Ski slopes right pick for former Little League top pick

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WALLA WALLA - I always knew in my heart that Will Brandenburg was destined for big things.

I just never had an inkling it would be as an Olympic alpine skier.

Of course, back in 1996, when I made Will the No. 1 overall pick in the Pacific Little League baseball draft, I was not aware that he was already a seasoned veteran of the slopes. His parents, Brad and Anne Brandenburg, had started him on his way to Vancouver, B.C., and the 2010 Winter Olympics before Will had celebrated his first birthday.

Will, who turned 23 last month, was recently named to the U.S. team and will represent his country in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics that begin Friday.

But in March of 1996, all I knew was that he was one of the best-looking 9-year-olds to go through our tryouts in quite some time.

I envisioned Will as a Pacific League all-star by the time he was 11 and possibly the best player in the league at 12. And his baseball ceiling beyond Little League was, in my estimation, very high.

Will's older brother Pat had already graduated from Pacific Little League and was a better-than-average player. Will was bigger than his brother at the same age, although maybe just a bit uncoordinated. But you couldn't miss the athleticism.

Even better, he bubbled with enthusiasm and was an eager learner. The kind of youngster that makes coaching worthwhile.

And his parents were 100 percent supportive of the team, as I knew they would be even before I drafted Will.

Brad, in fact, attended nearly every Teamsters practice that season and was a lot of help. He came equipped with this rather unusual device - something that resembled a tennis racket - and he'd use it to springboard fly balls into the air for outfield practice.

And Will's 9-year-old season was everything any of us could have hoped for.

His nine hits in 20 games was as an exceptional total. He walked three times, drove in five runs and scored twice. And his 16 strikeouts in 48 official at-bats was a remarkable feat for a first-year player of his age.

He also settled in as the team's regular second baseman after beginning the season as an outfielder.

Will was clearly one of the team's cornerstones for the future.

And then the unthinkable happened. The Brandenburgs moved to Spokane.

There's no denying it was a big setback for the team.

But for Will, it was just the next step in a journey that would take him from his alpine beginnings at Ski Bluewood to Mount Spokane and Schweitzer Mountain, to junior races throughout the Pacific Northwest, and eventually to his first National Junior Championships in St. Moritz, Switzerland, in February of 2004.

Although he continued to play baseball for a couple of seasons beyond Little League, and he also played football at Mead High School in Spokane, skiing was clearly his constant calling.

At the age of 19 he was selected to the U.S. Ski Team and relocated at the team's headquarters in Park City, Utah. And he's been a world traveler ever since, competing in World Cup, European Cup and FIS races abroad as well as Nor-Am Cup races in the U.S. and Canada.

The ski team decides where he races depending on available slots, Brandenburg explained in a telephone interview. The goal, of course, is to achieve World Cup status on a regular basis.

So far, Will has competed in four World Cup events, two of them before he underwent knee surgery in January of 2008 and two so far in 2010.

"World Cup is by far the highest level," Brandenburg said. "Right now I am kind of between the World Cup and the Euro Cup and Nor-Am Cup. My schedule gets kind of hectic.

"Once you ski fast enough, you will be full-time World Cup. I need a couple of more Nor-Am races and hopefully by next year I'll be full time."

Next, of course, is the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver. Brandenburg was selected to represent the U.S. in the super combined event that is scheduled one week from today at Whistler Creekside.

Skiing at this level is a year around proposition.

"The competition season usually begins around November," Brandenburg said. "The first World Cup is in late, late October (in North American) and gets into the swing of things around Thanksgiving. December, January and February are almost all spent in Europe."

Then it's back to the states for the U.S. National Championships in March. April and May are spent in Park City training.

"Some of the guys vacation, try to wind down a little bit," Brandenburg said. "By that time, with jet lag, you don't know when to sleep and when to wake up."

Two weeks of intense training at Mammoth Mountain, Calif., in May are followed up by a one-week June camp. July, Brandenburg said, is a down month "other than dryland training six days a week," and August is spent on the snow in New Zealand. Speed-event skiers spend part of September training in Chile, he said.

"Then it's back to Park City for more working out," Brandenburg said. "By October you are gearing up for the season, and usually we go to Europe in October to train on a glacier.

"It's full-on all year long. There are weeks where you can take some time off and rest a little bit. But the better shape your are in, the more runs you can take, and the more runs, the more you figure it out."

And even though Brandenburg has yet to finish a World Cup slalom run, his selection to the U.S. Olympic team is strong evidence that he is figuring it out in a very difficult sport.

As Will's dad points out, using a baseball analogy, "if you go one for three (in slalom runs) you've had a good game, and if you go two for four it's a great game."

Will thought he had that elusive first hit a couple of weeks ago during the Kranjska Gora, Slovenia, World Cup. And then he fell.

"I haven't finished one yet," he said. "But I was really on way to having my best one. I just need a few more at-bats."

If he keeps swinging the bat the way I know he can, Will will get to the finish line soon enough.

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