Gretchen Fraser became the first American skier to win an Olympic gold medal in alpine skiing. In 1948 at historic St. Moritz, she represented not only the U.S., but also the ski area that raised her: Sun Valley. The Pacific Northwest native moved there to pursue ski racing and with her international success thrust the Idaho resort into the spotlight.
“As far as ski racing goes there, there’s a history of racing, a legacy there that is pretty stout with Gretchen being the first one to ever win an alpine medal,” said Olympic gold medalist Picabo Street. “The legacy lives on and I attribute the success of myself and other skiers that have come out of there to the mountain.”
Street, who grew up racing in Sun Valley and now runs the Picabo Street Academy in Park City, Utah, has fond memories of testing her speed, skills and courage on the unrelenting slopes of Bald Mountain. Specifically, she recalls chasing her older brother, attempting to pass him as they jumped from steep runs to the cat track and back again. Developing a love for putting her tips in the fall line at a young age, set her up with skills Street needed to compete with the best athletes in the world and win.
Terry Palmer, a 1972 U.S. Olympian and long-time Sun Valley resident, echoes Street’s sentiments about the mountain. He recalls being in awe of the terrain when he first visited the resort as a teenager.
“You’ve got to really finish your turns here,” he explains. “Otherwise, you can get out of control. It’s very enjoyable to ski here even though I’ve been here 44 years now.”
Aside from the natural coach known as the mountain itself, Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation Alpine Program Director, Scott McGrew, believes the community plays a huge role in what sets the resort and ski team apart.
“The concentration of knowledge, history and experience with regard to the Olympic legacy and Olympians who live in town and former national team members and just the alumni, who really are so integrated in our community from business owners to coaches to teachers at the schools to parents of kids who are now back in the program,” McGrew says. “The percentage of people who are still engaged and still involved is amazing.”
It’s this invested community that is putting on the 2018 Toyota U.S. Alpine Championships for the second time in three years. Not only does the big event allow U.S. athletes to compete for national titles, but it’s also an opportunity for young athletes to be inspired and motivated.
Along her road to greatness, Street raced in several national championships, the first of which was in Colorado. The memory sticks in her mind because the annual event allows younger athletes to measure themselves against current World Cup athletes. It makes the dream of international glory seem attainable.
“I remember seeing and being around and racing against the top racers in our country who at that point were some of the top racers in the world,” Street recalls. “That’s one of the big benefits of nationals.”
At the 2016 event–the first national championships hosted at Sun Valley since 1951–Mikaela Shiffrin made an appearance and walked away with the slalom title. Young skiers waited in a 45 minute long line to meet Shiffrin and get an autograph, an inspiring site to see. Meanwhile fans watched on as American Downhiller Marco Sullivan waved goodbye to life as a competitor after a long career.
“A personal highlight for me was Marco’s retirement,” McGrew recalls. “You know he ran that super-G track in his lederhosen and it was so cool. We showed ‘The Streif’ in town and there were a bunch of Hahnenkamm veterans, coaches and athletes that were there for that showing. It was kind of an awesome moment and not just for me. I think I can speak for everybody who got to be involved in that.”
Palmer, who calls himself the “Chief Cheerleader” on the organizing team, was involved preparing for the 2016 event and continues to work on the 2018 event.
“Our goal in ‘16 was to try to make it a celebration of skiing for the whole valley and that continues to be our goal,” he says. “It’s to get the locals involved and get people from Hailey, Bellvue and Ketchum able to go up and see some of the world’s best. Being able to watch Mikaela ski is something to behold. It’s a special deal, so we’re trying to do the same thing this time. Be inclusive.”
Palmer also hopes that after a long season, the international stars will come to Sun Valley to race and enjoy the mountain.
“This year should be interesting because the Olympics are done, World Cup is done and hopefully, the Mikaelas and Lindseys and Stevens and Teds can all go, ‘Let’s go up to Sun Valley and enjoy ourselves,” Palmer shares. “That’s what I’d love to see.”
No doubt, young athletes from across the country are hoping for that, too. The 2018 Toyota U.S. Alpine Championships take place March 21-26, 2018.