Don’t be surprised if you notice a little less skid in my turns this year. I had a little help on Halloween.
While the rest of the country was carving pumpkins, I was carving turns with members of the U.S. Ski Team at the new U.S. Ski Team Speed Center at Copper Mountain. It certainly was better than craving turns after last year’s subpar season.
Making the two-mile-long, 2,300-vertical-feet run even better was the fact that we — a gaggle of media members and assorted VIPs — had it all to ourselves with members of the U.S. Ski Team (the run will remain closed to the public for the next five weeks). This was its official grand opening, celebrating a multi-year effort between Copper Mountain and the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association.
The result is impressive. Thanks to 87 new HKD automatic snow guns, it’s a speed course that is the only one of its kind in the world this early in the season, allowing racers to reach speeds of up to 75 mph. Not bad for All Hollow’s Eve.
“This facility is a game-changer,” said the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association’s Tom Kelly. “It gives us a full top-to-bottom training facility before the heart of the World Cup season, which is an astronomical value for our team. If you want to be the best in the world, to beat the Austrians and Swiss, you have to have a facility like this.”
That’s not to say other teams won’t benefit, as well. The German, Canadian and Austrian teams already are lined up to come train at the Speed Center this year. They’ll pay a fee to USSA for the privilege or reciprocate by allowing the U.S. team to train on their soil later.
The Speed Center idea surfaced in 2005 when USSA CEO Bill Marolt envisioned a speed training venue in the U.S. Because of its high altitude, he approached Copper Mountain and the idea came to fruition when Powder Corp. purchased the resort three years ago. It’s been a labor of love ever since, with the goal being to have it open by Nov. 1 every year. This year they beat that.
On hand last week for the grand opening was everyone from team members Steven Nyman and Andrew Weibrecht, who took the super G bronze in Vancouver, to Steamboat’s Anna Marno, the top overall junior at last year’s nationals. The speed skiers (downhill and super G) will train at Copper Moutain for the next few weeks before heading to Lake Louise, Canada, for their first World Cup. The slalom racers will stay at Copper an extra week, and as many as 20 other ski team members will train there until the second week of December.
“It helps us get ready for next year’s Olympic season,” team member Will Brandenberg said as I buckled my boots at Copper Station. Added Marno: “It’s awesome to have such a substantial training facility so close — especially for me, since I’m from Steamboat.”
We were soon turned loose to sample the goods as civilians. The plan was for Ski Team members to take turns escorting groups of 15 or so up the chair and down the run, inspecting features and describing the techniques they’ll need to focus on various parts of the course. The course opened for official training the following day, so it was their first time at the completed Speed Center, as well.
Any thoughts I had of being sandwiched between Lindsey Vonn and Julia Mancuso on the chairlift fell flat; they stayed in Finland after the year’s first World Cup, a GS won by Vonn and fellow U.S. team member Ted Ligety. Instead, I slid in on the Super B six-pack next to Dave Chodounski, 28, a four-year member of the slalom team from Crested Butte. He headed to Finland this week for a slalom World Cup.
While not as cute as Vonn or Mancuso, he probably was easier for me to talk to.
“This is the best training in the world right now,” he said. “It’s a huge advantage for our team.”
Following him like ducklings, we schussed down over the first named section of the course, Field Goal Hill, where he quickly shifted into turbo drive and dusted us. Next up was the Crossing, a flat area that leads to Oh No, a knoll that launches speed skiers 50 to 70 meters down the hill. We stopped at the top and got a few pointers from seven-year slalom and GS coach Josh Applegate.
“It’s all about aerodynamics and riding a flat ski,” he said. “It’s also critical to keep focused on where you are in the course.”
Carrying our speed across Black Bear Flats, we next skied down to Lights Out, a headwall hanging far above Ten Mile Creek in the valley below.
“There aren’t many places where you can run minute-forty downhills in the world right now,” coach Ben Black said. “Guys get pretty fatigued by the time they get here. If you’re not careful, you can go into the red room down there.”
He gestured to a giant red barrier serving as a psychological cushion in front of a stand of trees, part of 20,000 feet of fencing lining the course. We watched Chodounski blister down the headwall, trenching out grooves, and then followed, pushing onto Rosie’s and eventually the bottom.
Run number two had me riding with Tommy Biesemeyer, from Keene, N.Y., a four-year member of the U.S. speed team preparing for the World Cup in Lake Louise.
“This is great,” he said. “It lets you practice all the fundamentals of speed skiing. The course simulates all the techniques speed skiers need to focus on.”
After following him on a run, we were turned loose. I lapped several more runs, one a quad-burning nonstop, before meeting the team and other smiling skiers for a barbecue at the bottom. Between mouthfuls of chicken, coach Scott Veenis said, “To have this here is incredible … no matter what time of year it is. But for Halloween? That’s a real treat.”
Eugene Buchanan is the magazines editor for the Steamboat Today. He can be reached at ebuchanan@SteamboatToday.com.