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Austrian coaches help US ski racers at Olympics

February 6, 2014

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (AP) — Patrick Riml is from ski-loving Austria. He grew up in that country, competed for its Alpine team, got his start as a coach there.

During the Sochi Olympics, starting with the men’s downhill on Sunday, Riml’s goal is to help the United States win medals as its Alpine director.

Since taking over the U.S. team in 2011, Riml has brought aboard a sizable Austrian influence, hiring assistants such as men’s speed coach Andreas Evers and women’s technical coach Roland Pfeifer, who works closely with 18-year-old Mikaela Shiffrin. The Americans also added strength coach Tony Beretzki. And guess where they set up their in-season World Cup base? In Riml’s hometown of Soelden, Austria.

Before making all those hires, Riml asked his athletes one simple question: Are you OK with this?

At first, some might have been hesitant.

Not now, though.

“It was kind of an American-pride type of thing: ‘We’re going to attack the Europeans on our own,’” said Marco Sullivan, whose time was fourth-fastest in Thursday’s downhill training run. “But someone took a humbleness pill and decided to hire some Austrians, and it’s actually been a really good thing.

“They have a ton of knowledge about the sport. Their team has been hands-down the best team in the world for probably the last two decades. To bring those guys in ... brought a lot of knowledge and confidence.”

Especially for youngsters such as Shiffrin, who’s being groomed by Pfeifer and whose success in Sochi could hinge on that help.

“Everything starts with a good setup with the coaches. If there’s good harmony, communication and camaraderie, that trickles down to the athletes,” Riml said.

Other Austrians on the U.S. staff:

— Alex Hoedlmoser is the head coach of the women’s team;

— Bernd Brunner is the men’s technical coach;

— Pascal Hasler helps out the women’s speed squad.

Hoedlmoser offered a simple explanation for the large group from his country that’s trying to help the Americans earn medals.

“Bottom line is that in Austria, skiing is sport No. 1. ... There’s a lot of experience there. A lot of experience and history,” he said. “I actually think it’s a good thing to have some foreigners to get a little bit of a different culture to the U.S. But only to a degree. If it were only Austrians, it wouldn’t work.”

He likes what he described as “culture exchanges” that go on among the American athletes and their Austrian coaches.

“That’s been happening over the past few years, pretty much on a daily basis. There’s a different approach to ski racing in Austria, and the key to success, for me, is to combine the two philosophies and try to pick up the good stuff from here and the good stuff from there and mix it successfully,” Hoedlmoser said.

And then he went on to describe where the differences are.

“There’s a little bit more seriousness in the Austrian way. A little bit more structure, in a way. And a little bit more easygoing in the U.S. way, which is not a bad thing at all,” Hoedlmoser said. “In order to be successful with U.S. athletes, you need to have that, also. You can’t just go in there and hammer in your philosophy from years ago in Austria. That just won’t work.”

Evers and Beretzki earned immediate cachet with the Americans because of ties to four-time Olympic medalist Hermann Maier, one of the sport’s all-time greats.

“Our mentality and our skills as coaches and racers, combined with the U.S. mentality, I think it’s a good combination,” Beretzki said. “I try to focus them more. In the beginning, they weren’t that focused. Now, they’re really focused on building up their athletic skills and skiing skills.”

Up-and-comer Travis Ganong credits Evers with being “somebody who’s done it before,” and a coach who “keeps things super simple.”

Ted Ligety, a gold medalist at the 2006 Turin Olympics, figures the nationality of the coaches really doesn’t matter at all.

“We have great coaches. Great American coaches. Great Austrian coaches,” Ligety said. “It’s an international sport.”

Mathias Berthold, the coach of the Austrian men’s Alpine team, laughed a bit when asked about all of the coaches from his country helping another country at the Olympics.

“Basically,” he said Thursday, “I don’t care.”

As for whether he might one day hire a coach from the U.S., Berthold said: “Never say never. We haven’t had any foreign coaches for quite a while.”

But the bottom line, of course, is what the results are.

“I have to tell you, I don’t care which countries my coaches are from,” Berthold said. “I pick them as long as they are good.”


AP Sports Writers Andrew Dampf and Howard Fendrich contributed to this report.

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