Ask any up-and-coming American ski racer on the brink of a World Cup breakthrough what it’s really like trying to carve out a spot of their own on the circuit, and you’re likely going to get some surprising responses. To put it simply, it’s a grind, especially when things don’t go your way on race day. The romance of darting around the globe chasing World Cup starts wears off quickly after your fourth straight DNF, fifth different bed in the last week, or sixth bone-headed mistake that cost you yet another top-30 result. For young Americans Bryce Bennett and Ryan Cochran-Siegle, that grind has been a way of life since they both made their World Cup debuts over five years ago.
Every once in a while, though, that momentum can shift in your favor and make all of the frustrations, disappointments, injuries, and meals away from home a little more worth it.
“It’s just been a long, long, long, slow process,” says Bennett. “A lot of mistakes and experimenting with different stuff as far as tactics and getting the equipment in the right place. Also mentally, it’s something else to race on a World Cup day and I think that’s something different than just training or your everyday downhill training runs; bringing that intensity on that day and making it happen.”
Bennett got his first taste of real success on the World Cup at the downhill in Val Gardena, Italy, in 2015. The tall, lanky Californian charged from bib 57 to finish a miraculous sixth place. Not bad for a kid who at times looks better suited for the basketball court or local surf spot than the slopes of the World Cup.
“I crossed the finish and saw sixth and I was like, what? No chance!” he said that day. “The timer is broken!”
Cochran-Siegle first cracked the World Cup top 10 at the 2016 alpine combined in Santa Caterina, Italy, after suffering a traumatic knee injury at the 2013 World Championships in Schladming, Austria. At that time he was told that he may not compete at an elite level ever again.
Thanks to patience, dedication to their craft, and a healthy dose of good old fashioned grit, the duo enjoyed their most successful seasons yet in 2017-18. They both made the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Team and solidified themselves inside of the top 30 of the World Cup.
Last week at the 2018-19 speed openers in Lake Louise, Canada, Bennett and Cochran-Siegle continued their upward trajectory with Bennett landing in 12th place in the downhill, while Cochran-Siegle charged from bib 54 to finish 20th. Cochran-Siegle followed up with a top 15 the next day in the super-G, finishing 12th in a tight race.
“My focus during that weekend was just more about my skiing, so the fact that I was able to perform well allows me to just trust that going into Beaver Creek,” says Cochran-Siegle. “With the training runs it’s just about seeing how the lines work and making sure that I’m making all the right movements. It’s nice to get some good results under my belt in November, so hopefully I can just keep that going.”
“I think that’s always the goal, to have a decent result in the first race,” adds Bennett. “It was tough, though, for me because I’ve been skiing pretty slow in training all summer long. On race day, it went alright and I was pretty nervous but got to a good place on race day and felt confident and had a good plan.”
The rise of Bennett and Cochran-Siegle has not gone unnoticed with their teammates, either. The leader of the American Downhillers, Steven Nyman, who is mounting a comeback from injury himself, sees their recent results as a strong indicator of what is to come from his younger colleagues.
“All summer, Ryan has been so impressive just with his discipline and his connection to the snow,” says Nyman. “His ability to focus is, I think, supreme to anyone on the team right now. The kid wants it and he’s been through some hardships and is really pushing for it now and is gaining confidence. He’s a good kid and I can learn a lot from him. To see him punch from the back in both events was super impressive and, obviously, he has his foundation in GS and I expect higher things there from him too.”
That dedication is not lost on Cochran-Siegle as he recognizes that a fully healthy, hyper-focused prep period is the single best way for him to prepare to take the next step in his career and start challenging for the podium.
“This whole prep period, I’ve been healthy and I’ve been able to fight the whole way and I think that’s kind of huge coming into this year,” Cochran-Siegle says. “I realize that I’m at the point in my career that I need to start pushing myself further and further in order to get to that top step. I’ve been stagnant for a little while in my eyes.”
In Bennett’s case, Nyman recognizes how unique it is for an athlete to emerge in the way Bennett has, with years of experience on each track usually required to really push and contend with the top racers on the downhill circuit.
“Bryce is comfortable on the World Cup, which is totally different than any of the training we get; it’s a much harder surface, it’s bumpier, it takes a lot more balls and you see that in him,” Nyman adds. “It’s funny, on the soft stuff, he tucks less and is balancing more. Once he got to the World Cup and once he got on that hard surface, we were just like, ‘Ah, here we go!’ It was fantastic to see him do so well.”
Nyman is well known not only as a successful downhiller, but as a talented team builder as well and has been a mentor for both athletes on the speed circuit over the past several seasons. Nyman and Bennett are particularly close with the two sharing an equipment manufacturer, technician, and both being two of the tallest skiers on tour at well over six feet a piece.
“He helps me a lot,” says Bennett. “We’re always talking in inspection and that’s been really helpful to me as far as figuring out how to link sections of course together and what that’s going to take and what the approach should be.”
This weekend’s races in Beaver Creek are always special for Bennett and Cochran-Siegle, not only because it’s their only opportunity to compete in a World Cup on home snow, but it’s also the venue where both of them scored their first World Cup points, with Cochran-Siegle scoring in the 2011 super-G and Bennett in the downhill in 2015.
“I actually haven’t had any success at Beaver Creek since I first scored points, so I’m definitely trying to take the mentality that I just need to fight the whole way all weekend in order to do well,” explains Cochran-Siegle. “I’ll be racing every race here, so having three attempts down this hill versus just one if I was a specialist is kind of a cool way to look at it. I have a lot of opportunity to go. In GS, getting a second run would be the biggest thing for me but setting goals is tough for me because I tend to build up expectations which I think just ultimately kind of leads to disappointment. Getting a second run in GS and skiing the way I know how to ski and how I have been skiing is what I’m focused on.”
For Bennett, some new-found confidence just might be the deciding factor for him to come through for the home crowd on race day.
“Honestly, I don’t think a podium is out of the question,” he says. “This is the first season that I’ve been going to these races and been like, ‘If I have a good run, I can end up on the podium.’ If I can do that and do what I want to do here, there’s no reason why I can’t be there.”
Racing action in Beaver Creek is set to begin on Friday, Nov. 30, with the men’s downhill. To find out how to watch, please click here.