Before the glory days of the hippies and the freaks, before the first ever hot dog contest went down on Bell Mountain, before the famous champagne-spraying Cloud Nine restaurant was built, before Hunter S. Thompson came to town and ran for office of the sheriff—Aspen was a ski racer's mountain, starting with the first sanctioned race in the late 1930s.
In 1950, Aspen hosted the FIS World Championships, bringing the marquee alpine competition outside of Europe for the first time, an event that "marked the point in Aspen's history when a holdout generation of silver-mining sentimentalists saw their dream of reopening the mines eclipsed by ski tourism," wrote Tim Cooney in the Aspen Daily News.
“The reason we have put a lot of energy the last few years, and also money—we've invested millions of dollars into our World Cup racing here in the United States—is to raise the awareness of the sport” —Tom Kelly
Ski racing has dotted the Colorado silver-mining town's history ever since. But Aspen's lore as a ski racing destination was re-cemented last week, when the World Cup Finals came to town, returning to the U.S. for the first time in two decades and capping off the season’s three World Cup stops on American soil (the other stops were at Killington and Squaw Valley). With it came the fastest skiers in the world and their coaches, physios, ski technicians, families, and thousands of fans—as well as the eye of the global skiing community.
Hosting the World Cup Finals on American turf was not only significant for the ski racing community, but also the sport of skiing at large for the sheer exposure, inspiration, and economic stimulus triggered by such a huge event.
"The reason we have put a lot of energy the last few years, and also money—we've invested millions of dollars into our World Cup racing here in the United States—is to raise the awareness of the sport," said Tom Kelly, VP of communications for the USSA. "If you look at television, for example, which is a really good benchmark, we're likely to have the largest overall television exposure this year than we've ever had across all of our sports. And it's really driven in a great part to what we've done here in Aspen, Squaw Valley, and also at Killington."
Aspen was on the brink of turning to spring last week. Colorado's white-capped 14ers glimmered in the distance. A swollen river rushed through newly greened hills. Buds popped on bare-limbed trees. Temperatures rocketed to the mid 60s. Pockets of international skiers from Austria, Switzerland, and France mixed with the thousands of American fans. Hosting 11 races in five days demands a "gargantuan effort" on behalf of the hosting ski resort, said Kelly: "Aspen has truly risen to the occasion." By day, hoards of people lined the nets down the course and around the finish line. By night, bar lines were three-people deep and live music played in the park downtown. Gogol Bordello fueled a mosh pit in the snow and Michael Franti sang about one love under a night sky with fireworks.
"Just seeing all the American fans come out, and they're super excited…People are hungry for the World Cup. They're loud and they're fired up," said American ski racer Travis Ganong, who competed in the downhill and Super G. In the crowd, Ganong's family waved his bobble head and in the days following, the giant cutouts of his face were spotted all over town. "It's on prime time in Europe right now. So there are just so many good things about it. There's huge reach. People come home from work at 6 p.m., first run, watch it with the family. It's just better for the sport. We should race more in the U.S. The mountains are cool, the snow is better. I love being back here."
“That's what it takes to have a really good show in ski racing. It's really cool. It's really cool for her and it was cool for me. The crowd was cheering for me, but they were cheering for her too, and that is sort of the spirit of competition.” —Mikaela Shiffrin
From the European perspective, Austrian ski racer Marcel Hirscher, who won his sixth consecutive overall World Cup in Aspen, said it was quite nice to enjoy a beer and a cheeseburger on a sundeck without being harassed by a fantatical, 300-deep mob of Austrian celebrity chasers. "The fans are very respectful, and they are interested in skiing, but it is not this crowded and crazy as some parts of Europe where you cannot go out and have lunch," he said.
Spring weather is always a challenge for racing conditions. The hot sun and soft snow—while great for skiing slush bumps in the afternoon—typically means terrible racing conditions. Aspen's race crews, however, meticulously maintained the course to ensure fair snow. Colorado's high altitude also added difficulty to the course's steep, technical features. "We know how hard it is here in North America, especially Beaver Creek and here in Aspen," said Hirscher. "I've been here a couple times before for World Cups and North American races. And it was always physically hard to stand on your feet."
American Mikaela Shiffrin, who took the overall World Cup title, an award made even more meaningful because she won it stateside, spoke to the American press about how she wanted to display to U.S. skiers the spirit of racing and competition, which was often so close winners were decided by hundredths of a second.
"I always feel some kind of expectation in races. And it's not always about the [Crystal] Globes or World Cup points. But racing at home in front of a home crowd, I really wanted to put on a show. I wanted to win," said Shiffrin, who placed second in Slalom and sixth in Giant Slalom. "But I think that was just as good of a show out there today [Saturday] with Petra taking the lead at the very final split. That's what it takes to have a really good show in ski racing. It's really cool. It's really cool for her and it was cool for me. The crowd was cheering for me, but they were cheering for her too, and that is sort of the spirit of competition."