Many of this week's racers at Aspen Winternational aren't very far from home - but that won't necessarily make it easier. Having worked with U.S. Ski Team competitors Lindsey Vonn, Julia Mancuso, Resi Steigler, Megan McJames and others when they were junior racers attending development projects, alpine director Greg Needell, of Aspen Valley Ski Club, is following this year's World Cup with a close eye.
"Aspen as a host city is great," he said, "but the race hill itself is about as difficult a giant slalom and slalom hill as the girls see all year."
A tough course, Needell recalled, coupled with an early-season race that already has proven to have less snow depth than last year at this time, could ultimately show more of the natural terrain and make the hill the most challenging it could be.
But regardless of how weather conditions will hold up for race weekend, Needell warrants a close and exciting race, as he says the girls tend to feel more comfortable here than other host cities.
But which athletes can we expect to see on the podium? Let's start with one of our Colorado favorites, the girl who's been tagged an alpine-skiing poster girl, Vail's Vonn.
Her start to the season ended when she was forced out of the opening giant slalom in Soelden, Austria, after striking a pole halfway down the second leg in foggy conditions. With an improved second run, Vonn skipped the next slalom in Levi, Finland, a decision her ski technician Heinz Haemmerle says was planned in order to allow more training for the Aspen races.
Vonn has not trained since Oct. 27 and has since been in and out of the hospital for severe intestinal pain, most recently in Vail on Nov. 14. After she claimed to have "hurting bones and pain all over her body," the results of her diagnostic testing remain unknown, and according to her publicist Lewis Kay, it is still unclear when she will be able to return to the mountain.
Moreover, her teammates and fans have high hopes for a strong comeback, especially with four World Cup titles under her belt. And according to Needell, this resting period will allow her to adapt to her skis, positioning her for a good chance on the podium both here and at her strongest stop on the circuit, Lake Louise, Alberta.
On the other hand, fierce rivalries continue to nip at Vonn's heels.
Making a fast-track through the ranks and turning the heads of the World Cup elite as the next alpine-skiing superstar, at only 17 years of age, Mikaela Shriffin, of Vail, has been voted World Cup rookie of the year by peers as she clinched eighth in her first slalom of the season in Aspen and took third on a slalom podium just after Christmas.
Ending the season at 17th in the world, Shiffrin already has proven to be a top competitor this time around, securing third in the slalom in Levi and paving the way for celebrity status close to home here in Aspen.
And while we're on the topic of up-and-coming athletes, we might as well upset the lineup with the team that sits closest to the hearts of AVSC, the so-called "mean girls" who ravenously carry on through the worst of storms to break down the popularity barriers of ski-racing culture.
With the direction and support of AVSC, the girls of Independent Ski Racing not only are partial to the tough terrain of Ajax but have one of the best, most experienced World Cup coaches on the planet, Heli Krug, to see their success through.
After being cut from the U.S. Ski Team last spring for lack of financial funding, McJames, ranked among the best 100 women GS racers in the world, and Hailey Duke, ranked 69th best worldwide in slalom, have since formed their own self-fundraised team to compete on the international level.
"Our team was formed out of the desire to support competitive ski racing by having the resources to go up against the best skiers in the world," McJames said. "After earning a World Cup spot by winning the overall Nor-Am GS title last year, I believe my best turns are still to be made and am happy this opportunity presented itself."
Other teammates who have collaborated in fundraising efforts include University of Colorado standout Katie Hartman and junior racer Lena Andrews.
"We will do everything in our power to help them be well prepared for the races here," Needell said, "but Mother Nature has more to say about that than any other influence."
Agreeably, in the days leading up to race weekend, many factors remain unknown when it comes to who will claim a seat on the podium. With FIS' rule change on skis this year, making them longer with a longer turning radius, the girls who will be on top, Needell said, will be those who can adapt to the change and control every variable.
So who exactly will trump the known speeds and turns of girls such as Tina Maze, Maria Riesch, Viki Rebensburg, Marlies Schild and Michaela Kirchgasser and stand for the U.S. at this year's Winternational? Will it be Mancuso, who has an excellent record here, Vonn, who is well rested and ready to execute, Shiffrin, the young and brave rookie, or the Independent racers who had a strong prep period skiing in Mount Hood and Europe?
Your guess is as good as mine. See you all on race day.
First, some history. In 1968, a first-of-its-kind race drew the largest on-course gallery of spectators in Aspen history, estimated at 3,000. In 1988, Aspen Mountain saw the first women's-only race on its snow. In 2000, the season's first women's speed event brought more than 100 women representing 24 countries to compete in super G and slalom races, while more than 4,000 people gathered over Thanksgiving weekend to spectate.
For more than 40 years, Aspen has developed a love affair with a competition that has long been considered more valuable than the Olympics or the biennial World Championships, a race that has mercilessly carried on through the snow, ice and wind, affording little compassion to the faint of heart.
Now, arguably one of the finest ways to kick off yet another optimistic ski season, on Nov. 24 and 25, the Audi FIS Women's World Cup, the only event of its kind in the United States, will once again make its return for the Nature Valley Aspen Winternational, featuring the fastest women skiers to compete in what has historically been deemed one of the most technical and challenging courses in the World Cup circuit.
New to the itinerary this year, the weekend's affair will kick off Nov. 23 with the Audi Ski Challenge, a parallel giant slalom race on the Nastar Course at Aspen Mountain from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Participation is free and open to the public, and the top two finishers will be awarded a free trip to attend the U.S. Alpine National Championships in Squaw Valley. World Cup wax-room tours will be held at the Mountain Chalet from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m., followed by the U.S. Ski Team autograph signing, kickoff and bib draw at the Limelight Hotel until 7:30 p.m.
The first run of the women's giant slalom will commence Nov. 24 at 10:15 a.m. on Aspen Mountain, followed by the final GS race at 1:15 p.m. The remainder of the day will offer an array of free entertainment for the public, including complimentary food tastings and beverages, prize giveaways, kids races, a Bud Light concert with Reverened Horton Heat and the GS awards ceremony.
On Nov. 25, the women's slalom race will start at 10 a.m., followed by more complimentary tastings, drinks and live music until the final slalom race at 1 p.m.
A fairly new concept, Aspen Skiing Co.'s Jeff Hanle says the taste behind Aspen's Winternational is to draw in the ski-town crowds who may not be familiar with ski racing.
"For racing fans it's always going to be fantastic," he said, "but our goal was to gain the interests of others with an entire weekend dedicated to the culture of ski racing, offering new people an outlet to not only complimentary food and entertainment but to things they may have never seen before."