BORMIO, Italy — The way Austrian coach Andreas Evers sees it, downhill skiing is fairly straightforward.
Even if he doesn’t speak English perfectly, this much he manages to get across to his new American pupils: You go ... straight ... down ... the hill.
Abiding by that philosophy, Evers coached racers to more than 100 World Cup wins during the past 17 seasons in various positions on the staff of the Austrian “Wunderteam.”
The likes of Hermann Maier, Benjamin Raich and Michael Walchhofer – three of Evers’ most accomplished pupils – accounted for 109 wins among them.
For this season, Evers took over as head speed coach for the U.S. team – and he’s had an immediate impact.
“He’s awesome. It’s been really good,” said Steven Nyman, who won the downhill in Val Gardena in December for his first victory since prevailing in the same race six years earlier.
“He’s just super simple and he doesn’t have the greatest English, but he’ll come in and he’s like,” Nyman said, switching to an Austrian accent: “’You are not over the outside ski, get over the outside ski.’”
“He’s very straightforward,” Nyman added. “It’s not like we’re trying to reinvent anything or rediscover anything. He’s just like, ‘It’s the same as it was in 1960. Just use gravity.’”
Over the past two seasons, the U.S. team placed only one skier, Bode Miller, on the podium in downhill and super-G.
With Miller still to start this season as he recovers from left knee surgery, the rest of the speed squad has made quite a turnaround without him.
Marco Sullivan started things off by finishing third in the season-opening downhill in Lake Louise, Alberta, for his first top-three result in four seasons. Nyman had his victory and in between Ted Ligety placed fourth in two super-Gs – missing the podiums by a total of 0.05 seconds.
Then there’s Travis Ganong, a 24-year-old who has had career-best finishes in his past two downhills –10th in Val Gardena then seventh in Bormio on Saturday. A top-five finish – perhaps even a podium result – seems like the next step for this talented skier from Squaw Valley, California, in his third year on the circuit.
“The last three years were kind of tough, there wasn’t anyone I could really follow,” Ganong said. “Bode was doing well, but the core group was struggling, so it’s awesome now this year to see some momentum building and everyone skiing fast in training. Everybody is starting to believe in themselves and believe that they can win”
The team is not just winning races, but the biggest events of the season. First come the mid-January classics in Wengen, Switzerland, and Kitzbuehel, Austria, followed by the world championships in Schladming, Austria, in February.
Of course, the ultimate goal remains next season’s Sochi Olympics.
“They are good, young boys and if we do a good job we can make in the next three-four years a real strong, American downhill team,” Evers said.
Stronger than the Austrians?
“If we work good and hard, for sure,” Evers said. “Why not?”
That won’t come as good news to Hans Pum, one of the head officials at the Austrian winter sports federation. He noted that the U.S. also has two other Austrians in key positions: Patrick Riml is the U.S. Alpine director and Alex Hoedlmoser is the head coach of the U.S. women and Lindsey Vonn.
“(Evers) is a great coach. I don’t know why he left,” Pum said. “I wasn’t very happy when he told me he went to the Americans. There are too many good coaches around the world, especially in the States.”
Evers said he had wanted to embark on a foreign coaching experience for the past 15 years, and when he guided Klaus Kroell to the World Cup downhill title last season, the time was right.
“I thought, ‘I had to do it right now, otherwise I never do it,’” he said.
Evers, 44 years old and silver-haired, appears at ease in his new job. Skiing is the national sport in Austria, and he doesn’t have to deal with that kind of pressure anymore.
“With the U.S., if a race goes not so good, it’s not so much pressure from the press,” he said. “For sure it’s different.”
Still, Evers remains in the spotlight in Austria. This time, however, it had nothing to do with ski technique.
When he returned home in December following races in North America, Austrian police were waiting and arrested him for alleged involvement in a money laundering scheme involving his ex-girlfriend.
According to the state prosecutor in Salzburg, Evers confessed to laundering $1.85 million, which his ex-girlfriend allegedly stole from a computer company she worked at from 2001-05. Evers allegedly used the money for investments and to finance the construction of his house, the prosecutor said. The now 39-year-old woman was convicted of stealing $10 million and was released in October after 2 ½ years in prison.
On Dec. 4, Evers was released from one-day custody under the conditions that he regularly inform the prosecutor about his whereabouts and that he does not obstruct the ongoing investigations. If found guilty, Evers faces a prison term of up to four years.
The U.S. team said Evers has not violated any terms of his contract, which lasts through next season – and the arrest doesn’t appear to have affected his coaching.
In fact, Evers has demanded even more dedication from his racers lately. Ending a longstanding tradition of a midseason break, the bulk of the speed squad is staying in Europe over the New Year’s holiday and the three-week break between Bormio and Wengen.
“He wants our heads in the game, and to stay focused,” Nyman said. I feel like that’s my style. ... Some guys want to check out and come back in, but I really want to keep my mind in the game.”
Wengen is the longest downhill on the circuit.
“Usually we come into Wengen and we’re a little jet lagged and we’re a little rusty,” Ganong said. “That hill is not forgiving at all, you have to be really on your game. If you’re off a little bit you’re going to be six, seven seconds out and not know why. It’s just so long and so flat. So it will be nice to stay here this year.”
Sullivan, who is self-funded this season, skipped Bormio but will be back for an upcoming training camp in Schladming on the worlds course.
Cutting out two trans-Atlantic trips could also help someone like Olympic super-G bronze medalist Andrew Weibrecht, who has struggled with illness this season.
In training, Evers preaches quality over quantity – with lots of rest.
“For me, that’s good, because my body is a little older and everything is a little more run down,” said the 32-year-old Sullivan. “We haven’t trained as much. Every day we take maybe three to five runs instead of six to 10.
“He makes sure that we’re really rested when it comes to training days and race days,” Sullivan added. “He just brings the philosophy that skiing is simple, you just need to do certain things and don’t think too much about it. Just make sure you’re strong and confident when you come to the race.”
Besides Evers, former World Cup racer TJ Lanning was another key addition to the staff, replacing Pete Lavin in the start house.
Lavin, who was better known as “Baby Huey,” gained fame by screaming encouragement as racers prepared for their runs. His association with the team went back to Daron Rahlves, who won 12 World Cup races between 2000 and 2006.
“I never liked Huey yelling at me,” Nyman said. “I always told him to shut up and yell when I started going.”
In a sharp change from Huey’s vocal inspiration, Lanning now coolly communicates course information to athletes.
During the Gardena downhill, when changing conditions began to let later starters beat the favorites, Lanning kept it cool with Nyman.
“TJ came up to me and I thought he was going to say something and he was just like, ‘Can I stand with you?’” Nyman said. “He’s still getting the coaching gig down, but he’s just a great guy to have around.”
Lanning had a budding career cut short by injury in 2009. He’s 28, the same age as Scotty Veenis, another new assistant coach on the downhill squad, and a former NCAA champion.
“I think Andi wanted young (assistants), so he could also teach them, not old guys set in their ways,” Nyman said.
Men’s head coach Sasha Rearick coordinates the entire team. Forest Carey, Miller’s former personal coach, crosses over between the technical and speed squads.
In his pursuit of the overall title, Ligety is also benefiting from Evers as he attempts to improve in the speed events – his weakness.
“He’s definitely changed the culture and atmosphere in the speed team,” Ligety said. “He brings a lot of expertise and know-how, and you definitely trust somebody that has coached some of the best guys. On the courses he knows where the speed is to be made and he’s good at sharing that and getting the information to all the people.”
Evers is even starting to understand the American lingo.
“His English is quite good now,” Rearick said. “Someone even thought he was American the other day, so he was all stoked.”