On the morning of the World Cup super-G in Beaver Creek, Colorado, not many were optimistic when they woke up to blizzard-like conditions. Several inches of snow had fallen on the course and it had to be moved before anyone could even think of holding a ski race. With the start moved down, and the race already delayed once at 11:00am, the chances of racing were looking slim.
About an hour later, officials declared the race was on. The only other people more excited than the fans were the assorted team of talented Rocky Mountain U16 racers, all of whom had been tasked with the up-close-and-personal job of slipping the race courses over the weekend as part of Beaver Creek’s world-famous “Talon Crew” of course workers.
The group in Beaver Creek was made up of athletes that were also participating in a U.S. Ski & Snowboard development camp, held just over Vail Pass in Copper Mountain, where some of the nation’s top U14 and U16 racers were learning speed fundamentals at the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Team’s Speed Center.
“The value is huge, this is really where the game is played,” says Anje Worrell, the Youth Coordinator of the Rocky Central Region, and excited leader of the young slip crew. “These athletes have never been here, or ever even seen this race, nevertheless being on the hill, so as a slipper, it’s been super fun. For them to have the exposure at this age, it’s so valuable, and it’s one of the big pushes within U.S. Ski and Snowboard right now, trying to build from the base up.”
Worrell noted that it is much more common for European U16 racers to be exposed to World Cup venues, and that “anytime we can get on this venue or any venue like this, it’s awesome.”
Because the number of races held in North America are limited compared to the plethora of competitions in Europe, with Killington in Vermont, Lake Louise in Canada, and finally Beaver Creek being the only stops on tour, the Rocky Central U16s are keen to take advantage of every opportunity possible to get face-to-face with the highest level of the sport.
Given that most World Cup races are hosted in Europe, Worell cannot highlight the value of the Beaver Creek venue and others like it enough. “There’s so much for them to learn and see out here, especially when we have it in our backyard; we have to take advantage of it,” she says.
The young athletes had trained various speed events and skills at Copper Mountain, home of the U.S. Ski Team Speed Center, prior to participating in the slip crew for the weekend and were eager to see how their skills matched up with the fastest men on two skis come race day. It’s one thing to practice precise body movements and other skiing-specific skills on your own, but there is no substitute for seeing those same skills being put into action in person by real-life World Cup skiers.
“I liked comparing my skiing from Copper to these World Cup athletes, to see what I can do in the future,” says Riley Puckett, a second-year U16 racer from Snowmass, Colorado.
“Whenever I watch other sports events, I wish I was doing that same thing, so it’s awesome to be doing it,” adds Colin Kagan, a first-year U16 from Steamboat Springs.
Part of U.S. Ski & Snowboard’s Project 26 development initiative, camps like the one held in Copper are designed to bring together top junior talent from across the country at various points throughout the year for focused training and racing. It is the hope of the development staff at U.S. Ski & Snowboard that these projects will not only fuel a higher level of competition, but also foster camaraderie between athletes from different corners of the country that will come in handy once these skiers start traveling to elite-level races without many of their home-club teammates.
“We got to ski with a bunch of people from all over and then we got to come here and watch everyone,” says Emma Burns, also a second-year U16 racer, from Eagle, Colorado. “You have to have a lot of focus, and really be ready to go. Many things can go wrong if you’re not focused.”
“For a lot of our kids, we don’t get these opportunities of speed,” Worrell remarks, emphasizing the importance and uniqueness of both training and watching Olympic-level skiing. “It’s so much fun for them, to have that and be like, ‘Wow, I went on a World Cup hill today.’ That’s the biggest takeaway for these kids. It’s a really enlightening experience for them.”
Darlene Nolting, Rocky Central Alpine Development Director, in collaboration with the Vail Valley Foundation, U.S. Ski and Snowboard, and countless others helped organize the entire experience. “We can’t do it without the Vail Valley Foundation and the staff,” Worrell adds. “It’s a collaboration with many people that made this happen, for sure.”
The combined exposure of both world-class training opportunities at Copper and skiing at a World Cup is one unique to a racer as young as fourteen. Many of the kids’ fan favorites, like Americans Ted Ligety, Tommy Ford, and River Radamus — a Vail-Beaver Creek native — in addition to Ausrtria’s Marcel Hirscher, were featured throughout the weekend.
“It was really fun training on the U.S. Ski Team course and then being able to come here and see all these guys,” says Kagan.
As for the rest of the season, many of these athletes aim to improve on the skills they learned in Copper and focus on the fun of training and racing. Worrell stresses that the most important part of this experience for the kids is for them to walk away confident that they’ve done everything in their power to have a good plan and preparation period and use that to improve throughout the year, while also hoping for more opportunities like Beaver Creek.
“I think they’re going to take away a lot, they’re always going to remember this experience,” Worrell concludes. The entire week, complete with skiing, observing, and slipping alongside other accomplished peers and World Cup athletes, is one that “no club can mirror.”