Kitzbuehel — For Kids?
U.S. junior coaches reflect on the January race at the hallowed Hahnenkamm
In the wildest dreams of budding ski racers, there are usually a few recurrent themes: an Olympic medal, the top step of a World Cup podium — and the chance to hightail it down the Hahnenkamm venue in Kitzbuehel, Austria.
For the first time in history, a group of U.S. juniors was able to do just that during the last week of January, as organizers assembled an American U16 team to attend the annual Hahnenkamm juniors event. And they left with medals along with memories, finishing second among the 12 teams competing.
The Hahnenkamm juniors race is held each season in conjunction with the fableed Kitzbuehel World Cup week of racing. It’s been happening since 1931 and takes place on the challenging Ganslernhang hill.
“It was a wonderful event to bring together some of the best U16 ski racers in the world,” says National Training Group (NTG) coach Michael Rogan. “It was a one-day event that included a GS run in the morning and a slalom run in the afternoon. It was held on the World Cup slalom slope, which you know is very challenging.”
The athletes chosen to represent the U.S. were either NTG team members or nominees and represented Aspen, Burke, Waterville Valley, Squaw Valley and Park City. The event was a team format, meaning it was important for the athletes to not only ski fast, but also to ski consistently for the benefit of the team.
As Rogan explains, organizers took the two out of three times from both the boys and the girls, with penalty times added for DNFs. “One of the things we were most proud of was that we were one of the few teams that did not receive a penalty time,” he says. “Our team of kids raced on the Kitzbuehel slalom hill days before the World Cup race and we had a 100 percent finish rate.”
The team finished second behind a strong local group from Tirol, Austria. The U.S. was led by Keely Cashman from Squaw Valley as the top finisher for the girls, landing 10th overall. Bridger Gile from Vail, Colo., was the top boy from the U.S. The scoring left the U.S. trailing Tirol 5:04.37 to 5:07.30. The Croatian team finished third in 5:07.39.
Exposure to hills and courses of that magnitude and challenge at a young age is rare for U.S. athletes. The Ganslernhang course has abrupt break-overs, steep pitches and terrain that seems to never stop. Add in a hill prepped for a men’s World Cup race, and you have one of the most challenging courses these young athletes will ever see in their ski racing careers.
“It was injected, very hard and icy,” says Rogan. “The amount of variation in the terrain is invisible on TV.”
Athletes were able to watch the men’s World Cup races in person, learning about how to block out distractions while racing, and also experienced how ski racing is perceived in Austria. Much like football is treated in the U.S., the Hahnenkamm brings in thousands upon thousands of spectators who fill the streets and hillsides of Kitzbuehel. They are loud, rowdy and passionate about ski racing — quite different from the small ski racing scene in the U.S.
“Europe is where ski racing and life will happen for a lot of U.S. ski racers,” says Rogan. “They have to learn how to live over here and do it with as little drama as possible if they are going to be successful. These types of events are huge for our kids to strive to experience. They have to learn to survive and deal with so many new distractions and obstacles.”
The Kitzbuehel Ski Club allows the junior athletes to inspect the Hahnenkamm downhill during athlete course inspection with the guide of FIS race director Hannes Trinkl. There’s a parade in the Kitzbuehel town square, and an opening ceremony, which this year honored the late Toni Sailer.
The president of the Kitzbuehel Ski Club, Michael Huber, praised the young athletes after the event and called it “just as testing as the Alta Badia classic giant slalom” and that competing on the Ganslernhang was “truly a worthy challenge for the U16 racers!”
“We had a few that were intimidated at first,” says Rogan. “Once everyone realized that the blue and red poles that they are use to skiing around and the snow color and timing equipment were all the same as they know back home, they relaxed and skied with their hearts. They fought and worked for their best and it showed.”
Hahnenkamm Junior Athletes
- Keely Cashman
- Nelly Talbot
- Jenni Simon
- Alix Wilkinson
- Bridger Gile
- Hunter Brayton
- Fredi Schneider
- Dexter Edelman
- Michael Rogan
- Matt Underhill
- Robin Barnes