WORDS: Eugene Buchanan
When the U.S. Alpine Team stormed out of the Downhill and Super-G starting gates, it did so with a leg up on racers from nearly every other country except Russia. The reason: a Glasnost-esque sharing of racing facilities.
Last year, in a partnership with Copper Mountain, Colorado, the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) unveiled its new U.S. Ski Team Speed Center, a closed-to-the-public, two-mile-long, 2,300-vertical-foot training run designed specifically for members of the U.S. Ski Team. Thanks to 87 new HKD automatic snow guns, the speed course opens by Halloween every year, making it the only run of its kind–one allowing speeds of up to 75 mph–anywhere in the world that early in the season.
"It's a total game-changer," says USSA vice-president of communications 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, you have to have a facility like this."
But as well as giving U.S. racers a head start, it's also part of a tit-for-tat training trade. The concept is simple: Other countries either pay a fee to USSA for the privilege of training there, or reciprocate by allowing the U.S. Team to train on their turf later. "We provide access to it for international teams that work with us," says USSA senior press officer Doug Haney. "It's our bargaining chip."
Of the 17 countries that have trained at it so far—including Germany, Austria, Canada, and more—no one's taken advantage of it as much as the Russians. "They've trained there the most," says Haney. "That's why we've had unprecedented access to Sochi compared to other countries."
While familiarity with Sochi slopes will undoubtedly help, it's time on the boards that trumps all. "There aren't many places where you can run minute-forty downhills that early in the season," says U.S. Team coach Ben Black. "It's a huge advantage." Adds fellow coach Scott Veenis: "To have this kind of training facility is incredible, no matter what time of year. To have it in time for Halloween? That's a real treat."
How It Got There
The idea for the U.S. Ski Team Speed Center began in 2005 when USSA CEO Bill Marolt first envisioned creating a training venue in the U.S. Because of its high altitude and ability to open a slope as early as October, he approached Copper Mountain about the concept. The idea came to fruition when Powdr Corp. purchased the resort four years ago, with the center opening for the first time last year. It's open to the team for six weeks until mid-December every year.
Following the lift line of the Super B lift, the 2,300-vertical-foot course has several noteworthy sections, including Field Goal Hill; a flat area known as the Crossing; Oh No, a knoll launching skiers 70 meters; Black Bear Flats, another place to practice running skis flat; and Lights Out, a headwall hanging above Ten Mile Creek. That's where racers need to avoid the Red Room, a giant red-fenced barrier serving as a psychological cushion from a wall of trees as part of 20,000 feet of fencing lining the course.