When an avalanche in Soelden, Austria, swept away U.S. Ski Teamers Bryce Astle and Ronnie Berlack on Jan. 5, it took something else, too: the foundation for one of the most successful seasons ever for the men’s development team, or D-Team.
The D-Team has long found bonds in striving toward the World Cup level: it’s a tightly knit dynamic that happens beyond the headlines for the individual performances of Bode Miller, Ted Ligety and Lindsey Vonn.
Three other D-Team members — Addison Dvoracek, Drew Duffy and Erik Arvidsson — were skiing with Astle and Berlack that day, and the gravity of what happened to their friends, and what could have happened to them, hit hard.
Now, they’ve agreed to open up about the loss, and the season that might have been.
“Bryce always had a thing for weird words,” says Arvidsson, crediting his teammate for the D-Team’s nickname. “It was our Squadron — that’s what we said — this is a Squadron.”
Back in September, after a training session together in Park City and reunited in Chile, the Squadron was fired up. “We were all just sitting together in our apartment in Chile,” says Arvidsson, “and everyone’s like, ‘God it feels good to have the Squadron back together!’”
“We’re all kind of like a family,” says Dvoracek. “I feel pretty lucky to be apart of this group.”
The closeness of the group fostered a healthy competitive vibe, they say. “We all push each other pretty hard, whether it’s speed or tech, which is pretty cool,” says Duffy. “It definitely pushed me to be more competitive because the guys around me are good.”
“When you’re so close on a personal level and they’re beating you, it hurts more, and that pushes you so much,” adds Ardvisson. “I was so pissed when Bryce was beating me in slalom training in Chile, but at the same time, I was stoked.”
As the fall unfurled, the boys were gaining momentum in Colorado — skiing fast as a group, but unsure of how they would stack up against the rest of the country and the world. When December came, they were ready to make their mark as the Squadron in scoring their first NorAm points.
“We went into Aspen, and the first day was rough,” says Arvidsson. “You’re starting back there. It’s a World Cup field. It didn’t go that well but against our peers we did pretty well and stacked the junior podium. The second day, Bryce went from 64th into 16th or something on the first run. And Drew popped into 31st. It was sweet.” They did it again the second day, putting Astle in the seed at the upcoming NorAm series in Panorama, B.C.
In B.C., the Squadron dominated the speed events, and notched some notable tech performances: plenty of top-15s, including one for Berlack. “Ronnie’s known for his red sleds and some pretty funky looking skiing, but he’s the best glider,” says Arvidsson. “There was something special there. That series ended on an incredible high note.”
After Christmas, the boys packed for Austria, where the season took that most unexpected turn. Afterward, members of the Squadron say, they were torn between wanting to ski fast for their fallen comrades and feeling empty without Astle and Berlack.
“It was tough to want to compete,” says Arvidsson. “I knew I wanted to be there because I felt that everything that had happened could inspire, but the added pressure of a race made it hard to bring that out. So it took me a while to get back into it.”
It was the encouragement from the Astle and Berlack families that seemed to resonate the most with they boys as they tried to re-grip the season.
“They just wanted to see us succeed,” says Duffy, “because that’s what they wanted for [their kids].”
The boys’ results seemed to reflect their emotions: only one fast run instead of two; great skiing for only part of a run and not the whole. They needed something more than just fundamentals and time in gates; they needed to get the good vibes back, says Dvoracek, and to get back in the feel of racing.
Then, in mid-February, Dvoracek suffered a training accident, a ski edge cutting through his calf so severely that it was thought he might lose his leg. Either way, his season was done and the Squadron was down another soldier.
“It was tough not being able to be with the team,” says Dvoracek, “because that was one of the things that was really helpful to all of us, being a group after Austria.”
It was tough on the others, too. “That was the first time in seven years where we hadn’t been at a race together,” says Arvidsson. “It was already so bad — it didn’t feel like anything worse could happen, and you’re sitting in this hospital and [realize] Addison could have almost lost his leg. The only thing that we could do was joke that we couldn’t have anymore bad luck and that we were just going to get more medals at World Juniors.”
At World Juniors in Norway, the Squadron was now three men down, but the results showed promise in some top-15s and top-30s. That was followed by NorAm Finals at Waterville Valley, N.H., where Arvidsson hurt his meniscus. It felt minor, he says, especially with the Berlack family there, but now he was done with his season, too.
That left Duffy with just Kipp Wiesel and Sam Morse, at U.S. Nationals where Duffy surprised everyone — including himself — with a victory in the super G, making up time on Steve Nyman and Marco Sullivan on the flat. Astle and Berlack were on his mind. So were Arvidsson and Dvoracek, watching from home. “I knew I wanted to ski fast and just rip for those guys,” says Duffy, “cause that’s what they would have wanted me to do. I think I did that.”
It was victory for a team that needed, more than anything, a reminder that the Squadron was still alive and was still capable of meeting every expectation it had set out for itself. Duffy then won another super G in Aspen a week later to put himself well inside the top 100 in the world.
For now, the boys have hung up their boards until mid-summer, and are taking the spring to heal physically and emotionally. But the weight of this season is still very much upon them. How they will approach next season, and find that vibe, remains a mystery.
“I know that me, Drew, and Addison are going to able to find that again,” says Arvidsson, “but it’s definitely going to take some time because we have to for sure bring two more people with us.”
Still, he says, the Squadron lives on. “I know that no matter how many bad days I can have in a row, I will always have my team, always have someone to be stoked on,” says Arvidsson. “In a sport like ski racing, that’s so important — keep being stoked on your friends, keep being inspired by your friends’ performances, keep going, keep staying grounded.”
Dvoracek, meanwhile, says the season has given him a better perspective on the sport and his future. “I’ve had opportunities most people wouldn’t have the chance to experience, and I did everything I can with those opportunities,” he says, crediting Astle and Ronnie for that mindset that will help him ski faster for them and for himself. “Those two are a pretty big part of it. ”
Then there’s the newfound confidence for Duffy. “Skiing is an individual sport, but valuing the teammates — it makes me want to ski fast everyday,” he says. “Especially this season I wanted it to be successful, because we all wanted to do really well.”
Arvidsson take a long breath and sighs. “It wasn’t the results,” he says. “It was the jokes. It was total goofballs and brothers. I saw it happen firsthand. I saw a bunch of weird people coming together and growing, and that was sweet.”