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U.S. men play alternative scene

Few people in this world possess the athleticism to win an Olympic gold medal in alpine skiing. Ted Ligety is one of them. But, after watching his lead-footed attempt to spike a ball over a seven-and-a-half foot net, it’s apparent that he chose the right sport.

Ligety’s unspectacular foray into beach volleyball at City Park came as part of the U.S. Men’s Alpine Ski Team’s annual dryland training camp last week – featuring seven days of workouts for A, B, C and development team racers. The entire U.S. squad attended the camp, with the exception of vacationing 2010 super combined gold medalist Bode Miller.

"We always try to revolve everything around fun," said U.S. team conditioning coach Josh Applegate. "It is with a purpose, certainly. We try not to really clue them in that there is a purpose in it (and) just let them think they’re having fun and working out."

Ice hockey, a favorite of the players at dryland camps in 2007 and 2008, was reintroduced to the fold after a year’s break to "get everybody hungry," Applegate said. The skiers played twice a day for a week at the Park City Ice Arena, drilling in the morning and scrimmaging in the afternoon under the watch of former Utah Grizzlies head coach Jason Christie and retired professional player Andre Faust.

"It’s definitely a team-bonding type deal, to get us out of our element a little bit," said Marco Sullivan, the camp’s oldest skier at 30. "We’re all professional skiers, but our hockey skills are pretty lacking."

The team’s trainers joined the players on the ice, where teams were chosen to build a competitive atmosphere. Some of the players had experience from high school and club hockey, while others held a stick for the first time in their lives. One of the trainers had never worn ice skates, much to the delight of his clients.

"That was pretty funny," Ligety said. "Most of us have skated a little bit. We’re not exactly all that great on skates, but we have fun at it."

Ligety said the players’ intensity shines through on the ice even when their athleticism doesn’t. One-on-one drills became battles for pride, and the alien setting reordered the hierarchy among athletes who know their exact placing on the slopes.

"You see that we’re all equals," Sullivan said. "We’ve got some of these development team guys who can rip around on the ice and some of the older guys who are not as confident. It makes everybody equal out there."

The inter-squad teams faced off in a two-hour scrimmage for all the marbles on Sunday. "It’s a big matchup," said Ligety. First-time Olympian Nolan Kasper scored three goals and added three assists to earn the Most Valuable Player award while leading his team – the "black" team – to victory. "He’s been playing quite a bit lately, and he’s definitely the fastest guy on the ice," Ligety said.

Though most chuckled at their own abilities – or inabilities – the skiers have made considerable progress since USSA first conceived of the hockey training before the 2007 summer. The coaches are asked to treat them like professionals and prescribe rigorous workloads.

"From year to year, (the improvement) is certainly noticeable," Applegate said. "Even the camp we had two years ago, it’s a huge difference. Guys can skate and have puck skills – relatively."

Physical tests at the Center of Excellence preceded the hockey camp and began a week of nonstop soreness. Friday, which offered a break from hockey conditioning, athletes hobbled around the beach volleyball courts nursing their hip flexors and swinging lazily at balls hit out of their immediate reach.

"Everyone here is using muscles that they haven’t used very much, at least not that intense," Sullivan said. "Everyone’s hip flexors are dying. In skiing, you’re always hunched over and your hips are really short. In skating, you’re pushing out, and that muscle is just contracting and relaxing all day."

Alternative training is a tradition for the U.S. Ski Team. The U.S. women kicked off camp earlier this week with a bowling night, and Miller, who recently re-signed with the U.S. team for another season, injured his ankle at volleyball training with the team in December of last year. Miller and Ligety also played tennis for much of last fall and winter, and Miller even attempted to qualify for the U.S. Open tennis tournament earlier this summer.

"He’s really good," Ligety said. "He’s played a lot. I didn’t start playing until I actually made the ski team and started getting free rackets, so my skill level isn’t super high, but I’ve enjoyed getting better at it."

Ligety and the rest of the alpine team (again, with the possible exception of Miller) will leave for New Zealand for on-snow training in a couple weeks. They will then return to the Center of Excellence for more training before heading to Chile for speed training in September. The most important emphasis in these early summer months is building a team atmosphere, Ligety said.

"We’re together for six months of the year travelling on the road, so it’s pretty important that we’re pretty close to each other, too," Ligety said. "I think this definitely is a big help in that respect."


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