Vail Daily column: Nyman continues love affair with Val Gardena
Behind the Gold
Standing atop Ciampinoi at the start is imposing. To your right is the giant Sella Group massif, jutting up like an island in the Dolomites. Behind you is the castle-like Langkofel, its rocky red face blanketed lightly in early season snow. The sheer beauty could easily mesmerize you. As a downhill ski racer, you look away and focus your eyes straight ahead down the fabled Saslong — over two miles and two minutes of sheer terror that is about to jar every single bone in your body.
This is the moment Steven Nyman longs for every year.
Nyman fell in love with the valley on his first visit a nearly decade ago.
‘It treats me Well’
“I’ve always felt comfortable here from the first day I arrived in 2005,” he said. “I could see what I needed to do and I was ready to do it, but I crashed. The next year I won. The next year I crashed. I’ve crashed here as much as I’ve won! It treats me well, but sometimes it slaps me.”
Such has been his love affair with Val Gardena, where he won for the third time last Friday.
Ski racing fans talk about Kitzbuehel’s Hahnenkamm or the Lauberhorn in Wengen. Ski racers talk about the Saslong — early December, thin snow, low light, unpredictability and micro terrain that just doesn’t stop. Italian winner Herbert Plank once said, “I could see the grass through the ice.” That’s what gives the Saslong its character.
“The snow is so thin — you’re feeling the fields underneath,” said Nyman. “You have to keep driving over it to show it who’s boss or it will show you who’s boss.”
Nyman lives for this. He loves the feel of the rocks, the grass and every little bump in the farmer’s field that launches him down the course. “I love the terrain. Growing up in the western U.S. we did terrain camps when we were younger and learned how to work the terrain and do the jumps and double jumps.
“So I’m comfortable with that. It was ingrained in me as a kid.”
Nyman was a late bloomer, coming out a small ski area, Sundance, and moving onto the Park City Ski Team when he was a teen. It was a remarkable time with the likes of Ted Ligety, T.J. Lanning and a host of other future World Cup ski racers. Nyman had a strong work ethic. A slalom racer, he got an invite to the 2002 Olympic Gold Cup trials as a teen. Later that season he was a discretionary choice for Junior Worlds, joining teammate Adam Cole in winning gold.
Catching the Speed Bug
But along the way, he caught the speed bug at the USSA’s Western Region Flight School where young athletes learn about speed, jumps and terrain.
“I always looked forward to the speed and terrain camps,” said Nyman, who today trains kids at camps himself along with women’s teammate Stacey Cook. “I enjoyed the different environment — you didn’t have to make gates, you had little drills you had to do. They would set up different stations down the whole mountain and we would keep going through them practicing the proper movements. Some I hated, some I loved. But they all helped my air skills in different ways. To make it through with speed was tons of fun and a big accomplishment and a confidence builder as a kid.”
Why is that important on the Saslong? This is a course with nine different named and identified jumps — not including the 17 so-called ripples in the Ciaslat. Watch the video. There’s not a millisecond of rest. And when you’re on the snow, it’s mind-numbing bumpy. Hit the camels off-line, you’re done. Not comfortable in the rickety Ciaslat, you’re finished. There are a thousand ways to lose a ski race in Val Gardena.
But last Friday, Nyman joined Italy’s Kristian Ghedina and the famed Franz Klammer, of Austria, as athletes who have won three or more times on the Saslong.
At 32, Steven Nyman is a veteran. The dominant leader in the single training run, Nyman took confidence into the starting gate. When he pushed out No. 7 onto the Saslong, you just had this sense that he was writing history.
Just two turns out of the start, Nyman flew off Spinel, dropping into a 56 percent grade. He launched off Moro soaring over 30 meters. Into the Camels — still in the lead — skiing them with perfection. No time to rest — now the Ciaslat, hitting ripple after ripple, textbook Saslong. One more ride off Nucia then into the Tunnel Jump and finally the screaming fans lining the stadium in St. Christina.
It was a long ways from those Flight School camps at Mammoth, but Mr. Saslong was a winner once again!
One of the most experienced communications professionals in skiing, Tom Kelly is a veteran of eight Olympics and serves as vice president communications for the Park City-based U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. This column first appeared in the Park Record in Park City, Utah.