Top-ranked American Downhiller Bryce Bennett can be found most mornings in the off season behind the helm of his fishing boat, slowly trolling the emerald waters of Lake Tahoe in search of mackinaw and rainbow trout. Sometimes he brings friends, other times, he prefers the serenity of a quiet sunrise over the place he grew up and still calls home.
Take one look at the 27-year-old and you’d almost be forgiven if you mistook his six-foot-seven, 220-pound athletic frame for that of a basketball player. To be completely honest, he looks decidedly out of place standing next to many of his World Cup colleagues, complete with his custom-sized U.S. Ski Team uniforms and specially made ski boots to accommodate his size 15 feet.
Early mornings on the lake provide Bennett a time to reflect, recharge, and totally separate himself from his day job of hurling himself down bone-rattling race courses at exotic destinations across the globe each winter. Bennett, for the last few seasons, has also been adamant that he does all of his off-season conditioning at home in Tahoe as opposed to the U.S. Ski Team’s headquarters in Park City, Utah — a preference that irked the national team earlier in his career but is now recognized as part of the reason why he has been able to find success at the sport’s highest levels.
“For me, the only way to perform my best is to just remove myself temporarily from skiing,” he says, taking his boat to shallower waters after an hour of slow fishing. “That’s what I do at home, I get away from the ski team and the ski industry and just don’t want to be a part of it during my time off.”
Believe it or not, Bennett sat on that same boat a year ago and contemplated ending his racing career then and there, just after it seemed to finally be taking off.
Disappointment and Perseverance
Following a season in which he made his Olympic debut at PyeongChang and found the form required to regularly score points on the notoriously demanding World Cup downhill circuit, Bennett finished the year ranked 20th in the world in downhill.
Despite his on-hill success, U.S. Ski Team nomination criteria changed earlier that season and raised the threshold for making the fully-funded A-Team from top 25 in the world to top 15. It was a bit of a disappointment to receive an invitation to the B-Team last summer, starting the cycle of fundraising to cover his annual team fees once again after being demoted from an A-Team member during the 2017-18 season.
“Leading into last season I was just so mad,” he says. “I was super over it and tired from the season and was just like, ‘Is this even worth my time anymore?’ It had just been year after year after year of being shut down. That’s happened so many times throughout my career, being so close but it not being enough. I knew that the only way I was going to change things was to ski fast. That was my only option.”
Things didn’t necessarily get off on the right foot at the beginning of the 2018-19 season, though. Less than ideal Southern Hemisphere training conditions and admittedly slow skiing during his summer camps with the national team led to some creeping doubt to whether he could really cut it on the World Cup.
When the World Cup season did start, however, Bennett found early success with a 12th place in the downhill season opener in Lake Louise, Canada, and followed it up with his first top 10 on home soil, finishing ninth at Beaver Creek.
“Bryce is comfortable on the World Cup, which is totally different than any of the training we get,” veteran teammate and mentor Steven Nyman said last season. “It’s a much harder surface, it’s bumpier, it takes a lot more balls and you see that in him.”
With a strong start to the season under his belt, Bennett hopped the pond and began the remainder of his season in Europe.
Back-to-back fourth-place finishes at the site of his 2015 World Cup breakthrough in Val Gardena, Italy, and the notoriously intimidating track in Bormio further bolstered his rankings. Last season’s races in Bormio were historically challenging with skating-rink ice, jarring bumps, breakneck speeds, and a dark, north-facing slope instilling fear into the hearts of the field, Bennett included.
“I was a minute out from my start in Bormio and I was like, ‘Would people think I’m a huge sissy if I just don’t go today?’” he remembers. “That was a legitimate thought I had because I was scared. I had this pretty aggressive plan and I didn’t know if I could do it. I was confident enough in my skiing to be able to do that but the fear part is the hardest part to overcome.”
That level of mental maturity did not always come so naturally to Bennett, however, who was famous for his on-snow talent and infamous for his hot temper as a young up-and-coming racer on the Squaw Valley Ski Team.
“I was not the nicest kid ever,” Bennett admits. “I was always trying to impress the older kids, trying to be Mr. Cool Guy, and doing stuff that when I look back now, just go, ‘What was I thinking?’ I was just being a dick. I was super competitive and just wanted to be Mr. Cool Guy. That was great for a little bit until I actually started hurting people’s feelings. It wasn’t helping me at all and it wasn’t helping anyone around me. It took me a very long time to figure out how to deal with that.”
As is often the case with kids, there is usually far more to their story than first meets the eye. Bennett’s towering height at a young age made him an easy target for bullies at school and his athletic talent drew the ire of some of his peers in the ski racing world, too. Misunderstood and stubborn almost to a fault, Bennett constantly clashed with authority figures and often found himself at odds with parents, teachers, coaches, and friends alike as a kid.
“I wouldn’t deal with it in a good way, I’d just get mad,” he says. “It got in the way of what I was trying to do, be fast at ski racing, and it took me a long time to realize that I had to grow up, be mature, and not let my emotions run wild.”
Bennett credits longtime Squaw Valley coach Konrad Rickenbach as a pivotal figure in his attitude change as a teenager. Rickenbach guided the youngster not by telling him what he had to do, but rather by showing him that it was up to him to choose his own path in life, wherever that may lead him.
“Konrad was the first person in my life that presented it to me in a way that instead of telling me what to do and what I was doing wrong and how I needed to change, he just got me thinking about it and challenged me and made it my choice to change,” Bennett reflects.
Turning the Corner
Even though the big man on Tour was scoring the best results of his career last December, he still struggled to believe that he was truly capable of everything he hoped and dreamed of accomplishing as a young skier. It wasn’t until his fifth-place finish in Wengen’s Lauberhorn downhill in January, without a doubt the most physically demanding challenge in the ski racing world, that he came to the realization that he did, in fact, belong at the top of the World Cup standings.
“Wengen was the turning point where I realized that I could be that guy, a downhill title is possible,” he says. “That’s what I was convinced of at that point, being very good at this sport is doable. I just need to clean up a few pieces and it’s possible.”
Bennett wrapped up his 2019 season ranked eighth in the downhill standings and will begin this season as the seventh best downhiller in the world with the retirement of Norwegian legend Aksel Lund Svindal at last season’s World Championships — the best American ranking since Nyman finished both the 2015 and 2016 seasons ranked sixth in the world.
It’s a well known thorn in the side of the U.S. men’s team that no American has ever won a World Cup downhill title. Legends Bode Miller and Daron Rahlves each finished runner-up twice during their storied careers but couldn’t quite find the right combination of consistency and luck to walk away with arguably the most coveted discipline title on the men’s side of the sport.
If Bennett is to indeed someday be “that guy,” he will need to find a level of consistency he has yet to reach in his career, a tall order in an event as notoriously fickle as downhill. Switzerland’s Beat Feuz, who has won the downhill title the last two years on the World Cup, hasn’t finished worse than eighth since the spring of 2017 and finished outside of the top five only three times in that same timeframe. If you ask Bennett, though, he’s up to the challenge.
“When you’re young on Tour you want to believe that those other guys are so much better than you, but they’re not,” he says. “I’d say that skiing skills are pretty even across the board but that mental commitment to the plan you have is the separator.”
Much like his fishing exploits, formulating a carefully thought-out plan and not just casting a line out and hoping for a bite is the best way to set yourself up for success on the slopes of the World Cup. With ambitions as lofty as Bennett’s, he’ll need a darn good one if he is to achieve his goals.
“My goal is always to just do the best I possibly can,” he adds. “That includes doing everything I need to do to take care of my body physically and mentally so every weekend I can come in and perform and execute the plan. Where that takes me, I’m not totally sure. Of course, the downhill title is on the back of my mind and I think it’s realistic, it’s the goal, one-hundred percent. If that’s achievable in the next three years than so be it.”
What happens to be one thing working in Bennett’s favor, though? Choosing the right plan and sticking to it is something he has been working on and doing successfully since he was a teenager. Where his current plan takes him is anyone’s guess, but one thing is for certain: he’ll be doing things his way.