Marco Sullivan’s teammates hoist him on their shoulders in celebration of his 105th Audi FIS Ski World Cup downhill race, and his retirement from the sport after 15 years of racing on the World Cup circuit. (U.S. Ski Team)
The Olympiabakken at Kvitfjell outside Lillehammer, Norway is a very special course for American Downhillers. It was here in 1994 that Golden Boy Tommy Moe struck Olympic gold on opening day. In the years to follow, U.S. Ski Team stars like Kyle Rasmussen, Daron Rahlves and Bode Miller would all win here.
It was race day at Kvitfjell. After inspection, Squaw Valley ski racer Marco Sullivan buckled his boots at the U.S. Ski Team’s mid-mountain hotel and slid over to the chairlift. He was trying to keep his mind focused as he headed to the top for his number 28 start position.
It was a challenge to keep a clear head that day. This was a routine he had done 104 times before on downhill day. But this day was different. He decided number 105 would be his last. After 15 years traveling the White Circus, it was time to go home.
The irony of his 105th World Cup downhill is that with it he passed the American record of 104 held by Bode Miller – nothing strategic, just the way it worked out.
Marco Sullivan was celebrated with flag and champagne after he ran his final race Sunday in Kvitfjell, Norway. (Getty Images/AFP-Jon Olav Nesvold)
In 15 years, you build a lot of memories. Marco’s mind drifted to the 2002 Olympic downhill at Snowbasin, Utah. Family and friends were there from Tahoe. Just 21 and new to the team, he hadn’t expected to be racing in the Olympics. He ended up as the top American.
Then there was that magical day in 2008 when he rocketed down the La Verte piste into the village of Les Houches, winning the Kandahar downhill in Chamonix by nearly a half second over Didier Cuche.
Marco Sullivan (center) celebrates after winning the men's FIS World Cup Kandahar downhill in Chamonix on Jan. 26, 2008. Swiss Didier Cuche (left) was second and Slovenian Andrej Jerman was third. (Getty Images/AFP-Oliver Morin)
“As a young boy you have those childhood dreams of winning a World Cup,” reminisced Sullivan. “My dream became a reality in Chamonix.”
Since the 1984 downhill gold of Bill Johnson, as well as Moe’s title a decade later, a generation or two of great American Downhillers have made their presence known on the tour. Marco Sullivan is one of them – his inviting smile and undying tenacity have made him a downhill ski racer who fans around the world respect.
“It didn’t really hit me until I was in the finish,” said Sullivan. “I was taking in everything the whole day. It was especially nice to hear from all my competitors about how much they loved having me around.
“I guess they meant it,” he laughed. “I always tried to be the guy who helped lift everyone’s spirit.”
It’s easy to pick Chamonix as a memory. But what meant the most to Sullivan was his ability to return from adversity. “What I remember most are the times I came back - the injuries and periods when I wasn’t skiing well,” he said. “It’s the ups and downs of being a ski racer and an athlete. Today, I’m healthy and I still love ski racing.”
Marco Sullivan won the men’s World Cup downhill on Jan. 26, 2008 in Chamonix, France. (Getty Images/AFP-Franck Fife)
Sullivan pointed to last season when he failed to qualify for a start spot in the downhill at the Vail/Beaver Creek World Championships. It was tough to leave Beaver Creek. But he put it behind him and came back to the tour to nail a pair of top 10 results and seal another year’s spot on the U.S. Ski Team.
Sullivan’s legacy is already playing out. As a young ski racer, he remembers how much it meant to him to meet Kyle Rasmussen from Bear Valley and Daron Rahlves from Sugar Bowl. They were the stars he looked up to. Now, the tables are turned.
“I still think it’s so incredible that kids look up to me,” he said. “It’s something I’m really proud of - to be able to leave that behind.”
Perhaps World Junior downhill champion Erik Arvidsson summed it up best: “Marco Sullivan has been an inspiration to me growing up and skiing for the Squaw Valley Ski Team. Marco was everyone’s hero. He’s such a good guy and has been such an influence on me whenever I’ve gotten to train with him. You look up to those guys.”
One of Sullivan’s proudest moments this year was watching his teammate and fellow Squaw Valley native Bryce Bennett get his historic sixth place finish on the Saslong at Val Gardena last December.
Fans, friends and teammates will remember Marco Sullivan as a great American Downhiller and a guy who brought his special charm to the White Circus – pitching himself down the terrifying steeps of the Hahnenkamm and the leg-burning pitch of the Lauberhorn.
“Thanks to everybody for this run,” said a grateful Marco Sullivan. “It’s been an amazing 15 years. I love downhill ski racing. The record shows how much it means to me.”