid-1990's, largely because of unpredictable weather patterns that make it perilous for teams to schedule a costly trip to a remote location).

As training has staggered along this week, there have been issues with fog and heavy snow, but the biggest problem is that the snow surface is falling apart, much like slushy spring snow in your backyard. "It's kind of surprisingly soft," says Ted Ligety of the U.S., the defending gold medalist in combined. "It's broken through in a lot of places, and instead of having a hard under-layer, it's almost like hollow underneath. For us, it's almost like you would expect to get at U.S. Nationals (which traditionally take place in late March) or a spring series race."

Officials are clearly hoping for some cold nights, which would harden the surface. But there is little cold weather in the short-range forecast.

So the skiers wait. And two U.S, skiers, in particular, are more patient than most.

First there is Vonn, whose injured shin is improving every day. "Her pain is getting less and less," said Martin Hager, the former Austrian coach who serves as Vonn's trainer with the Red Bull Athletes Special Project. Every day that Vonn's Olympic debut is pushed back, chances increase that she will perform at her customary level. And that is what her opponents are expecting. "As normal," said Germany's Maria Riesch, when asked what she expects of Vonn.

After Friday's downhill training run was cancelled, Vonn said, "I think I'm lucking out pretty heavily."

For men's downhiller Marco Sullivan, the circumstances are slightly different. He's a solid World Cup speed racer, whereas Vonn is dominant. But you can think of Sullivan, 29, as a mudder of sorts. He is the type of smooth skier whose soft touch on snow -- from years skiing powder in Lake Tahoe -- will help him navigate the relatively slushy terrain he'll be getting in the Whistler downhill. (There is another U.S. skier who's very good in soft snow, as well. That would be the enigmatic Bode Miller, who is one of the most inventive and graceful skiers in history).

And for Sullivan, the warm conditions are a bonus of sorts. Most World Cup racers already considered him to be a solid contender on the Whistler Hill. He did, too. "This hill is great for me," he said Wednesday after a U.S. men's team press conference. It's great for him because it's not especially challenging, lacking difficult turns and terrain variations (which might favor a skier like Andrew Weibrecht, or in past years, Daron Rahlves). Now Sullivan gets favorable terrain and soft snow.

And a favorable starting assignment.

Because the the course will deteriorate quickly, racers starting early will have a better track than those starting later. The Top 15 skiers in the World Cup standings start Nos. 8-22. Sullivan will start sixth. The random draw could have put him in the final heats.

Sullivan is a very different place from four years ago. He was just 21 when he finished 10th in the downhill at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, best finish by a U.S. racer. But he suffered a severe knee injury in 2004 and missed most of two full seasons. At one point, he was driving a grooming machine at a Tahoe resort, cranking tunes in the cab to forget about his injury. (Not quite waiting tables, but you get the idea).

He rallied big in 2006 and nearly made the Olympic team. He was involved in a three-way "ski-off" with teammates Steven Nyman and Scott Macartney, based purely on their times in training runs. He lost the first to to Nyman by .05 and the second to Macartney by .15. Then he watched the Olympic downhill while standing on the course with U.S. coach John McBride. "Pretty amazing," says Sullivan. "I was thinking, millions of people are watching this race and it's wild down at the bottom, and up here it's just quiet."

On the day after the downhill, he drove to Austria and skied deep powder for a week. Now he will be happy to hammer out the run of his life in slush. And he'll wait as long it takes.

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