By Tim Mutrie
Since the Americans, Russians, Swiss and Austrians were going to be there, I was expecting full-on ice rink conditions. Instead, it was a fluff-on-buff version of hero snow, and pretty good skiing, at the big Ribbon Cutting Ceremony Day last week on the brand new U.S. Ski Team Speed Center at Copper Mountain.
The racers were prepping for the genuine start of the World Cup tour—tomorrow/Saturday, in Aspen for the women, and up in Lake Louise for the men—so in between course closures for their downhill training runs, media types were encouraged to tour the new facility. The 2,300-foot vertical course is entirely walled off with banks of safety netting, and at one point swooping down it I thought I was all alone. Then a guy “whooped” from behind. I looked over and saw the Austrian team coat over his speed suit. He waved, like we were cool and he was just saying guten morgen, and we matched turns for a while, inspecting the new venue. (It boasts: 20,000 feet of safety fencing and 88 new snow guns over 44 acres.)
For some reason I thought I had to be there at 7:30 a.m. in order to get my special lift ticket for the day. But there were certain perks to that, like coffee, donuts, six or so runs and ample time to poke around and talk with racers and coaches. I was reporting a story for the NY Times, about the giant slalom ski imbroglio and FIS, but I also took photos and gathered some quotes (and donuts) that didn’t make the piece.
• I met Picabo Street again. Mid-morning with a group I’d sized up as VIPs, she traversed over: “Hi, I’m Picabo.” She lives in Alabama now, she’s a mom, and she still rips, even in late-model AT boots. At one point I asked what the new Speed Center facility meant for the U.S. Ski Team, and she started talking. I pulled out the recorder.
"I'm going to be brutally honest and tell you it makes me cry. I think about how amazing this is. The irreplaceability of what they're created here is really, honestly, it kinda takes my words away. I just can't help but think what kind of competitor I would've been if I'd had this every fall."
“It's a total game changer. It'll never go back after this to where it was. And we'll never stress about early-season training without netting, and getting up to speed, and getting the terrain changes, and coming over those breaks and all you can see is the freeway and the other side of the mountains. What that does to your mind and your confidence as a speed racer is irreplacable. Yeah, full blown game changer. This takes U.S. skiing to another level. And I'm so excited to see it."
How soon? "We'll see this this season.”
What was speed training like for you? "First of all, we had barely any netting. And netting is like a security blanket, and the older you get and the more injuries you have, you think about that kind of stuff. For me, I had to consciously block the fact that we ddin't have any safety netting.”
"And then you just struggle to get up to speed, get the G-forces pulling on you in the turns like you want, and get the air and terrain training that you want, and then those visuals where you come up 60 or 70 or 80 miles an hour on a knoll and all you can see is the other side of the mountains. It does something to your mind. You have to kind of reel is all in at that point. And you can't get that anywhere else but up to speed with that much terrain to offer. Usually, we were all pulling that off race one. And now we're going to go into race one with it already. So you'll see it right away. You'll see some results at some of the big events this year—they'll proably be surprised at themselves. … It'll take a year or two for us to dial this whole hill in, so it's evolving. But this has put a stamp on the sport that revolutionizes it to another level. It has not been revolutionized on American soil like this, ever, in my opinion."
• On Sunday night, before the NYT piece posted, Ted Ligety emailed me with a version of his latest blog post, Tyranny of FIS. When I’d spoken with him at Copper, he said he wasn’t planning on writing more of the topic. “I feel like I'm beating a dead horse with it if I keep writing about it. I've already written my opinion on it, so I think there's not that much more to add. It's just sad,” he said. But Ted keeps writing. And, notably for freeskiers and snowboarders, at the end of his latest post, he writes, “This should serve as warning for sports like freeride skiing and snowboarding, don't let FIS monopolize your sport. FIS will bleed your sport dry of what has made it so cool.”
• I am of the belief that “the media” has not been kind to Bode Miller. Whatever. Still, getting him to talk to a reporter was not easy at Copper. Some gems—
On the nuances of the FIS GS ski rule change: “To try to get into technical components of things that half the ski racers don't understand—it's like, you should write a story on the comparsision between ski racing and NASA, do a comparitive analysis. … I'm not trying to be mean or anything like that. I've been trying for 20 years. You don't understand. You don't know any of the stuff. It would take you months and months and months of research to even get a basis of knowing what I was talking about."
On the new Speed Center at Copper: “I mean, it's pretty basic. You're looking at the most difficult part of the whole hill right here [at the base]. And if you compare that to World Cup, it's pretty basic. When we train over on the other side at Copper, it was pretty basic, that's what everybody always said. Good training, but basic, nothing to it. … The reality is it's only a game changer if it sets you apart from other people. So we have the Austrians here, the Swedes, the f@#%ing Swiss, the French. … We're the only team that works that way. We come to our own country and we get second and third tier training normally. This is the first time it's been our own project and we still have every one of the Austrians with us. It's not a game changer if everyone's getting the same training. Maybe it's a game changer in that we're not behind as far."
• Julia Mancuso said she is not planning on any entering any freeride comps this winter. “But it really depends on everything,” she said in the base lodge. “If they actually go through on the rule changes, I'll probably have to ski more in the spring. Because you've gotta get your miles back. It's all about miles. In past years, it's minor tweaks, you get new equipment, you tweak it a little bit, but if you're completely changing the radius then there's definitely more time to put into it."
"I do get to go home to Squaw for Christmas, so I'm hoping there will be good snow. I haven't been home for Christmas probably for ten years, so I'm excited. I'll be skiing everyday. I always ski everyday when I'm home, if it's good. I live in the valley too, so I have to go on the hill. If I'm sitting there, I look at the mountain—I have to go for a couple runs. It's two minutes away.”