Michael Ankeny, recent winner of the World Pro Ski Tour’s Colorado Pro Open, has been burning the candle at both ends.
“You really sacrifice for things that you love. I love skiing. I love pro tour. So, if I need to not have very much sleep to do that, that’s fine with me,” Ankeny said.
A former U.S. Ski Team member and now-full-time investment banker in New York City, it wouldn’t be uncommon to catch Ankeny or fellow NYC professional Nolan Kasper hovering over a laptop in a base lodge or taking business calls between runs on the pro tour.
Meanwhile, rookie Simon Breitfuss Kammerlander, a dual citizen of Austria and Bolivia, is working toward representing Bolivia in the upcoming Olympics. Kammerlander might find himself up against the likes of Jake Jacobs, who raced seven years in the FIS system but came up short in qualifying for the U.S. Ski Team.
All of these athletes might find themselves in the start gate with double Olympic gold medalist — Mr. GS himself — Ted Ligety.
On the World Pro Ski Tour (WPST), no two athletes share the same story, but they do have one thing in common: As Ankeny sees it, “The pro tour draws a certain kind of skier, and to me, it’s the best kind of skier. One who works hard and plays hard.”
The WPST is the premier pro ski racing circuit run in a dual format. Professional skiers compete head-to-head, side-by-side in a single elimination bracket. It exists outside the FIS system without points or qualifications needed to compete. You show up, you pay your entry fee, and as Chairman Dan Leever puts it, “If you’re fast enough to win, you win.”
While most racers couldn’t come close to hanging with the pro tour athletes, the dual format does create some unusual opportunities.
“It allows guys from different ability levels to step up for that period of time,” explains Canadian athlete and recent World Cup retiree Phil Brown. “Over the course of a minute-long run with more difficult features in the terrain, a lot more can go wrong. Whereas in a 20-second course, most of the guys that are showing up are very capable of putting a good run down.”
So far, the story of the season has been characterized largely by the back-to-back wins of Vermonter Robert Cone in the first two events of the season in Vail and Steamboat. However, Cone was later dethroned by Michael Ankeny at the most recent event at Eldora Mountain in Nederland, Colo. Meanwhile, Garret Driller has repeatedly appeared in the semifinals and is gunning for his second-ever pro tour win in the upcoming events.
Three races remain on the calendar, including this weekend’s Eastern Pro Championships in Waterville Valley, N.H. (March 14-15). While many races around the world have been canceled due to the coronavirus, the WPST is expecting to move forward this weekend. A statement on their site reads:
The World Pro Ski Tour’s highest priority is the safety of athletes and our fans. Our team is closely monitoring the COVID-19 situation and consulting with experts as it pertains to our upcoming events. Currently, the Eastern Pro Championships at Waterville Valley will take place as scheduled. We will continue to monitor the situation as it pertains to upcoming events on our Calendar with no planned disruption at this time.
David takes on Goliaths
Feeling some confidence after recording a good performance against Ligety in Steamboat, Kammerlander said he’s hoping to snag his first podium as the season rolls on. Nolan Kasper, Phil Brown, Alex Leever and Ted Ligety have all appeared in the semifinals. But, it’s still anyone’s game to win.
Some of the season’s more colorful highlights include Ankeny arriving at the first event in Vail entirely without ski equipment and crowd-sourcing skis, boot liners, and poles. Or Garret Driller’s last-ditch effort to make up for lost time in a second run against Ankeny by hollering “Come on! Let’s go,” the whole way down the course.
This year may mark the next important milestone in the evolution of the WPST.
“I liken it to a 50-year-old startup,” said World Pro Ski Tour CEO Jon Franklin. “Even though it’s got roots that go back 50 years and a very rich history, really, for the modern era, it’s a startup.”
Franklin is among the new leadership team tapped ahead of the 2019-20 season to help revive the tour, which was originally formed in the 1960s. The tour ran on and off through the mid-90s before being resurrected in 2017.
“So many things have changed in the world, and the setup of global sports has changed, so you can’t do things really like you did things in 1969,” Franklin said.
A quick history
1969 was the inaugural year for World Pro Skiing. Headed by industry legend Bob Beattie, the series burst onto the scene with the novel thrill of dual-format racing. With cash prizes, TV coverage, and a party atmosphere, it was a hit not only with the skiing community, but with American spectators at large.
The tour featured athletes that defined their eras. The 1970s saw Jean Claude Killy, Billy Kidd and Spider Sabich, while the late 1980s featured the Mahre brothers and Bernhard Knauss.
The tour unraveled at the turn of the century, ironically at a high point with large cash prizes and distinguished athletes in the start gate. It was then sold to Del Wilbur and Associates, and TV coverage was handed over to Fox Family Channel, which canceled all sport programming within two years of taking over.
With the cancellation, so fell the tour, and for nearly 20 years, that seemed the end of the road for the WPST. That is, until Ed Rogers — who had previously taken over for Beattie — returned with new sponsorships and the broadcasting platform of CBS Sports Network in 2017.
Looking to the future
There’s still a great deal of work to do on this 50-year old startup, and this season marks the official start of the campaign to make the pro tour viable in the modern era.
“Before the season started, we decided on some things that we thought were very important to do. We could call them the pillars of event operations,” explains Franklin.
First on the list? Location.
“We wanted to make sure we always finished in the village,” Franklin said. “We added a live show. So it’s not just the racers finishing. It’s the big screen. It’s a DJ. It’s an announcer.”
Additional “pillars” included condensing event runtimes. Whereas races took as much as four hours in previous years, now events take approximately an hour-and-a-half from the round of 16 through the finals.
Other spectator-friendly modifications included the introduction of differential-based starts. The first run’s winner is released from the start gate with an advantage that represents his exact lead from the first run, making for a spectacular visual race — no need for a clock (except in the case of a photo finish). Whoever crosses the finish line first is the winner.
Meanwhile, event accessibility has been increased on the hill, online, and on television.
“The television coverage is a dramatic and massive increase from the past. Right now, (our new docuseries) airs in over 80 million homes.” Franklin added.
The docuseries — Life In Between the Gates — captures the behind-the-scenes world of the athletes — who they are and how they operate on the tour.
“I’ve had a lot of people tell me or my mom, I saw you on TV the other day,” athlete Garret Driller said in reference to the series. “I think (the pro tour) is getting a little bit more outreach that way, and more people are hearing about it.”
Phil Brown added, “I think that’s the stuff that people don’t necessarily get to see too much of, even World Cup. That’s pretty cool to be able to showcase a more real-life look at our personalities and what we’re doing on those race weekends.”
The docuseries is featured on Youtube, Outside TV and regional NBC Sports Networks. And the races are streamed live to Youtube, Facebook, the WPST website, and Ski Racing Media website without charge through the round of 16. The remainder of the event can be streamed through the sports-streaming site, flolive.tv.
For those who’d rather catch it on television, the half-hour highlights show from the event airs on CBS Sports Network, and half-hour recap shows air a week after each event.
“We wanted to create a great product that we can be proud of. And I think we did that,” said Leever.
Looking out for the athletes
Amidst this overhaul, WPST leadership keeps one central factor in mind — the athletes.
“If the athletes don’t succeed, the tour cannot succeed,” Franklin explains. “With that overall maxim, we have to listen to the athletes, and we have to understand where they are coming from.”
The athletes agree: “We actually have a voice in the way this tour is being run,” Driller said. “That’s different from any FIS race or NorAm race where athletes have to show up and just suck it up. Why we want to keep coming back is because every problem is fixed, or is on the right path to being changed.”
And taking care of the athletes means getting them paid, too.
“The whole goal is providing some income for the athletes. So those athletes who want to continue chasing their dream can do so and make a living doing it,” Leever said.
Take the case of Breitfuss Kammerlander, who was quick to add, “After the race (in Vail) with a great fourth place, I realized ‘Hey, for the first time in my skiing career, I got some money back — that’s cool’ and I was happy I made the decision to come to the USA to race.”
While racers like Kammerlander use the tour to move in one direction, Phil Brown is moving the other.
“I retired from World Cup, but also officially took a step away from the sport. It’s been really nice to have this tour while I think of what my next steps are — still compete a little bit, have some fun racing, and be around the guys.”
Brown chuckles, however, when he mentions that Ankeny and Kasper are also retired from World Cup racing and hold down full-time positions in New York City.
Every World Pro Ski Tour athlete is on a slightly different path, but they all share in the love of racing. For them, the tour is currently serving a variety of purposes, but the athletes all seem to be united in the common goal of making the tour a huge success — and having some fun along the way.