Steamboat skier Travis Mayer skis in the moguls competition during the Olympic Trials in Steamboat Springs before the 2006 Winter Olympics. The Olympic qualifier event is returning to Steamboat on Dec. 23 and 24.

Larry Pierce/courtesy

Steamboat skier Travis Mayer skis in the moguls competition during the Olympic Trials in Steamboat Springs before the 2006 Winter Olympics. The Olympic qualifier event is returning to Steamboat on Dec. 23 and 24.

Preparations begin for Olympic Trials

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Larry Pierce/courtesy

A large crowd peeks over the fence during the 2006 Olympic Trials in Steamboat Springs.

— Andy Wirth met Friday morning’s long-awaited snow with a knowing smile.

“Only the rookies worry,” the Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. senior vice president of sales and marketing said that afternoon as the inches began to pile up.

Steamboat Springs went from a frustrating 60 degrees to a 12-inch-deep winter wonderland in one night. It was a relief for eager skiers and snowboarders across the Yampa Valley.

For Wirth and others, though, it was a reminder that the winter season is approaching quickly, and with it all the excitement of the Olympic Trials, set to be played out in Steamboat Springs on Dec. 23 and 24.

“This kind of opportunity, it’s just really exciting,” said Rick DeVos, director of the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club.

Steamboat will play host to trials for Nordic combined, aerials and moguls.

Each of the three contested events will award one athlete with an assured a spot on the bus to the 2010 Winter Olympics, which are scheduled to start Feb. 12 in Vancouver, British Columbia.

The three events with trials in Steamboat will be contested at the Whistler Olympic Park.

The rest of the nation’s contingent will be decided later based on results in Steamboat and in other top-tier events.

In many ways, preparing for the two-day event is no different from organizing for dozens of similarly large events the town and ski area host every winter.

Still, organizers said the trials are a unique animal and that they offer an experience unparalleled anywhere this side of the Olympic Games.

“It’s as close as you can get,” Wirth said. “Being able to stage an event that carries the rings is a real honor and carries with it an incredible amount of prestige.”

Wirth said a marketing campaign will launch before the trials to try to lure Front Range skiing fans to Steamboat for the event.

Plenty of thought has gone into creating a venue for an audience — both the millions who will tune in to a Dec. 26 NBC broadcast and the thousands who could show up to watch the event live.

But despite all that anticipated electricity, the Olympic Trials will be a small event as far as competitor numbers are concerned. World Cup events tend to attract many more skiers. Only U.S. Ski Team members will get a chance to lock up an Olympic team spot.

There should be fewer than 20 competitors in each of the men’s and women’s events.

Carving the snow

Plenty of concern has been poured into creating adequate venues for the athletes, too.

As for the snow, organizers are going out of their way to make sure venues are in shape in time.

Snow making at the ski area has started, and unlike most years, its early season goals are twofold. First, the idea is to have at least some runs completely snow-covered for Steamboat Ski Area’s planned opening Nov. 25.

This year, there also has been an effort to make snow on VooDoo, the lower-mountain run that is carved into a competitive mogul course every winter.

The ski area rented snow making equipment to help bear the extra burden and prepare for the trials without regular customers noticing.

“Even though we’ve done some earthwork to prepare for the aerials and bumps, we still have to do extensive snow making,” Wirth said. “Still, we are very committed to the guest experience, and we hired additional guns and compressors to make it all work.”

The end-of-the-week snow helped, but those focusing on the freestyle venue said nothing short of a week of San Diego weather would stop this competition.

Winter Sports Club freestyle coach Rob Day has split his time between worrying about the construction of a course and the development of Steamboat’s athletes.

“I’m just praying it stays cold,” he said. “The course will definitely be built. This is too big for it not to happen.”

DeVos, meanwhile, said he wasn’t sweating the physical preparations at the Winter Sports Club’s Howelsen Hill complex, which will feature the Nordic combined competition.

“If it had been a Dec. 1 event, we might have a different kind of approach, but because it’s just before Christmas, everything should be in shape by that point,” he said. “With that date, it doesn’t faze us.”

Keeping control

Focus on preparing for the coming trials hasn’t been limited to worrying about snow and TV, though.

Steamboat skier and U.S. Ski Team member Jeremy Cota, 21, said he’s done everything he can to make this fall similar to every other he’s gone through.

He worked diligently all summer, four days every week at the water ramp at Bald Eagle Lake, and still is sticking to his dryland training regimen as the snow falls and resorts open across the state.

He said he’s managed to get in a few days of skiing so far, traveling to Keystone, Arapaho Basin and Copper Mountain. He’ll get more later this month at the U.S. Team’s fall camp.

“There’s a lot of anxiousness, and we’re getting ready for the competition season,” said Cota, who is preparing for his first Olympic Trials. “In Olympic years, everyone’s trying to push it a little bit harder, and you can definitely tell. I wouldn’t say I’m nervous, though. I’m in a great position where I can just go out and ski my best.”

He said even as a gateway to a long-held dream of Olympic glory is little more than a month away, he’s doing everything he can to keep focused.

“The Olympics has always been a dream,” he said. “That’s what everyone wants to do, but a lot of people get caught up with overly trying to make it and really don’t do well in these events. If you don’t focus on doing your best, it’s hard to win.”

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