Bubbled up at Copper Mountain, US skiers react to unpredictable start of season
Replacement nationals starts season as some head to European World Cups
COPPER MOUNTAIN RESORT — Earlier this autumn, U.S. Alpine Ski Team member Alice McKennis Duran and her husband and ski tech Pat Duran did the same thing so many of us have done during the pandemic: head to Costco for a massive bulk buy of food and necessities.
The Minturn couple did so to have as large a supply of food as possible while they trained with the US Ski Team at the program’s official training site at Copper Mountain Resort over the past month. While most of her fellow national team skiers stayed in East Village condos adjacent to the Super Bee lift and were cooked up to-go food in boxes, McKennis Duran had to create as much of a bubble environment in her own life as possible.
“It feels like we are testing all the time,” the Alpine B team skier said Thursday. “On about every third day, we are testing to catch any confirmed cases early before it’s spread throughout the entire team.”
That is the challenge the U.S. ski team has experienced during its official preseason training at Copper Mountain: to get dozens of skiers, coaches and support personnel ready for an uncertain season without a COVID-19 outbreak. On Thursday, McKennis Duran and U.S. skiers Bridger Gile and Jacob Dilling all said they weren’t aware of any positive tests within the U.S. Ski Team program while training at Copper Mountain.
But the skiers will have to leave the bubble at some point. Some already have, including the country’s premier ski star, Olympic gold medalist Mikaela Shiffrin of Eagle County, who traveled to Levi, Finland, for a World Cup slalom event this weekend.
While coronavirus cases have spiked locally and globally, what comes next for skiers is truly an ever-evolving, day-by-day experience where little is confirmed or finalized until shortly beforehand.
Men’s B team member Bridger Gile, 21 and an Aspen native, officially found out Wednesday that he’d be departing Copper Mountain on Friday to compete at a parallel giant slalom World Cup event in Leck, Austria on Nov. 27.
“It’s been for sure up in the air,” Gile said Thursday.
“You don’t know anything until like two days before it’s going to happen,” he added. “But that’s kind of the way we’ve operated over past year or so. So I’m kind of used to it. But for sure, you’re telling your parents what you’re doing, they ask, ‘Where are you going in a week?’ You’re like, ‘I have no clue.’ We’re taking it one step at a time, living out of a bag ready for whatever happens.”
Men’s D team member Jacob Dilling of Vail rooms with two fellow U.S. skiers and then goes and trains on the hill with three coaches and six more athletes from two different condos. He described that group as his main bubble. Dilling said he and other skiers only found out three days beforehand that the U.S. Alpine Ski Championships would take place this week at Copper Mountain. Dilling said skiers were 80% sure that the makeup event for the canceled spring national championships in Aspen would take place at Copper, as the entire field had to get a coronavirus test.
For the American skiers, the replacement national championship serves as much as a preseason scrimmage, or test run, as it does a crowning event. Without fans or television promotion or coverage, McKennis Duran said there’s far less pomp and circumstance than normal.
With no 2020-21 World Cup stops in North America and the rest of the international ski season up in the air, Dilling described the replacement national championship races as an opportunity for skiers like him to make sure they get a couple of starts for the first time in what seems like forever.
“Try to get a couple races under the belt,” Dilling said, “because there might not be races this season other than these ones if things get worse.”
McKennis Duran described this week’s national championship races as having a “totally different feel” to every other nationals she’s been to been. Like Dilling, she said Copper Mountain hosting the races is encouraging.
“Everyone is on board with the precautions and doing the right thing,” said McKennis Duran, who is slated to open the World Cup season with super-G races in St. Moritz, Switzerland, Dec. 5-6. “I think it really shows there’s a possibility that the local ski races in North America can continue on this winter.”
Despite the pandemic, the American skiers credited expanded offseason strength and conditioning work, June training at Copper Mountain and technical training later in summer at Mount Hood in Oregon for prepping them for the season as well — if not better — than a normal year.
For the D team member Dilling, Nor Am competitions that would normally be starting up are on hold until January. So the question now is: Will the winter be anything close to normal?
“Nothing is a guarantee at this point,” Dilling said.
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