Nathan Bilow, Associated Press
BEAVER CREEK, Colo. — Nearly four years ago, Marco Sullivan broke through for his first World Cup win in what he figured would be a string of them.
Now, still stuck on one, the U.S. skier realizes what's been holding him back — himself.
After his downhill win in Chamonix, France, Sullivan became a little complacent and figured that his talent, not so much his work ethic, would carry him to the top.
It took sitting at home most of last season, sidelined with a concussion after a bad crash, to realize something needed to change. That he had to get his edge back.
Fully healthy for the first time in a while, Sullivan is even more determined this season than ever. To climb back on the podium again. To show that he can be a factor on a U.S. ski team filled with up-and-comers eyeing the 2014 Sochi Olympics, just like him.
"I can still remember that win and thinking, 'All right, I've arrived. I'm here.' Got a little cocky," said Sullivan, who had a break from the slopes Tuesday after a downhill training run was scrubbed as workers shaved down sections of the course to help control speed. "The next few years, I don't think I put in the work I should've.
"But I've turned that around now. I'm ready to get back up there."
Over the offseason, Sullivan committed himself to the gym. He even rented a place in Park City, Utah, to be near the team's training center and away from the temptations of Lake Tahoe, Calif., where he was just as likely to fish or water ski as lift weights.
"I had to put in the effort," he said.
Because he didn't want to be reminded of his one win over an over. Even now, hardly a World Cup race goes by that someone doesn't bring up his victory in France in January 2008.
So far, his rededication is paying off. Sullivan finished 24th in the downhill and 17th in the super-G last weekend in Lake Louise, Alberta.
And now it's on to the Birds of Prey, always a memorable place simply because he draws quite a following. All weekend long, there will be throngs of family and friends wearing green "Marco Rocks" stocking caps and ringing cowbells.
They're loud and he loves it.
But this place also serves as a painful reminder of what can happen if he's not fully focused. Coming into the last jump during a 2004 training run, Sullivan got slightly off-balance — at nearly 70 mph — and landed funny, tearing the ACL in his knee. The injury basically cost him two seasons.
"It was a split-second decision I wish I could take back," Sullivan said. "I still definitely think about it whenever I go over that jump now."
Any chance of playing it easy on that section?
"I've had a lot of crashes, a lot of injuries — you have to forget about it," Sullivan said. "You have to have a short memory."
That's sometimes easier said than accomplished, especially after last season.
The 31-year-old Sullivan missed a big chunk of racing after hurting his head when he wiped out during a downhill training run in Bormio, Italy, just after Christmas. He landed awkwardly after a jump and was flipped around, smacking his head against the snow.
For a while, Sullivan didn't feel quite right, so much so that he had no desire to ski — even on days when the mountain was covered in fresh powder.
That was scary to Sullivan since he always felt a powerful gravitational pull to a hill blanketed in powder.
The headaches were just that intense.
Eventually, they subsided. But it took a while for him to gain medical clearance. He was shocked at how slow his reaction times were in concussion tests administered by the team.
Simple tests, too, such as recognizing shapes, colors and numbers. He thought he was doing well.
"I went in three weeks after I crashed and my marks were really low," said Sullivan, who also had a scope on his right knee as a result of the crash. "At that point I realized, 'Wow, maybe I'm not where I thought I was.' The symptoms, the headaches, had really vanished, too."
After passing all the tests, Sullivan made it back to the slopes late last season, but not as a competitor. He served as a forerunner on the course at the U.S. championships.
It was enough to stoke his passion, if for no other reason than seeing the future of the team up close.
There, at nationals, Tommy Ford had a monster showing with wins in the super-G, combined and giant slalom.
Ford is part of a wave of young, talented U.S. skiers waiting in the wings, possibly becoming the headliners once skiers such as Bode Miller, Ted Ligety, Steven Nyman (who's out for the year with an Achilles injury) and Sullivan step away.
But that's not happening anytime soon.
Ligety is in the prime of his career, winning a third World Cup giant slalom title last season, and Miller remains a force on the slopes, even at 34 years old.
Sullivan just hopes to recapture the form that once helped him win in France, along with two other downhill podium finishes.
"My goals now are still what they were — to try to win World Cup races," Sullivan said. "Not much changes. At the end of the day, the fastest time wins. It doesn't matter when you're born. I feel strong and confident."
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