Telemark skiers would do well to borrow a quote from Mark Twain: “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”
Hot on the locked-down heels of the Beaver Creek Alpine World Championships, freeheel followers united in force at the F.I.S. Telemark World Championships, held at the end of February in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. This year marked the fourth time the alpine championships were held on U.S. soil, and the second time the Telemark World Champs were hosted here, although the alpiners didn’t have to face the racer-eating, 360 degree, banked turn at the bottom of the telemark course that was known as a “reipelykkje” (pronounced “rapa-loosha,” AKA the Rap). The Telemark World Championships stood witness to a sport that, despite waning industry sales numbers, is continuing to carve out a growing position in the skiing world.
Held every other year (its first visit to the U.S. came to Whitefish, Montana, in 2003), this year marked the 11th running of the event. The competition drew 73 racers from 11 countries, including teams from the U.S., Canada, Norway, France, Germany, Switzerland, Great Britain, Sweden, Slovenia, Czech Republic, and Japan. Racers competed in Classic, Sprint Classic, and head-to-head Parallel Sprint and Team Parallel Sprint events.
"The event was a huge success, bringing the best telemark skiers in the world together for a great competition," says Cary Foulk, of the event's organizing committee. "Telemark ski racing is the only world cup discipline that tests all forms of competitive skiing in one top-to-bottom event. And it's getting serious consideration for inclusion in the 2022 Olympics."
While the courses are a bit unorthodox by alpine standards, including GS gates, a giant jump, and the circuitous, G-force-generating Rap, they live up to the multi-skill-testing claim. Some World Cup races even have two of the fearsome "Raps" to negotiate.
And while it might not have NBC on board like the alpine championships, the Telemark event offered a live stream of the race, broadcast on the World Championships event website, as well as all Telemark Ski Federation websites.
Those lucky enough to be there saw the action up close, which there was plenty. On day one, more than one racer went down in a cloud of snow on the jump and Rap. In the end, Tobias Mueller of Germany won the men's sprint race, coming from fourth place to finish 1:42.10 on the first day of racing. Switzerland's Nicolas Michel won silver (and men's juniors gold), with countryman Bastein Dayer taking the bronze.
For the women, Swiss Amelie Reymond won the gold with a combined time seven seconds faster than the nearest competitor. Norway's Mathilde Ilebrekke took second and Great Britain’s Jasmin Taylor third.
Day two's Parallel Sprint Classic saw each nation ski with two men and one woman, in dual format running both courses, with the winning nation advancing. At the end of the day, Switzerland took the top spot, led by Reymond, Michel, and Dayer, followed by France and Germany. After a qualification round, Thursday's Parallel Sprint Classic pitted the top 16 men and eight women in head-to-head elimination rounds, again with Mueller taking the crown for the men and Switzerland's Reymond taking the gold for the women.
On the last day of competition, racers headed to the Vagabond trail at Steamboat Ski Resort for a high-speed Classic race, a nearly 2,000-vertical-foot run featuring a jump, the infamous Rap, and two skates. "It's the downhill of tele racing," says Cary Foulk. "It has it all on one, super long run."
As in the other events, racers are scored on time, but could incur penalties for such infractions as not dropping into a tele turn, not transitioning into another tele turn quick enough, and not catching enough air on the jump. For the men, again it was Germany's Mueller freeheeling to the gold, followed by Philippe Lau of France and Germany's Schmid. Tanner Visnick, a junior at 18, took the top U.S. spot, placing ninth for the men and fourth for the juniors. For the women, Switzerland's Reymond took first, followed by fellow countrywomen Simone Oehrli and Norway's Ilebrekke. The win also earned Mueller the overall gold as the top telemark racer in the world.
"It was a nice course, a very tough Classic," says Mueller. "The altitude is higher than in Europe, so it's more exhausting, and the snow is different than home. It's more aggressive."
At the end of the day, the medal count read France (13), Switzerland (9), and Germany (8) as the titans of telemark, a fitting finish since Europe is the sport's hotbed. "The sport is getting quite big in Europe," maintains the F.I.S. Telemark Chairman Andrew Clarke, pointing to a recent World Cup in Germany that garnered 7 million viewers on TV. "But it's growing in the U.S., too, and this was a big step. This sport is going skyward. We will make Olympic status. It's just a matter of time."
Maybe, but organizers also admit there's still a big gap to overcome, whether your heel is locked or free, especially in the U.S. market. "Competitive skiing in the U.S. is suffering a little, regardless of whether it's alpine or tele," admits Foulk. "But having the championships here for the second time in its history is a pretty big deal and goes a long way."
He adds that this year's World Championships were way better attended competitor-wise than the last one, which he credits to the sport's all-encompassing nature. "Unlike alpine, you don't have tech and speed specialists," he says. "You have to be able to do it all."
As for the sport's future, it's as open as the competitors' heels, which is the main reason the racer's keep coming back. "The beauty of telemarking," says Mueller, "is the freedom it offers. It puts you closer to the snow, and has so many more possibilities than alpine."
As for their alpine cousin's Big Show two weeks earlier, organizers know they're a second-tier sport, but that doesn't diminish their passion at all. "I know our World Championships isn't as big as what Vail hosted," says Clarke. "But our heart is."
Each discipline includes alpine, jumping, and Nordic skiing components. Competitors complete telemark-style turns through gates, fly off a jump, complete a reipelykkje (Norwegian for “knot of rope”), and skate ski.
Time penalties are assessed by gate and jump judges if racers fail to achieve “boot space” while turning (i.e., complete a full telemark turn), fail to land past the jump line (distance), and fail to land the jump in a Nordic stance.
The Classic: The longest event, consisting of one run of up to 500 vertical meters including a jump, Rap, and long skate section or sections.
The Sprint Classic is shorter than the Classic, but still contains a jump, Rap, and a skate section. It consists of two runs with the times and penalties totaled together to determine the winner.
The Parallel Sprint: Two Sprint-length courses set side-by-side in a tournament-style elimination bracket. Racers fly off the same jump and are funneled in the same Rap before having to skate it out on the flats. Penalties are totaled live on the hill, and racers are required to skate farther if they have gate or jump penalties.
Tobias Mueller (Germany): With his win in Steamboat, Mueller has cemented his stature as the dominant men's telemark skier in the world. He is also the 2014 World Cup champion, and the favorite to three-peat in 2016.
Amelie Reymond (Switzerland): Like Mueller, Reymond is one of the world's most dominant
telemark racers. With her win in Steamboat, she now has six World Championships golds, 80 World Cup victories and 112 podiums.