A matter of course

While snow is always welcome at a ski area, last week's storm was a bit unopportune for members of the Men's Downhil race crew. The crew spent two days working hard to remove the new snowfall from the carefully conditioned race course.
Photos courtesy Cassidy Warner |

Here’s the thing about hosting an international ski racing event — those steep, icy courses don’t maintain themselves.

It takes an army of workers to make sure a course is ready when the world’s top racers come to town. Workers like Cassidy Warner of Gypsum.

The 2015 FIS World Alpine Ski Championships has fielded a thousands-strong corps of volunteers, but within those volunteer ranks are some speciality workers. Specifically the Vail Valley Foundation needed a cadre of very strong skiers to man its various race course venues. Warner learned about the search for race crew members late last ski season.

For eight years, Warner has worked as an instructor for Beaver Creek Ski School and that is where she first heard that the foundation was searching for race crew members. By August, she learned she had nabbed one of the volunteer spots and would be assigned to the Men’s Downhill course.

“I thought I would be more comfortable on the women’s hill so I signed up for the Women’s Downhill on my application, but they put me on the men’s course instead,” she said.

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Hillside Army

Warner noted there were 10 to 12 race course volunteers at her station on the course — located in the Pete’s Arena section. There were about 20 similar stations along the course which totals up to around 200 race crew volunteers. During their first couple of days, the crews were set to work checking fencing, placing tents and securing air bags along the steep downhill course.

“That forced you to ski a different way. I mean you don’t have poles and you have to get used to holding stuff while you ski down the course,” said Warner.

Then the racers came to town.

Whether the schedule called for actual racing or event training, the race crew members are stationed at their posts. “You treat training like its a race,” said Warner. “They are pretty much running the same speeds as a race during training.”

And while it is one thing to see the course at the bottom of the hill or on television, it’s is another to see it from a vantage point located just feet away.

“It was slick. It is a vertical ice rink,” said Warner.

That’s the way it is designed and that’s the way the racers want it. An ill-timed snowstorm may hit the valley, but the course has to return to its rock hard design. Enter the race crew.

During the evening hours of Feb. 3 and the early morning of Feb. 4, a storm passed through the area leaving a blanket of fluffy, soft snow on the ice coated course. The race crew converged on the hillside to remove that powder.

“We shoveled our little hearts out for three hours,” said Warner. “They called (postponed) the race at 10:30 a.m. and we still shoveled for three more hours in the afternoon to get ahead for the next day.”

Mother Nature wasn’t kind to the race crew that day and she displayed her quirky sense of humor.

“When we finally got back down to the (Beaver Creek) Village there was no snow. It had just snowed on the Birds of Prey.”

Long work day

For the race crew, the volunteer day began with a morning meeting at Spruce Saddle at 7 a.m. From there they dispersed to their mountaintop assignments. The workers would spend the morning prepping the course, racers would do their inspection and coaches would take their places along the hill.

“There were a lot of coaches who liked to stand in our section to watch,” said Warner. “The best part was when the racing starts you just got to sit and watch it.”

The crews were under strict orders to stay off the course at all times when racing and training was under way, both for the racers safety and for their own.

While the men were speeding by at 70 mph, Warner said it didn’t take long to figure out there wasn’t much of a chance that she could get hit.

“Once you understand the physics of the turns, you realize it would take a lot for us to get hit. Once you realize that, it made being up there a lot less intimidating.”

Speeding by

Ski races are won by fractions of seconds. But with that said, Warner said she could definitely tell who was having an exceptionally fast run.

“The racers who looked like they were going to loose it at any moment were coming down the fastest. The smoother racers were slower,” she said. “Those guys are moving at such high speed and you can hear their skis clacking.”

After a racer passed by, Warner and her crew mates could spot them at other points on the race and see when they hit the finish area. If too much time elapsed between those sightings, the crew knew something was up. That’s why, without the benefit of a television monitor, they knew something had gone wrong during Bode Miller’s run.

And yes, up on the course, the racers can definitely hear the grandstands crowd.

Though the work was hard and the hours were long, Warner said she loved her time on the race crew. In the end, she volunteered eight days — two more than the required six.

“I felt really close to everyone on my crew. We were really strangers before the races started and there was such a camaraderie,” she said.

“I felt very appreciated,” she continued “The organizers made a point of saying every day that they couldn’t run these races without the volunteers.”

When her volunteer shift was up, Warner celebrated by watching races from Red Tail Stadium. She said the international atmosphere on the mountain is amazing.

“Something I love is when you get on the buses and you hear all these different languages being spoken,” she said.

Warner said both on the course and at the grandstands, she has loved being part of the championships.

“This event is something so different for this valley. We never get to experience the stadium feel like this,” she said. “It’s been really fun.”

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