Making the Snow Show
VAIL, Colorado – Father and son Bill and Will Gregorak were relaxing at the kitchen table, enjoying a cup of coffee. It was a quick cup because Will, a new member of the U.S. Ski Team, had just rolled in from New Zealand. The next day he would board a plane to Germany for his first World Cup start, this weekend in Soelden, Austria.
It’s a long, hard trek from prodigy to professional, and both Bill and Will say it’s worth every minute and every mile.
Will turned 20 years old a week ago. He got home from New Zealand at 10 p.m., the night before his birthday. The kid’s timing is good at so many levels.
Will spent two years with Ski and Snowboard Club Vail, about the time they nailed down a deal for their own snowmaking and dedicated training space on Vail’s Golden Peak. Before that he was two years with the Eldora ski area program, and before that it was Team Summit in Summit County.
“It’s been a big commitment for my parents,” Will said. “They said as long as I kept at it, they’d support it. We’ve moved around quite a bit. Washington state, Telluride, Longmont, Keystone, back to Longmont, then to Vail.”
It’s about money and mobility, Bill said.
“You need a good parental support structure. It’s an expensive sport and parents have to make sacrifices,” Bill said.
The Gregoraks topped out at $36,000 a year in their most expensive years, keeping Will on the road toward the U.S. Ski Team. No one has to point out that it’s more expensive than most colleges.
The U.S. Ski Team now picks up most of the tab.
“I got a raise when he made the team,” Bill said.
If you’re breaking even at Will’s level, you’re fine, Will said.
“As you move up it gets easier to get new sponsors and get the ones you have to pay you,” Will said.
Ski racers get paid through a variety of sources, mostly sponsors. Head sponsors, those stickers on their helmets, don’t go on unless the athletes are being paid.
They can make money through what they call a victory schedule, success on the World Cup tour. It’s the sort of performance clause found in most professional athletic contracts.
Will’s sponsors include Thule, Rossignol skis and boots, Leki poles, Shred helmets and goggles.
“For sponsors, it’s whatever you can get for yourself, and I get anyone that I can,” Will said.
Every young athlete dreams of making The Show, whatever The Show is in their sport.
In a place like Vail, young ski racers share facilities with world champions and see that they pull on one boot at a time, just like they do.
Unlike most sports, in ski racing you can get there from here.
“Skiing and training on the same hill you train on is an eye-opener for young athletes,” Will said. “Seeing U.S. Ski Team athletes train, seeing how they hold themselves and how much focus they bring to every day of training, it all makes a difference.”
He trained with Ski and Snowboard Club Vail his last two years before the U.S. Ski Team.
“They helped me excel and make it,” Will said.
Of course, Will’s work is just beginning.
U.S. Ski Team athletes are up before the sun and train on the snow until around noon, Will said. They have lunch then go to dry land training for most of the afternoon.
They get up the next morning and do it again. They’re professionals, this is their job and they do it every day. If they don’t want to do it, thousands of others will.
Ted Ligety has a video clip on the U.S. Ski Team’s website in which he’s both praising and bemoaning the younger skiers who want his job.
“You can be civil, you can be encouraging and helpful, but everyone is after this job,” Will said.
He attended the Vail Ski Academy and was part of the first graduating class. Will skipped eighth grade, going from seventh grade to high school. That gave him the flexibility he needed to excel in ski racing, Bill said.
He ended up at Ski and Snowboard Club Vail because his race career kept progressing, and he skied past the other programs.
The only way to get better is to ski with people better than you, and you find that at places like Ski and Snowboard Club Vail, Bill said.
“The coaching staff and competition was great,” Bill said. “Day to day, athletes are training to become among the best in the world, not just the best on their mountain.”
Success in anything is found at the crossroads of preparation and opportunity. Some of it’s drive, some of it’s luck. You have to remain relatively injury free – one badly hooked gate can end you in a nanosecond.
“Success stems from a combination of factors,” Bill said. “It’s partially physical abilities and interest.”
When they’re younger there are lots of ski racers, Bill said. As each year goes by, those numbers dwindle.
“Now there are 23 guys on the U.S Ski Team,” Bill said. “While they all look the same, something differentiated them.”
Part of it’s preparation, and coaching plays a big role in that. Ski and Snowboard Club Vail’s Craig Daniels and Mike Womack can take a good ski racer and turn them into someone who can make the U.S. Ski Team, Bill said.
The facilities are a big part of the opportunity. The U.S. Ski Team will be training on Ski and Snowboard Club Vail’s Gold Peak space starting early November.
But most of it’s the kid. They either have the focus and drive to take advantage of it all, or they don’t.
“There are a whole lot of distractions growing up,” Bill said. “They get to a certain age and you have to let them go. They’re either going to make it or they’re not, and it’s up to them.”
Will earned his spot in the World Cup giant slalom by finishing well on the NorAm circuit.
You work your way onto your national ski team through continental cups, and every continent has one. In the North America it’s the NorAm Cup. It’s the Europa Cup in Europe.
Soelden is his first World Cup start, and yes, he expects to be nervous.
“For the first one, I’ll be nervous, the key is finding that right level of nervousness so the adrenaline runs, but not so hard that you make the kinds of mistakes that take you out of contention,” Will said.
His goal is to make the top 30 for the first run, he said. That gets you to the second run.
“I’ll be starting somewhere in the 50s. If I’m in the top 30 after the first run, I’ll be the happiest guy in the world,” he said.