U.S. Ski Team hits ‘sixth gear’ | VailDaily.com

U.S. Ski Team hits ‘sixth gear’

Geoff Mintz
Vail, CO Colorado
Summit Daily/Mark Fox

COPPER MOUNTAIN – In 2010, the U.S. Alpine Ski Team collected eight Olympic medals. In 2011, it set the framework for many more.

The elite-level athletes were on course at Copper Mountain Tuesday, running downhill in the morning and super-G in the afternoon. Bode Miller, Ted Ligety, Andrew Weibrecht and Julia Mancuso were some of the racers enjoying their third day of training at the Speed Center at Copper Mountain, which offers unprecedented, top-to-bottom speed training for this early in the season.

The course provides diverse terrain over 2,300 vertical feet and offers some critical technical aspects for racers to test different skis and wax combinations. The hill isn’t scary steep compared to many of the courses on the World Cup circuit, but most of the athletes agree that, for November, it does the job.

“I think it’s great. They did a ton of work and really put together an awesome venue for training,” said Olympic bronze-medalist Andrew Weibrecht. “It’s got a little bit of everything – some gliding, some jumps, some pitches. Depending on what you need, you can tailor your program and get what you need to ramp up.”

The north-facing course begins atop the Super Bee lift and makes its way down Andy’s Encore before winding through Oh No and Rosi’s Run. The finish line is situated near base of the Super Bee.

In previous seasons, the team was lucky to hop in slalom or GS gates or maybe partial-length super-G. The athletes may have clicked into their downhill skis on Main Vein (west side of the mountain), but they never had a chance to run a full-length course with all the bells and whistles.

Olympic gold-medalist Ted Ligety agreed with Weibrecht that the Speed Center will provide the Americans with a big edge.

“Last year, going into Lake Louise, I think my first run on downhill skis was in the training run. And it was my third run on my super-G skis in the super-G race,” Ligety said. “So that doesn’t really bode well for having great results. I think having this facility at Copper is going to be super huge.”

Apparently, it’s not just the Americans who think Copper is the place to be right now. The ski team shared its hill space with the elite Austrian men’s speed team Tuesday.

While Copper’s Speed Center was primarily developed to benefit American athletes, United States Ski Association (USSA) president and CEO Bill Marolt said the European teams often reciprocate during the World Cup season when the Americans are looking for training across the pond.

“It’s an international ski community, and I think everybody really looks at it as one family. It’s like any international group – you give and you take.

In this case, we’ll accommodate a foreign team. Clearly we want to reserve the best times and create an advantage, as we intended when we started this thing. It’s a huge commitment and we want to get an advantage.”

For Marolt, who consistently refers to the $4.3-million project as a “game-changer,” the venue represents years of speculation and planning. The collaboration with Copper was first broached six years ago. But just as the two sides were making progress on a plan, the recession hit and the project was shelved. After Intrawest sold the resort to Powder Corp. two years ago, talks picked up again.

“If you look at the whole setup – the quality of the snow, the safety – what you’re seeing here is World Cup training,” Marolt added. “For this time of year, the terrain is ideal. You don’t want the most difficult downhill in November; you want the opportunity to go out and get the distance, get the vertical, get good terrain variation with high-speed turns – and that’s what we have.”

Marolt emphasized the Speed Center was also constructed as a benefit to athletes in the developmental process. It won’t be long before the A-teamers are shipped off to Europe for the season, at which point the venue will host the Olympians of tomorrow.

“Our young kids never really had a chance to train downhill in a stable, safe environment. We built this as a training venue to accomplish specific things at different times of the year,” Marolt said. “For our development athletes, it’s a time when they can come in and get some training miles, learn about high-speed turns and learn about downhill.”

Marolt didn’t rule out the possibility of holding top-level races at the venue someday.

“If we have an opportunity to run a NorAm or maybe somewhere along the line there will be a World Cup, we’ll consider that. But primarily, it’s a training venue,” Marolt said.

Olympic gold-medalist Picabo Street was on hand to help with the ribbon-cutting ceremony. She was excited for the young skiers, but admittedly jealous because there wasn’t anything like the Speed Center when she was racing.

“I can’t imagine what it would have been like to have a facility like this to get myself ready for my season,” Street said. “I was pretty successful as it was, and I just lay awake thinking about what possibilities lay in the future.”

Street believes the Speed Center will help build camaraderie among the athletes on the A Team, all the way down to the development squad.

“A lot of the time, we wait until the first Word Cup training run to actually throw on that race switch and get into sixth gear. Ya’ll got to see our top men and women do it today, and we’re a couple weeks away from the big show,” Street said. “It would have been a dream come true for me, and it’s amazing to see it come true for the next generation.”

The World Cup season resumes Nov. 26 in Lake Louise, Alberta, for the men and in Aspen for the women. They’ll round out their North American stint Dec. 2 with the Birds of Prey at Beaver Creek for the men and Lake Louise for the women.

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