Being the guinea pig isn’t always this much fun.
The ladies of the U.S. Ski Team were on site in Beaver Creek this week to break in new women’s downhill course, which will play host to the 2015 World Championships, as well as World Cup test events next November. Speed Teamers Stacey Cook, Leanne Smith and Laurenne Ross, along with head coach Chip White, were on hand to provide feedback to FIS and Beaver Creek officials.
Also making an appearance on the big boards this week was 2013 slalom World Champion and globe-winner Mikaela Shiffrin. If it was just her second day ever on downhill skis, you wouldn’t have known it watching her rip down Kestrel — as the trail’s been named — which will be one of the toughest the ladies face next season.
“It’s basically my second day on downhill skis, ever. They definitely feel different, but I feel like I’ve gotten used to them pretty quick,” said Shiffrin. “I’m really enjoying going fast, so it’s been cool. … I was definitely just trying to feel out the skis, taking it pretty easy the first day. With each run and each turn it got more comfortable. I never stepped out of my comfort zone but I did try to push it a little bit.”
Shiffrin’s outlook regarding speed events won’t change dramatically next winter, but she’s shooting to at least get into the super G game by the 2014-15 season. (She didn’t rule out the possibility of hopping in a couple super combines next year.)
Asked what are the chances she’ll be competing on the speed hill (different from the tech hill) at the 2015 championships, Shiffrin said, “Hopefully, pretty high. There’s a lot of time between now and then, so it gives me some time to train the hill and get some experience. … I’m not rushing it. I can’t wait to do speed, but I’m not rushing it because I know there’s a lot of injury risk, and I have more that I want to accomplish in tech.”
As for the current members of the speed team, they’ll all be gunning for one of those four World Championships spots, and this week’s camp was an invaluable opportunity to get a feel for the 2015 track.
Only a layer or two of B netting protected the girls from the edge of the trail, which is lined with trees from top to bottom and quite narrow in spots. Of the four, Laurenne Ross was reportedly sending it the hardest. She said she doesn’t really know how to train at partial speed — it’s something she’s working on — so for now, it’s all or nothing.
“I didn’t feel like I was getting too sketchy or dangerous,” said Ross. “I was just trying to be in a good body position. I guess it’s faster when you’re skiing in a good position. It’s tough to hold back on a course that challenging. You can’t really go into it 50 percent because you’ll wind up in the back seat and then you’re just screwed because it’s so steep.”
As for how this hill stacks up against some of the others they face in Europe, “It’s definitely a challenge,” said Ross. “It’s got a lot of terrain changes, and it’s got some really steep sections, it’s got some good rollers, it’s got some chutes, it’s got some good side hills — it kind of has a little bit of everything. And it’s definitely in your face. I would say it’s more technical than most of the other courses that we run on the circuit. Where it’s steep, it’s steeper than pretty much everything else.”
The trail, which was cut over the summer and opened to the public this winter, reaches a roughly 65 percent drop in places and essentially runs parallel to the legendary Golden Eagle men’s track. It is 95 percent independent, but dumps into the same finish area. Like the men’s course, the ladies’ track starts off with a substantial gliding section before the earth very quickly drops out from underneath the racers and challenges them with a variety of terrain features all the way to the bottom.
“My first impression is it’s very intense,” said Cook. “You have to be really strong to handle a lot of the forces that we’re going to be experiencing. It’s not super high speed because in order to control the steepness of the hill, they’re setting a lot of turns.”
The proposed turniness, or lack there of, may have been a point of disagreement between FIS Race Director for speed events Jan Tischhauser, who was on site earlier in the week, and coach White. Tischhauser is expected to reign the girls in, while the coach just wants to let them fly.
“There were definitely some conversations,” Cook said with a laugh. “[Tischhauser] is obviously here looking at safety, and I see it more through the interest of the downhillers. It’s such a steep hill that their tendency is to set it really turny, which could allow some of the GS and super G skiers to pop in there in the downhill.”
“I believe in downhill as downhill,” said White. “You have big sweeping turns. And super G is another event. Sometimes [Tischhauser] puts in turns, like wiggle gates and things like that, and shortens up some distances. And that’s all fine, but I think that’s a different event. I want to see downhill still be downhill.”
White acknowledged there were some “safety concerns” this week because the racers were protected only with B nets. He said those concerns will be alleviated next season when the A nets are installed.
Leanne Smith admitted her priority this week was not only to get a feel for the course, but also to head home to North Conway in one piece.
“At times, I was trying to put it down, but today the light was a little flatter. It’s the last training day of the season, and I want to try to mend some of the little problems I’ve been having,” said Smith. “The course is definitely on the tougher side [compared to others on the circuit]. There are definitely going to be people with wide eyes at the end of November.”
Story and photos by Geoff Mintz