By Peter Oliver
World Cup racing comes to Vermont for the first time in 38 years, and the whole world will be watching.
You might think you know who Mikaela Shiffrin is, but you don’t. You know that she is very young and very, very talented – possibly the best slalom racer who ever lived, although three years of beating the socks off of her World Cup competition is too small a sample size to say for sure. But what you don’t know is this: Although her bio might say she is from Vail, Colorado, she is actually a closet Vermonter.
When her family moved back to Vail when she was 13 after living in New Hampshire, she says she “begged my parents to let me go back” to Vermont’s Burke Mountain Academy, where she had been a day student. She craved the deep sense of community and the honesty and intimacy of friendships formed in Vermont. So back she went, now as a boarding student. “The bond was so strong,” she says.
Now comes a kind of reunion, or harmonic convergence, or a case of life coming full circle: As the 2016-17 ski season gets started, Shiffrin and Vermont will be reunited at center stage in the greatest ski-racing show on Earth. Over Thanksgiving weekend, the world’s best female ski racers will compete in World Cup slalom and giant slalom races on Killington’s steep Superstar trail in the World Cup’s first visit to Vermont in 38 years. When Shiffrin got the news that the Vermont races had been added to the schedule, she says, “I was totally psyched. I thought, ‘That is soooo cool.’”
So cool and so long in coming. This is only the second time the prestigious World Cup has ever come to Vermont. The first time, in 1978, Steve and Phil Mahre were winners in slalom and giant slalom, respectively, at Stratton. The length of the hiatus is surprising to the point of dumbfounding. After all, Vermont is close to the center of the U.S. ski-racing universe. Skiing and ski racing folklore imbue Vermont’s historical mosaic with vibrancy and purpose. Some of the greatest racers of all time – Andrea Mead Lawrence, Billy Kidd, the Cochrans, and many others – are natives of the state that is also home to the country’s first rope tow. Skiing competitions have been held in Vermont since the 1920s.
History travels on into the present: Vermont continues to energize the national ski-racing scene with a vitality unmatched by any other region in the country. In the last two winter Olympics, more U.S. athletes, per capita, came from Vermont than any other state. The competition isn’t even close. Vermont is home to more ski academies than any other ski state, and they are all incubators for athletes, from Vermont and around the country, who aspire to the national team: Burke Mountain Academy, Green Mountain Valley School, Stratton Mountain School, Mount Mansfield Winter Academy, Killington Mountain School, Mount Snow Academy and Okemo Mountain School.
There is a dollars-and-cents angle in play, too. As Herwig Demscher, who heads up the Killington organizing committee, says: “This (the Northeast) is the ski industry’s biggest market. We have been planning for a while to try and get a World Cup back to the East.” U.S. Ski Team CEO Tiger Shaw, a native Vermonter and former World Cup racer himself, sums it up succinctly: “The tradition is so strong.”
Put simply, there is enormous interest in Vermont in competitive skiing, and the 38-year absence of World Cup racing means 38 years of pent-up anticipation. Killington president Mike Solimano expects up to 15,000 fans to be on hand for the weekend. “They are just die-hard fans,” says Shiffrin. “They are part of the sport and they love it. I am really excited to feel that again.”
Of course scheduling a World Cup race is not as simple as just penciling in an event on the race calendar. Multiple tiers of racing administration need to be coordinated, including the International Ski Federation (FIS), the U.S. Ski Team, the host resort, and in Killington’s case, the owner of the host resort, Powdr Corporation. Within each of those tiers are more tiers.
What’s more, bidding to host a World Cup event is extremely competitive business. In Europe, where World Cup racing enjoys a high status comparable to PGA golf in the U.S., dozens of resorts battle ferociously for the one or two slots, between regular tour stops, that open up on the World Cup schedule every year.
In recent years, Aspen has been the primary Thanksgiving weekend site for the women’s World Cup. But when it was decided two years ago that Aspen would host the season-ending World Cup Finals in March 2017, the FIS looked elsewhere for a November racing venue.
So that was the start – an opening in the schedule – and the U.S. Ski Team, the national governing body for ski racing in the U.S., was determined to fill that opening at another U.S. resort rather than see the opportunity slip away to some European rival. The ski team quickly joined forces with Powdr, previous owner of Park City Mountain Resort, where numerous World Cup events had been held in years past. Powdr wanted to get back in the World Cup game, and as Shaw puts it, “There was a long-standing relationship (between Powder and the USST), with multiple connections there.” They teamed up in lobbying the FIS to keep November racing in the U.S.
Atle Skardaal, the FIS’s Chief Race Director for the women’s World Cup, didn’t need much convincing. He had already “toured around the East Coast a couple of times before,” he says, inspecting various resorts in New England and New York for World Cup potential. When the November slot came open, he made another visit, and more or less gave the FIS’s stamp of approval to Killington at that point.
Logistically, staging a World Cup event can be a daunting undertaking. The race hill has to meet high World Cup standards in terms of length, overall pitch, and terrain variety. Ample space at the bottom of the hill is needed for parking, TV installations, grandstands, etc. Plenty of quality lodging is needed to house teams, race officials, media, and others. Hundreds of volunteers must be recruited, trained and organized. The tasks are innumerable.
All the while, the daily show – skiers coming to ski and not watch racing – must go on. Resorts don’t shut down when the World Cup comes to town, and figuring out how to conduct a big event with minimal impact on regular ski business can be tricky.
Two things about Killington were particularly impressive to Skardaal. First, he encountered “good people who knew how to do an event, not just a race.” As Demscher (a Senior Vice President for Powdr) puts it, the objective is to create a “festival” atmosphere, in which a few hours of racing are only part of a larger, multi-day celebration of the sport.
At a typical World Cup, the bib draw the evening before each race, in which the skiers pick their race-start numbers, is a rollicking extravaganza, with live music, fireworks and a carnival-like energy. Throughout the race weekend, sponsors and teams distribute fun promo items, hold VIP parties at local restaurants and stage public celebrations in the streets. Race fans march and dance, singing songs, and food and drink flow in abundance. Killington, known as a resort that can put on a pretty good party, was more than capable of staging that kind of festive affair.
Even more impressive in Skardaal’s assessment: Vermont’s widely heralded, state-of-the-art snowmaking prowess. As climate change wreaks havoc on weather patterns around the world, the need for snowmaking to stage early-season World Cup races has become increasingly acute. Just how screwy has winter weather become in Europe? Last season, the FIS was forced to cancel November races in Levi, Finland because of lack of snow - North of the Arctic Circle! With races regularly being canceled or rescheduled in recent years because of snow problems, the FIS didn’t want to take any chances on adding a race to the early-season calendar at a location where snow might be a question mark.
In that regard, Vermont, with an enviable early-season track record, made ridiculously good sense. Even in warmer-than-normal snow-thin years, Vermont resorts (Killington as well as Stowe, Smugglers’ Notch, Sugarbush, Stratton, Okemo, Mount Snow and others) have developed a reputation – an expectation, in fact – for having plenty of good skiing by Thanksgiving. Typically, Vermont resorts have more November terrain open than any other Northeastern state. Solimano concedes that there is “no such thing as a sure thing,” but the reliability of snowmaking in a state with roughly 80 percent of its terrain under the guns is about as close to certainty as any “unsure” thing ever gets.
Solimano says Killington is prepared to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars above its usual snowmaking budget to be sure that World Cup racing happens this November. That might seem like a one-shot deal of throwing big money at a big event. But in truth, Vermont resorts have been opening their wallets wide, in the last two years in particular, to move the state of the snowmaking art forward. New, energy-efficient snowmaking hardware has been widely installed (see snowmaking article). Computer software has been developed to collect temperature and humidity data on virtually a gun-by-gun basis, allowing resorts to determine with remarkable precision when and where snowmaking horsepower should be concentrated.
The result is an unprecedented ability to make quality snow at marginal temperatures, and with lightning-quick speed. According to Solimano, the Killington snowmaking crew is able “to fully light up Superstar” with man-made snow – from bare ground to a World Cup racing surface – in one and a half to two days, if necessary.
Ironically, the snowmaking formula for preparing a World Cup racing surface takes snowmakers in a direction they are usually loath to go. Normally, the goal is to create the kind of plush, edgeable corduroy that soothes the egos of recreational skiers. But World Cup racers are a perverse breed, preferring a surface as hard as asphalt. Too soft, and razor-sharp race-ski edges quickly gouge deep ruts around gates, resulting in courses that become rough, uneven, and unfair for later racers. To assure that that won’t happen, water is often injected into the snow to form hockey-rink-like ice. That means that after the racing, the Killington crew will be faced with another unusual challenge – “to turn it back into retail snow,” as Solimano puts it.
So what’s to be expected when World Cup racing arrives in Vermont in November? For Shiffrin and other racers, it is a critical juncture in the World Cup schedule. Technical specialists (slalom and GS racers) like Shiffrin, will have had just two World Cup starts prior to Killington, a giant slalom in October in Soelden, Austria and a November slalom in Levi, snow conditions permitting. To have raced just twice in the five weeks preceding Killington is like stutter-stepping into the World Cup season, especially with many athletes still in the process of fine-tuning their pre-season training and conditioning schedules.
But at Killington, the race-every-week World Cup schedule really begins. That’s why, says Shiffrin, the Vermont races will “set the tone for the season. It is where everyone will really be watching each other.” Put another way, it is where season-long momentum will be established. As Shiffrin says, “Once you get the ball rolling, it’s a whole lot easier to keep it rolling.”
She ought to know. Shiffrin has won 10 of the last 11 World Cup slaloms she has entered, making her the overwhelming favorite in slalom as well as one of a handful of favorites in giant slalom. Slalom contenders include Swedish star Frida Hansdotter and Veronika Velez Zuzulova of Slovakia, but in the 2016 World Cup finals, Shiffrin basically lapped the field, beating everyone by more than two seconds. The GS race is more wide-open, with Shiffrin facing strong challenges from Austria’s Eva-Marie Brem, Germany’s Viktoria Rebensberg, Switzerland’s Lara Gut, and possibly even the American superstar, Lindsey Vonn.
But ski-racing predictions are about as reliable as long-range weather forecasts. At a giant slalom on Aspen over Thanksgiving weekend a year ago, Shiffrin was comfortably ahead before making a mistake three gates from the finish and skidding off course. You never know.
What happens on the race course, however, might be less compelling than everything else that surrounds it – the festival atmosphere, the fan enthusiasm, the concentration of racing energy that is so deeply embedded in Vermont skiing life. “It’s going to be amazing,” says Shiffrin. “The world needs to see the East Coast. It taught me a lot about my passion for skiing.” Vermont has been waiting a long time for this. After 38 years, let the celebration of racing begin.
Photos courtesy of Sarah Brunson / U.S. Ski Team & Killington Resort