December 18, 2014

VAL GARDENA, Italy (AP) When Utah native Steven Nyman arrives in the heart of the Dolomite Range each year the week before Christmas, he gets a special feeling.

Special because his only two World Cup victories have come on the classic Saslong course, in 2006 and 2012.

Special because this race is considered a downhiller's downhill - full of long, high-speed gliding sections but also filled with terrain and both big and small jumps, a result of following the mountain's natural fall line like few other World Cup courses.

On average during the two-minute descent, skiers go airborne a total of 25 to 30 times.

''It's at the top of the list for fun factor,'' Nyman said after leading Wednesday's only training session for Friday's race. ''It has all of the ingredients: jumps, technical sections, gliding.''

At 6-foot-4 (1.93 meters) and 215 pounds (98 kilograms), Nyman's big, muscular legs are well equipped to deal with the constant leaping and landing that often make skiers look like deer as they navigate their way down through the forest.

''The key to this course is getting back to the ground as quickly as possible. I have long shock absorbers and that helps a great deal,'' Nyman, who grew up in Sundance, Utah, said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Thin snow cover this year prompted organizers to cancel Thursday's second training session to help preserve the course. Also, the super-G and downhill were flip-flopped, pushing the super-G back to Saturday.

''They can't groom the piste and make it perfectly smooth, so there's a lot of natural stuff, micro terrain and a lot of bumps,'' Nyman said. ''The camel jumps are maybe the biggest they've ever been.''

Another win would move Nyman within one of the race record of four shared by Austrian legend Franz Klammer and Italian great Kristian Ghedina.

Nyman enters in solid form following a third-place result in Beaver Creek, Colorado, this month.

That's a big step up from last season, when his best result was 19th in Lake Louise, Alberta. Nyman has had to deal with back, knee and Achilles tendon injuries in recent seasons but he's fully healthy now.

''Physically I feel really, really good,'' Nyman said. ''Last year I felt good, too, but my equipment didn't feel right. So after last season I threw everything out and started over with my ski technician. We downsized my boots, worked on new plates, new bindings - new everything. And now we've gotten to the point where I'm feeling really comfortable and I like it.''

Confident enough that the 32-year-old Nyman is wondering if he could challenge for the season-long World Cup downhill title. With the likes of Aksel Lund Svindal, Bode Miller and Erik Guay - who won this downhill last season - out injured, he sees an opening.

Sochi bronze medalist Kjetil Jansrud of Norway won the opening two downhills this season but he trailed Nyman by 0.19 seconds in Wednesday's training.

''I've got a lot of knowledge of the courses and I feel like I can push my ranking higher and maybe even go after a title,'' Nyman said.

Nyman slipped to the U.S. squad's ''B'' team for this season, meaning he had to pay $20,000 out of his own pocket to race the World Cup. Fortunately, some U.S. Ski Team trustees stepped in and helped him out financially.

Teammate Marco Sullivan is in the same situation.

''It's been tough on athletes of our caliber. But we've figured it out,'' Nyman said. ''It's brought awareness to the team.''

Sullivan has finished fourth and fifth in Val Gardena but never made the podium. Coming off a fifth-place result in Lake Louise, he's also got momentum.

With former U.S women's head coach Alex Hoedlmoser taking over the men's speed team for this season, there's a new vibe within the squad.

''He busts his butt on the hill to create great training for us and we really respect that,'' Nyman said. ''And with Pete Anderson, Scotty Veenis and Chris Beckmann as assistant coaches, we all respect each other. They're all my age and we're good buddies for life. It's fun and we're all fired up.''

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Andrew Dampf can be followed at www.twitter.com/asdampf

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