‘Little hill’ in Minn. helped Vail’s Vonn
Associated Press Writer
BURNSVILLE, Minn. – Lindsey Vonn got her start on a modest hill on the outskirts of Minneapolis, a place where boys and girls grab a rope tow to get to the top – just like the one that carried the future Olympic gold medalist nearly 20 years ago.
Vonn was little Lindsey Kildow back then, just a 6-year-old learning to ski at Buck Hill under the eye of her father Allen, a competitive skier himself and a coach for the Buck Hill ski team.
Now 25, Vonn gave the little ski area a thrill Wednesday when she became the first American woman to win the Olympic downhill, beating teammate Julia Mancuso by more than a half-second on the slopes outside Vancouver.
“This little hill produced a lot of good skiers,” said Erich Sailer, who taught Vonn at Buck Hill and continues to coach there. Sailer, a member of the U.S. Ski Hall of Fame, also coached three-time Olympian Kristina Koznick and two-time Olympian Tasha (Nelson) McCrank.
“I could see she had the same potential, but I didn’t know that she would be that good,” Sailer said.
Vonn learned the slalom at Buck Hill, Sailer said. By the time she was 13, the blossoming skier and her family moved to Vail, Colo., where she intensified her downhill training.
“She built a foundation for her later success,” said Sailer, Buck Hill’s head coach and director of its racing program who has been with the ski area for some 35 years.
“At first start, she was very slow. She didn’t move very fast,” Sailer recalls. “But after about a month or so she started getting faster. She was a real good little workhorse. She came early and left at the very end.”
Buck Hill has a vertical rise of just 300 feet and extends 1,000 linear feet. By comparison, the women’s downhill course at Vancouver is more than three times as long and drops more than twice as much from start to finish.
Sailer credits repetition for giving Buck Hill skiers a leg up.
“Our kids ski about 400 gates a night,” Sailer said. That’s more difficult in the mountains, where skiers have to spend more time going up in a lift and can average only about five runs a night.
“We here make 20 runs if they really work at it, and she did,” Sailer said, referring to Vonn.
Buck Hill has been a skiing hill since the 1930s. But it wasn’t developed as a ski area until Chuck Stone and his girlfriend, Nancy Campbell, both avid skiers, leased the land, installed the rope tow in 1954. Times were lean until 1960, when the couple installed a T-bar mechanical lift and brought in a snowmaking machine.
“Then things just kind of took off,” Buck Hill general manager Don McClure said. Buck Hill, which also features snowboarding and snowtubing, added buildings and a chair lift and now has nearly 200,000 visitors a year, he said.
Buck Hill usually opens for skiing in mid-November and continues until late March or early April. About 100 students are in the ski program, McClure said.
Koznick, a Minnesotan who retired in 2006 and now lives in Colorado, started skiing at Buck Hill in her hometown of Burnsville when she was 6 and stayed there until she made the national team at 15. She credits a lot of the success of Buck Hill skiers to Sailer, who she called a “phenomenal coach” with a skill for “finding out your talent and bringing it out.”
Koznick, 34, also enjoyed the atmosphere at Buck Hill. “We all loved to ski race, we all loved what we did when you’re 8 and it’s just for fun,” she said. “It really was like a family.”
One of Sailer’s current students, 15-year-old Courtney Karnopp of Eagan, paused at the top of the slope this week and motioned toward the hill, calling it “Olympic Dreams.”
Karnopp, a skier since she was 4, said her ambitions are more modest than the Olympics. She’s hoping to simply make it to state next year. Still, she said she’s inspired by skiing on the same hill where Vonn learned.
“I think it’s a great honor because I look up to her so much in skiing and she came here and she came from a small town – which is here, which is great,” she said.
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Jeff Shiffrin, with his wife, Eileen, made the Vail area their home decades ago, and together raised Mikaela and Taylor Shiffrin, who was a member of the two-time NCAA Champion University of Denver Ski Team.