VAL GARDENA, Italy
Ski technician. Personal coach. Father figure. Storage man.
Leo Mussi does just about everything for American downhiller Steven Nyman, even though his official label is just “ski technician.”
“He’s kind of like a European dad to me,” Nyman said. “I go to his house and we have pasta. His mom cooks for me. He carries a lot of my bags in the summer. I store stuff at his house. It’s a much deeper relationship than just skier-technician.”
There’s nowhere that Mussi’s services pay off more than in Val Gardena, where he has contributed to seven wins – four for Italian standout Kristian Ghedina and three by Nyman.
If Nyman can record his fourth career downhill victory Saturday, he’ll match the Val Gardena record shared by Ghedina and Austrian great Franz Klammer.
The 49-year-old Mussi formerly worked for Ghedina, and he knows the classic Saslong course – one of the first used when the World Cup circuit began nearly 50 years ago – like a local.
“He’s the ultimate king of Gardena,” Nyman said after placing third behind Aksel Lund Svindal and Kjetil Jansrud in Thursday’s final training session. “He makes some fast skis. ... He has a huge impact. He learned a lot from Ghedina, and he’s taught me a lot.”
Preparing skis for World Cup races is a delicate mix of using the right amount of wax and sharpening or dulling the edges enough to match snow conditions that can vary rapidly.
“The secret is that I’ve known the conditions here for a long time,” said Mussi, who is from nearby San Candido. “I know the area, I know the snow and I know the course. I’ve memorized it. And I know what it takes on the technical side in terms of the athlete’s needs. So I know what I’m doing.”
Mussi inspects courses with Nyman before races and offers the Utah skier advice on how to approach different types of terrain.
“He’s one of my best coaches,” Nyman said. “Because he actually slides down every run and he watches every run of mine. You can tell when he’s really angry at me, he’s like, ‘What was that? Get your head together, man.’ Or he’s like, ‘That was nice to watch.’ When he says that I know I’m skiing OK.”
Employed by Austrian ski manufacturer Fischer Sports, Mussi has been working World Cup races on the Saslong for nearly 30 years, first teaming with Italian downhiller Peter Runggaldier.
Mussi works every afternoon for three hours in a makeshift laboratory in the locker room of a soccer field near the hotel where the U.S. ski team stays. Then he adds the final touches to the skis each day just before Nyman steps in to his bindings.
It helps that Mussi lives only 90 minutes away.
“I already prepared some stuff at home on Saturday,” Mussi said. “Maybe it’s that I’m better prepared here.”
It also helps that Nyman is perhaps the best on the circuit at gliding – the ability to create the least amount of friction with the snow for long stretches at minimal gradients. Gliding is essential on the Saslong, which is filled with long, high-speed sections.
“He has this skill where he’s able to let the skis run in precisely the right moment,” Mussi said. “Ghedina was a more complete skier. He had more talent. Steven’s talent is his innate speed on the curves.”
Nyman’s teammate, Travis Ganong, has also performed well in training, placing third and fourth, respectively, in the two sessions. But Nyman remains the man to watch.
And Mussi is also having a tough time staying out of the spotlight.
“It’s special because everyone’s talking about it and telling me how many times I’ve won here,” Mussi said. “Everyone’s waiting to see what Steven will do and how he’ll deal with the pressure.”