March 02, 2012

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- U.S. cross-country skier Kikkan Randall already had the pink hair. Just before Christmas, the matching pink jacket came compliments of four-time Olympic alpine racer Sarah Schleper, who took it off her own back and handed it over after a World Cup run.

"I was so surprised and honored," said Randall, who had used her off day from competition to check out the U.S. slalom racers in Austria.

That's just a taste of the camaraderie that has developed in recent years among various teams within the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association.

What's really fueling the positive vibes are the results.

Two years out from Sochi and the 2014 Winter Games, American ski and snowboard athletes are having amazing success.

Downhill racer Lindsey Vonn recently notched her 51st World Cup win. Moguls racer Hannah Kearney put together a record-setting string of 16 consecutive World Cup victories, and snowboarder Kelly Clark has dominated in the halfpipe with 15 straight wins.

Tom Wallisch has been almost unbeatable in slopestyle skiing and same goes for Sarah Hendrickson in women's ski jumping - new events recently added to the Olympic menu.

There also have been some first-time success stories. Scott Bahrke won his first World Cup event in aerials and David Wise unseated two-time defending Winter X Games champion Kevin Rolland of France in halfpipe skiing.

Even up-and-comers such as Jessie Diggins (cross country) and Bryan Fletcher (Nordic combined) are turning heads as they begin to make names for themselves.

While Randall is thrilled at being the current overall sprint leader, the three-time Olympian is more stoked that cross country as a whole is starting to pull its own weight and now might even have a chance to medal in a relay event.

"Creating all this positive momentum will definitely help us in 2014," Randall said.

It's the culture of winning Bill Marolt envisioned when taking over the USSA 15 years ago as president and CEO.

"We're seeing experienced athletes having great success and younger athletes starting to gain traction and start to develop the depth that we need to have to have a great program," Marolt said.

Actually, the goal is not being great, it's being the best in the world.

"What you're seeing now is a reflection of what we did in 1997, when we really decided what we wanted to be as an organization," Marolt said. "When we put the idea of our goal being the best in the world and first tacked that there on the wall, people were a little overwhelmed by it. They didn't understand what it meant and what it would take to get there. But we kept pushing and pushing and making appropriate decisions and pretty soon, the results started to come. We changed from an organization that hasn't had direction to one that has."

Marolt said the excitement is easy to see.

He recalled being in Sochi recently for the men's World Cup.

"You see it in the faces of athletes, in the faces of coaches," Marolt said. "They're excited about what they're doing. We're getting toward the end of the season and we're not seeing tired athletes or coaches. They have this adrenaline rush because they know they have chance to be great."

The challenge is to maintain that high level into next year, which will serve as a national championship season and a buildup for Sochi.

Plenty can change before then (consider the season-ending knee injury suffered recently by Bode Miller). But the U.S. teams only hope to see their stash of precious metal grow.

Before the Salt Lake City Winter Games in 2002, the USSA set a goal of winning 10 medals. Mission accomplished.

In 2006, they won 10 medals again, but more gold than ever.

In Vancouver, 17 athletes won 21 medals - a record for the U.S.

Midway through the next Olympic cycle, there's reason to hope for a repeat performance.

USSA officials believe it helps having a $22.5 million, 85,000-square-foot world-class training facility in Park City, Utah. At the Center of Excellence, everything from bungee trampolines for aerial training to ramps for snowboarding and freestyle tricks are available to athletes, along with a large cardio center, weight room, nutrition center and rehab facilities.

"It's a great illustration of the concept of team," said Luke Bodensteiner, USSA's vice president of athletics.

"There was a point in time when I remember different sports were disconnected from each other and often saw each other as competitors for funding, attention and support. All of a sudden we had all the teams training together and all the support staff around those teams every day. Having them under the same roof reminded everybody every day what they're working for. It created this great team spirit across all our sports."

While some will always remember Shaun White's high-flying halfpipe run in Vancouver or Bill Demong's gold in Nordic combined, another image ingrained in Bodensteiner's mind came on the first night of competition.

Snowboarders had gathered around a TV in the house they were staying in to watch moguls.

"As soon as they realized Hannah Kearney won gold, the house exploded," Bodensteiner said. "They were all so excited."'

With the recent string of success, the team spirit has only continued to build.

"It has been the most fun season I can remember," said Randall, who still has the pink jacket from the now-retired Schleper.

"This year can be a very telling year for the team," she said. "There's not as much attention on the results. We're not in the media as much. But the fact that everybody is taking this year seriously serves us well, and will the next two years."

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