For Colorado couple, years of Olympic work come to a speedy end
Special to The Aspen Times
JEONGSEONG, South Korea — The Olympic competitions ended here Thursday with two Vail Valley women, Lindsey Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin, charging down the course in the alpine combined.
For Geoff “Salty” and Allison Kohn Marriner, of Eagle, it was a 27-month journey to get to the finish line.
Geoff Marriner arrived at Jeongseon Alpine Centre, in one of the most rural parts of South Korea, in November of 2015 to take a job as mountain operations manager.
The ski area was built from scratch expressly for the fastest skiers on Earth. The fastest skiers on Earth have responded with rave reviews.
“This slope today on the downhill track, the guys did an amazing job,” said U.S. ski racer Bryce Bennett about Jeongseon, the venue for the Olympic speed events, after downhill training Feb. 8. “I know they’ve been here for months working their tails off, and it turned out perfect. That was one of the funner runs of downhill I’ve had. … They have the skills — all the guys in the cats and on the snowmaking crews. They know exactly what they’re doing, and they showed that.”
Much of that credit goes to Tom Johnston, the Wyoming cowboy who serves as chief of race here and also at the Birds of Prey races at Beaver Creek, as well as Olympic races at Salt Lake City in 2002 and Sochi in 2014.
But Geoff Marriner — who oversees snowmaking, grooming, lifts and ski patrol — helped build the foundation for Johnston to sculpt this gem of a race course.
So did Allison Kohn Marriner, who is one of the winch cat operators who prepared the track. She has spent the last three winters at Jeongseon.
“It’s been awesome,” Geoff Marriner said. “Everyone’s been super stoked on the preparation.”
It’s not easy to get to — Jeongseon Alpine Centre is 45 minutes away from the nearest Olympic venue through a winding valley dotted with isolated homes. The entire ski area is not much more than Beaver Creek’s Birds of Prey alone, along with three chairlifts and a newly built lodge and hotel at the bottom. The course starts at 4,495 feet in altitude, ends at 1,788 feet and is 1.78 miles long.
It shares common DNA with Beaver Creek. Bernhard Russi, the two-time Olympic downhill medalist who designed Birds of Prey also designed this course. And Johnston brings his same masterful touch to this course as he does in Beaver Creek.
The Beaver Creek connection extends to the Marriners.
Geoff Marriner spent 18 years in different stints at Beaver Creek. He served in the grooming department as shift supervisor and assistant manager. In the summers, he worked on the preparation for the 2015 World Championships, helping construct the women’s Raptor course.
As a winch cat driver, Allison Kohn Marriner has helped build the tracks for Birds of Prey World Cups and the World Championships.
They are both graduates of the Colorado Mountain College-Leadville Ski Area Operations program.
After 2015 World Championships, Geoff was promoted to running the whole grooming department. But he heard about the opportunity in South Korea, applied and got the job.
When he arrived at Jeongseon in November 2015, there was little more than a couple offices at the base. The gondola wasn’t done, and all the necessary snowmaking wasn’t installed. There was some doubt whether the course would be ready for the first test event in 2016. But they got the work done in time, and results exceeded expectations.
“For the month and a half, two months leading up to test event, all the press in Europe was nothing but negative and bad, saying we were going to fail and it was going to suck,” Geoff Marriner said. “Then when everyone showed up, we had a friggin’ kick-ass course. It blew their minds.”
The run-up to the Olympic races has been intense — the crews have been working 12-hour days during the Games. Geoff Marriner said he hasn’t had a day off since late January.
The Marriners have been living in the nearby town of Jinbu, experiencing day-to-day life of South Korea — working to navigate everyday tasks that are a bit tougher in a foreign country, from supermarket visits to dentist’s appointments.
The couple is actually not quite at the finish line yet — they’ll get a short break, and then will be back to work, shaping the course for the Paralympics.
In March, they’ll finally head home for some rest and relaxation, celebrating the success.
“Cigars and drinking manhattans on the back porch probably for a good week or so,” Allison Kohn Marriner said.
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State and local public health officials are actively monitoring for the presence of a new COVID-19 variant from South Africa, though it has not yet been found in Colorado or the U.S.