Checking in with the U.S. Ski Team during early-season training at Copper Mountain | AspenTimes.com

Checking in with the U.S. Ski Team during early-season training at Copper Mountain

Phil Lindeman
plindeman@summitdaily.com

Take it from the U.S. Ski Team: When Beaver Creek announced on Nov. 17 the Birds of Prey World Cup races were canceled, it came as a surprise, even with measly snowfall through most of October and November.

"I think it's absolutely doable, and Beaver Creek has one of the most powerful snowmaking systems in the world," U.S. men's team head coach Sasha Rearick said during an interview on Nov. 16, just a day before FIS announced the decision. "The question is: How much balls do FIS have to take the risk?"

Chutzpah or no, FIS, the World Cup's governing body, still decided to abandon the men's and women's races at Beaver Creek from Dec. 2-3 — typically the only World Cup events held on U.S. soil — and has yet to announce a replacement race.

The next women's races are in Killington, Vermont this weekend, while the men have to wait until Dec. 10 for slalom and giant slalom in Val d'Isere, France. FIS and the best of the best return to Colorado for the World Cup Finals at Aspen from March 15-19, but this season marks the first time since 2001 that Birds of Prey has been canceled.

"First and foremost, it's a huge disappointment to us and the whole family that is involved with the race," Rearick told the Vail Daily shortly after the announcement on Nov. 17. "There's so many volunteers and professionals that gear up for this one."

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Story of the (early) season

It's been a constant refrain since Arapahoe Basin opened with a single run on Oct. 21: Mother Nature just isn't working in Colorado's favor this winter.

"We're just chomping at the bit," said Steve Nyman, a veteran of the men's downhill team, in a joint interview at Copper Mountain on Nov. 16. "It's that time of year. It's frustrating, but the good thing is that everyone is kind of in the same boat."

In other words, just about every World Cup-level athlete on the circuit this season is battling with poor early-season conditions, from Nyman and the U.S. Ski Team to national teams from Germany, Italy, Norway and Switzerland. More than 100 athletes have been taking runs at Copper Mountain's U.S. Ski Team Speed Center since early November, skiing the same truncated downhill course over and over and over again. Rearick said the holl is about 40-percent open — a far cry from the full downhill teams expect when they commit to November training as early as May and June the previous summer.

"I want something more technical," Nyman said. "I want to feel the pressures and vibrations and the burning of the legs. It's real simple right now."

Nyman Back in action

The course might be simple — everyone at the Speed Center has to hike from the end of the super-G run to the base of Excelerator lift for laps — but it's far from a waste of time.

Nyman, who had a breakout season last winter at 33 years old, is taking advantage of every second on the snow. After all, he missed two seasons in the prime of his career, 2009 to 2011, due to an injury, only to end the 2015 season at fourth overall in the men's World Cup downhill rankings. It was his best finish ever in a 10-year career, and he's ready to pick up where he left off.

"I'm one of the old guys, one of the veterans, but I'm feeling younger than I've felt in a long time," Nyman said when asked about his age. "The things I went through physically during my dark ages years ago, this is easier."

While Nyman is disappointed about Birds of Prey — he's made the podium there three times since 2007 — he's optimistic about the season. Chances are good that 39-year-old Bode Miller won't be racing for the U.S. this winter due to sponsor conflicts, Rearick said, and that leaves Nyman as the biggest American threat on the downhill course, where he'll face the big guns: 33-year-old Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway, 34-year-old Peter Fill of Italy, 31-year-old Kjetil Jansrud of Norway and 26-year-old Matthias Mayer of Austria.

"Every guy on tour has had big injuries and missed time," Nyman said. "I guess the advantage for me is how fresh it is in my mind, how stimulating it is for me. I was never a guy who was good naturally, and I've enjoyed figuring out the puzzle. I still feel there's a lot more I can figure out — putting together the ever-changing puzzle is fun."

No Vonn, no Ligety

Missing from Copper training were two of the U.S. team's star athletes, downhiller Lindsey Vonn and technical specialist Ted Ligety. The 32-year-olds have won a combined 101 World Cup events in their careers — 76 for Vonn, 25 for Ligety — but both are currently battling injuries sustained on the hill. Vonn broke her arm in a training crash at Copper on Nov. 10, while Ligety is still recovering from neck and knee injuries he suffered last winter.

Despite their setbacks, Rearick expects both Vonn and Ligety to be ready and racing this season. Ligety has been on the snow for gentle drills, the head coach said, and Vonn is busy with dryland training while waiting for her arm to heal from surgery. With the 2018 Winter Olympics looming large, Rearick and his coaching staff are cutting back on volume training and transitioning to intensity training.

"This crew of leaders we have here is ready through 2018, no doubt," Rearick said of veterans like Ligety, Vonn, Nyman and bona fide 21-year-old superstar, Mikaela Shiffrin. "We have a group of strong, Europa cup athletes who are ready to step up, but we're not rushing those guys to World Cup this year."

The next generation

In Rearick's pool of promising Europa Cup racers is River Radamus, a Colorado native and son of former Ski and Snowboard Club Vail executive director Aldo Radamus. River Radamus grew up surrounding by ski racing — Rearick remembers him trying to ski down a staircase on plastic skis at 18 months old — and has quickly moved up the spot's ranks, including three wins at the 2016 Youth Olympic Games in Lillehammer.

"Ultimately, I feel like it was a stepping stone in the progression," Radaums said of his Youth Olympic wins. "I'm chasing the ghost of that event. I don't want it to be a defining point of my career."

Now, the 18-year-old is ready for the next step: Europa Cup and NorAm races, along with the World Juniors. He hopes to not only compete, but also dominate, and he's now working on technique for all four disciplines to become a better all-around skier.

"If I don't reach or meet my goals at World Juniors, it won't be a lost cause," Radamus said. "I'll continue evolving as a ski racer."

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