It’s been 13 years since young Steven Nyman first rolled into village of Wolkenstein in the heart of the Italian Dolomites. There was little fanfare then, hauling in a few duffels and grabbing the key to his room. It was his first month on the World Cup tour. He finished 36th. A year later he would win on the Saslong – a stunning victory and one that would begin to establish his career as one of the U.S. Ski Team’s great downhill ski racing stars.
Today, Nyman, now 36, arrives into Val Gardena a hero, greeted by the Alpino Plan hotel staff as one of their own. Holding year-and-a-half old daughter Nell, he points to his pictures on the wall. This is home – the place where he begins his European tour each December. It’s a place where he feels welcomed and comfortable.
There are few places on the alpine tour like Val Gardena. High atop Ciampinoi at the start, the view is mesmerizing. To the east, the rocky massif of the Sella Group juts like an island into the sky. The castle-like rocks of Langkofel form a backdrop to the start. Down below: two miles and two minutes of sheer terror form the Saslong.
“Ever since the first day I got here I felt comfortable with the snow, the surroundings,” said Nyman. “You’re skiing through cow pastures, but amidst these rocky towering peaks.”
Val Gardena has been good to Steven Nyman. Only two skiers have bested his three victories – Kristian Ghedina and Franz Klammer, each with four. Now, just months out of knee surgery, Nyman knows he’s on a good path. But he also understands the reality of a fourth victory later this week.
“It is a confidence booster here,” said Nyman. “To come here and be comfortable is a plus. It definitely helped in Beaver Creek. But the biggest question is my body. I’m still just 10 months out of surgery. There has to be time to recover. In a sense I’ve surprised myself with where I am now.”
The Saslong may not get quite the respect garnered by the precipitous steeps of the Hahnenkamm or grueling length of the Lauberhorn. But in its own way it throws many more challenges into the burning thighs of the world’s best downhill racers.
“Gardena is a beast,” he says bluntly. “You have to be very confident and convicted on every piece of blind terrain – otherwise you’ll be bleeding time. I know what is required to win here. But it takes conviction on my part. I’ll know during inspection if I have that conviction.”
The Saslong is about terrain. Every inch of the course challenges racers – including the 26 times your skis will come off the snow. Watch racers’ thighs as they ratchet through the Ciaslat. Are their legs rubbery off the Camels? Look into their eyes. Do you see fear or do you see conviction?
“The biggest thing is the snow here – I just feel comfortable on my feet, connected to the ground,” he said. “I feel comfortable with the terrain. There are things we did with the team when I was young that really helped – building terrain for downhill skiing at training camps. I don’t think the Europeans ever really did that.”
Nyman’s 2006 win was a shocker – a mere .02 over Swiss Didier Cuche. Six years later, in 2012, he started 39th and took advantage of changing weather and a fast course to win again. He made it a hat trick in 2014.
“There’s a lot of precision in this course,” said Nyman. “There’s one line and you have to hit it and go. Different sections, different gears – you have to change your mentality a few times. And you have to exit the Cislat with speed. You can’t make up speed on this course like you can in Bormio or Kitz.”
Luis Demetz, a former ski instructor, is the consummate host – proud to have the Canadians and Americans at his hotel each year. They’re still talking about the 2008 race where the North Americans combined to take seven of the top 10 spots.
As a vagabond ski racer hop scotching the Alps every winter, you usually want to just get out of town and on to the next stop. Not here. The Dolomites are place where you want to linger – a fun day skiing the Sella Ronda on a monoski, or enjoying a welcoming meal at Rifugio Emilio Comici. Two years ago, Steven and partner Charlotte Moats were at the top of Passo Sella when they decided to open an email to learn the gender of their soon-to-be-born child. It would be a girl.
Steven and Charlotte shepherd Nell around the hotel, looking at pictures and listening to stories. It doesn’t mean all that much to her now. But it will some day. This was the race that made her father proud.
Today is about family and sharing, hugging old friends and settling in. This weekend will be about business and to see if there’s another win tucked away behind the smile on Steven Nyman’s face.