Why Marco Sullivan’s 17-year professional skiing career was more consequential than you think

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Nobody did it better…while wearing more denim.

By Andrew J. Pridgen

Athletes, they say, die two deaths. The first when they retire, the second when their number is called up from behind the giant deli counter in the sky.

Marco Sullivan, a 17-year Alpine veteran of the U.S. Ski team and perhaps one of the finest examples of a man who threw himself down the mountain with such abandon that the gate sticks would quiver in fear before he got to them, retired over the weekend.

And in true Marco fashion, that funeral was more a wake—a celebration of his many lives in the sport.

I caught a glimpse of the Last Run on Saturday. Marco at the start gate of his final GS…in Lederhosen. He breathed in every turn like it was his last—in a way they all were—stopping itinerantly to embrace coaches, family, friends, competitors …and pretty much every fan within reach of his massive wingspan en route to the bottom at Sun Valley.

It was a thing to behold. Watch the whole video and see if you can stop the laughter from turning into tears:

Marco Sullivan is a two-time Olympian (2002 and 2010) who battled injuries like Mario and Luigi battle flamethrowing evil turtles. He even won a World Cup downhill race between the Olympic appearances in Chamonix, France. I wasn’t there that night in 2008, but I guarantee those who were remember it well—or don’t remember it at all.

Sullivan was a downhill and Super G guy; never accused of being the technician of his Austrian, French and Swiss counterparts. He wasn’t the outsized personae of Bode Miller nor was he the understated tactician of Ted Ligety.

Sullivan, instead, was the surprisingly cerebral complete mountaineer. Between blown knees and concussions and back surgeries, Marco wrote for SKI Magazine including this piece describing spending Christmas on the World Cup circuit with a bunch of Canadians in Bormio, Italy. It is lovely and sharp and unassuming, much like Sullivan himself.

Beyond ski races, Sullivan chased the snow and adventure on it which led him to compete in a host of non-World Cup events that would make any sponsor dry heave into their crystal globe. The most noteworthy of these was the Arctic Man, an Alaska-based event Sullivan and snow machine driver Tyler Akelstad would come to dominate. The race itself is ridiculous: A skier makes his way down a course before meeting with a snowmobile driver and being pulled, water ski fashion, the rest of the way in.

Considering his luck on the hill, there is no real good reason Sullivan shouldn’t have been dismembered or killed during such a race. But if Sullivan’s career was marked by anything, it’s that he loved it—from the first time that gate opened before him to that last loll down the hill in Lederhosen. And that love carried him from the ridiculous to the sublime to ultimately becoming one of the toughest outs in skiing this century.

In 2014, after 15 years, the U.S. Ski Team essentially released the then 34-year-old Truckee native, demoting him to the B team which meant he had to pay his own way. Did he quit? No. He went ahead and took fifth at the season’s opening event Lake Louise, Alberta to cover his costs. “The pressure’s on for me to have good results,” he said at the time. “That’s the only way I’m going to make money. Now my debts are paid.”

Now imagine a baseball player getting released and then offering to pay his way through Spring Training at the off chance of scoring some at-bats. Most professional athletes, skiers included, don’t get these type of second chances but if they do—they’d rather sideline themselves than swallow their pride or open their checkbook.

But sometimes his love for skiing cost him more than just dollars. In 2003, Sullivan did a, a-hem, spread eagle off a lip at the end of a training run and blew out his right knee. He went back home to Truckee, tuned skis and drove a snowcat at Homewood for a couple years seemingly to spend the rest of his life wondering what could have been.

It was around that time he was living in a house with a half-dozen (up to 30 depending on the weekend) skiers, friends from growing up and interlopers. My girlfriend at the time was in that crew. The friendship in the house was as thick as keg foam and the group, like many who train and travel together, had its share of relationships that cross the line, or rather blur it—from friend, to brother/sister, to partner and back again.

One night the house was having a Halloween party and I threw together a costume last-minute which I called “Heavy Metal Parking Lot”. It included a vintage Styx shirt in support of the 1983 Kilroy Was Here tour, some jort cut-offs, wristbands and since my hair was in a bit of a ski town mullet phase then all I had to do was shave the scraggly beard into a mustache.

Sullivan was similarly clad in jorts, a mesh half-shirt and a jean jacket (with the sleeves cut off.) He came up to admire my costume and offer me a rabid red keg cup filled with Icky (nickname for the high-octane IPA from the Great Basin Brewing Company down in Reno.) We talked for a bit …about my shirt. He said Styx was underrated but that didn’t matter as much as theirs was the perfect music for just driving around in a van, if you’re lucky enough to have a van. “Sometimes, bands like Styx just make me want to go back in time.”

We went down the several beer road to discuss heavy metal and Hot Dog (the movie) and then back to metal. It was one of those parties I was dragged to and suddenly looked up to see an empty living room but for my girlfriend sleeping at the corner of the couch.

The next day she and I were out for a hangover-curing run, “Man,” she said. “You were really into Marco.”

I asked her if that was the heavy metal dude I was talking to (as if there were any other) she nodded.

I’ve thought about Marco often since then—the guy at the party who made it all the way back. I followed his career at a distance, but more importantly, mused about what it might be like to spend a decade and a half just totally happy with who you are and what you do. The rest of us get that about one week a year—if we’re lucky—and call it a vacation.

Ask around. Nobody had a better attitude than Sullivan. Nobody had more fun. Nobody worked harder. Nobody embraced the sport every day he had a chance to go out and do it, like that little kid from Truckee standing up at the top of the gates for the first time, every time.

…And nobody got to celebrate his final race by wearing Lederhosen and a jean jacket (with the sleeves cut off).

Cheers Marco!

 

2 COMMENTS

  1. Marco always impressed me with his huge fan following in the USA and Europe. In retrospect there was a simple reason for that. He was an all around great dude!

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