Well THAT was cool. If you are or were ever a ski racer in the east, you know what I’m talking about. Quite simply, Killington KILLED it. Record crowds, amazing preparation and flawless execution in less than perfect conditions marked World Cup ski racing’s return to the east.
The first World Cup race I ever saw live was at Waterville Valley, on the sidelines as a visiting westerner in 1982. Every eastern ski racer was there too, most of them scrambling up outside the fence in their zero-tread Bean boots. Many of them were watching classmates forerun or even race in their first World Cup races. I assure you that seeing peers on a World Cup course in any capacity causes a profound shift that can bring a very loose vision into focus.
Later, I would race in World Cups at Waterville, first as a petrified rookie and then at the World Cup Finals at Waterville in 1991. Kids watching that race saw 19-year-old Julie Parisien—someone barely removed from their own start lists—win her first World Cup. At the time we never imagined that it would be a quarter century before an eastern kid could come out to watch a World Cup in person.
For all that time, the east got the Rodney Dangerfield treatment. Cushy western resorts became annual stops on the World Cup tour and didn’t leave space on the calendar for humbler venues, regardless of the fan base. The only way a spot on the schedule opened up this season was because Aspen traded its November time slot for the World Cup Finals in March. This left it up to Killington to make an insanely bold bid to host races on Thanksgiving weekend. Bold for so many reasons and hurdles, but mainly because Thanksgiving is not always a winter scene at elev 1,100 ft, even with Beast-worthy snowmaking. In addition to homologating Superstar and adding the necessary sponsor, spectator and safety requirements the races depended on some cooperation from Mother Nature. They got just that…SOME help.
Sure it got seasonable cold early on, but then it got warm again. And did we mention the unprecedented drought conditions? And rain the day before the event? And a bank of fog rolling over the hill right at start time for the GS? And a thick, insulating layer of snow falling on the mush just before the temps finally dropped the night before the slalom? Somehow, Killington was ready for it all, and served up an impressively gnarly GS and a steep, solid slalom.
As part of a gate-keeping crew of World Cup vets, including the entire original Cochran clan, I was lucky enough to see the racing up close. Though I was fully prepared to get barked at by some World Cup regular, the on hill vibe was pure New England: efficient, hardworking and neighborly. I didn’t get yelled at once, which, while shocking, was no accident. From the very start Chief of Course Chuck Hughes emphasized attitude in his messaging: “I kept saying to keep it light and just communicate well,” explained Hughes. “These are all volunteers. Nobody needs to yell.” That laid back hospitality and positive energy radiated through the event, and the Euros—racers and officials alike—ate it up like good home cooking.
With no yelling and an army of course workers this was without a doubt the easiest gate-k
eeping duty ever. Near the top in the GS, I could not hear any of the announcers, but I could hear the roar of the crowd as racers—from any country—crossed the line. At one point in the GS it was so foggy that I could not see any further up or down hill than my four gates. Watching each racer charge out of the gate and hurl herself into the frozen murk reminded me of what makes this sport and these athletes so tough. Whatever daunting moments these women face in life, they will be prepared.
It was of course awesome to see Mikaela win, and incredibly fun to see so many old friends from the ski world in one place. The best part, however, was looking out on the sea of kids. Many (including my own) scrambled up the fence-line in the mud and straw in treadless shoes, and crowded the race corral hoping for a glimpse or a word or an autograph. Among them were kids that I had coached from the time they could ski, who had, until now, taken it on blind faith that World Cup racing was cool. Who out there, I wondered, was seeing a hazy dream sharpen into focus.
When it comes to ski racing, the scene at Killington made it clear that we as a country do not lack for talent, passion or resources. We’ve got all that to spare. The smiles and enthusiasm and sheer joy at just being able to see a World Cup event up close was something we all—the keepers of this sport—need to remember. This sport and its people are cool. Killington is cool for taking the bet and putting it all on red for us. As one of the faithful put it: “The east showed up!”