AVSC’s Ajax Cup returns with new venue and less flair, but same desire to help kids
Considering the pandemic, it would have been understandable if the Aspen Valley Ski & Snowboard Club wanted to pull the plug on this year’s Audi Ajax Cup, its annual ski racing fundraiser and celebration. However, among the roughly 2,400 AVSC athletes there is a significant majority who receive some sort of financial help made possible through the club’s largest event.
Meaning, without the Ajax Cup — which brought in about $900,000 for the club last year — it would be difficult to get everyone on snow and give them the benefits of being outside with peers, something sorely missing for many in the COVID-19 world.
“Bottom line is the kids in our programs need it,” said AVSC board president Chris Davenport, the noted big mountain skier and Aspen local who oversees the majority of the Ajax Cup programming. “I firmly believe in our mission of the ski club to be able to provide access for anyone and everyone to all of our programs, whether they have the ability to pay for it or not. Raising money to allow kids in the valley to participate is just an invaluable resource.”
The Ajax Cup celebrated its 10-year anniversary in 2019, with each of those events having been held at the bottom of Aspen Mountain. The 2020 iteration, however, has been moved to AVSC’s Stapleton Training Center at Aspen Highlands, where teams will vie for the Gorsuch Cup on Wednesday. The move mostly was made because the Highlands venue provides more space, thus making it easier to manage the event safely in terms of the coronavirus.
Not to mention, the Stapleton Training Center is AVSC’s crown jewel, and getting the chance to showcase it in a bigger way through the Ajax Cup was an exciting prospect.
“We’ve been able to create a cool outlet for kids despite everything and the donor base will be able to see what we do at its roots. A ski race on Highlands — that’s what it is,” said AVSC executive director Mark Godomsky. “Yeah, there won’t be a party. Yeah, there won’t be an auction. But, at the end of the day, that’s what people are supporting. They are supporting kids and the opportunity for kids to be on that venue. I’m looking forward to it. It’s certainly going to be different, but everything is different right now.”
No, this week’s Ajax Cup won’t have the same feel to it. The big VIP tent and post-race party are taking a hiatus, and general spectating isn’t allowed.
Also, instead of a full 16-team field, only 10 will take part this year in the head-to-head racing format. Notably absent is the defending champion, the West Side Hillbillies, a team led by NASCAR great Jimmie Johnson, a part-time Aspen local. Team Super G!, which won in both 2017 and 2018, also is sitting out this year.
Still, the lineup includes some notable and familiar names — each team is captained by a professional skier — including AVSC alumni in Katie Ryan and Wiley Maple, both former U.S. ski team members. Maple competed in the 2018 Winter Olympics before retiring this past season.
Aspen’s Alex Ferreira, the two-time reigning X Games champion in halfpipe skiing and reigning Olympic silver medalist, is also returning. He led Johnson’s West Side Hillbillies to the title last year, although will be with a different team this week.
Other pros include Jake Fiala, Nolan Kasper, Kristina Koznick Landa, Erik Schlopy, Jake Zamansky, TJ Lanning and Daron Rahlves.
“We’ve got plenty of good, local, homegrown talent to help move the race along, which is awesome,” Davenport said. “There are definitely some pretty stacked teams with good talent. Again, the Ajax Cup, it’s anybody’s race. That’s what makes it fun and interesting and I can’t wait to be on the microphone calling the race.”
Davenport, who has long co-directed the race alongside Casey Puckett, has usually been one of the racing professionals, but is sitting this one out to help run the event. He plans to emcee the show from the base, something he’s done for many World Cup races in the past. Puckett, a five-time Olympian and former AVSC coach, left the club this past spring to take over as the women’s Europa Cup technical coach for the U.S. ski team.
“We are lucky and happy we can attempt to pull off the Ajax Cup. We’ve definitely spent a lot of time over the past couple of months going back and forth on whether or not we could do it or if it was the right thing to do,” Davenport said. “It’s nice to refresh it every so often, keep things interesting. We think all the teams that are signed up will enjoy the new venue and it’s a chance to show off the place where our athletes are training anyway.”
The course at Aspen Highlands will be more challenging for the racers than the Little Nell run is on Aspen Mountain, adding an extra bit of intrigue to this year’s event. Still, the Ajax Cup will maintain its usual handicapping system, leaving the door open for just about anyone to be able to raise the Gorsuch Cup at the end.
“It’s not necessarily the teams with the fastest people that win,” Davenport said. “It’s the teams that ski smart, because it’s a handicapping process. So you want to ski really close to your handicapping run, which oftentimes is somewhat confusing to people and feels complex, but it always seems to work out.”
A virtual team draw was held via Zoom on Monday afternoon, replacing the normal in-person affair that typically kicks off the Ajax Cup. Racers will set their handicaps on Tuesday, with actual racing getting underway Wednesday morning. While spectating is discouraged, AVSC does plan to livestream all of the races for the first time.
“One of the interesting pieces is right from Day 1 we kind of said as a club we were going to do the things the county and the state let us do. And we have approval to do it, so let’s do it,” Godomsky said. “It’s been tough on kids, but I think what we do now is more important than ever. Kids haven’t been able to go to school. There are a lot of sports that can’t do what they want to do. We’ve been able to keep group sizes to less than 10 and do what kids like to do. Hopefully at some point we’ll be able to compete. I think we are just waiting for the Christmas period to pass. But kids are working hard. Kids are excited. Coaches have been excited. I think everyone is adjusting and pivoting well. We are still skiing and that’s really the root of what we do.”
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