Koznick edges Ryan to win second Ajax Cup as Highlands takes center stage
Katie Ryan’s skiing idol? No, it wasn’t the legendary Lindsey Vonn nor the costume-wearing Julia Mancuso, but the pink-haired Minnesotan Kristina Koznick.
“Kristina Koznick was my hero growing up,” Ryan said. “Probably because she had pink hair, but also because she was such a great racer. Racing your idols is the coolest thing, which is why Ajax Cup is so awesome.”
Ryan, a former U.S. ski team member who grew up in Aspen, got exactly that on Wednesday when the Aspen Valley Ski & Snowboard Club’s annual Audi Ajax Cup came down to a final run, featuring Ryan against Koznick. It was nearly too close to call, but the younger AVSC alumnae in Ryan was just edged out by Koznick to give the championship to event newcomer, team “Independiente.”
It was the second Ajax Cup title for Koznick, who lives down the road in Wolcott, as she also led team “Kick Some Wax” to the trophy in 2016. The three-time Olympian and six-time World Cup winner has been an Ajax Cup mainstay since the event’s inception more than a decade ago.
“It’s a super fun competition and we all have respect for each other. So Katie and I were just joking at the start and having a good time,” Koznick said. “It was a way more challenging course, but I think everything I heard from everyone that competed is the venue is awesome. AVSC did such a good job putting this on considering the circumstances and what they had to do.”
The Ajax Cup is AVSC’s largest event and fundraiser, held each Dec. 30 on Aspen Mountain. At least, it had been until the 11th annual event on Wednesday, which was held on AVSC’s own Stapleton Training Center at Aspen Highlands in order to give the event a little more breathing room to adhere to the safety guidelines surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.
And the Thunderbowl course at Highlands was a bit of a step up from the relatively tame course back on the Little Nell, the lowest part of Aspen Mountain just up from the Silver Queen Gondola. There is a reason why World Cup skiers flock to the Highlands venue at times for training, and it made for an intense series of races on Wednesday.
“This is a real race course,” said Chris Davenport, the AVSC board president and big mountain skier who helps organize the Ajax Cup. “Little Nell is great for spectating and it’s great for sort of more intermediate racing, but we stepped it up this year and consequently we saw more crashes, because people were getting tired at the bottom. But that makes it exciting and fortunately everybody is in one piece.”
On top of a new venue — at least for this year — and some extra elbowroom, COVID-19 also led to a smaller field than usual, with only 10 teams competing compared to the normal 16 teams. The Ajax Cup is head-to-head giant slalom racing, with each team led by a current or former professional. After an early round robin stage, the top two teams were placed into a super final for all the marbles.
This year it came down to Koznick’s “Independiente” and Ryan’s “Go Fast or Go Home” squad, and it all came down to the final race between the pros. Koznick’s narrow win over Ryan in that final heat actually led to a 6-6 tie, but the last-race tiebreaker went to Koznick to give her a second Ajax Cup crown.
Other members of the winning team included Eric Mangelsen, Phil Sirianni, Shannon Slade, Mazza Pitt and Michael Payne.
“The cool part about this is it’s fun to come together and raise money for the kids,” Koznick said. “I always tell them, ‘Hey, I’m getting kind of old, I don’t have to be the pro anymore.’ But I also always tell them, ‘I’m here if you need me.’ I benefited as a kid racing from stuff like this, so it’s to me only natural I can give back and hopefully raise more money for these kids and hopefully they love ski racing as much as I do.”
Of note, Ryan and Koznick were the only two female pros among the 10 teams on Wednesday and were the last two standing at the end of the afternoon. The other pros included Daron Rahlves, T.J. Lanning, Jake Zamansky, Erik Schlopy, Nolan Kasper, Jake Fiala, Wiley Maple and Alex Ferreira.
Aspen’s Ferreira, a halfpipe skier by trade with a couple of X Games gold medals to his name, had been the defending champion, having led the “West Side Hillbillies” to the 2019 crown. That team, which is headlined by seven-time NASCAR champion and part-time Aspen resident Jimmie Johnson, opted to sit out this year. Also skipping this year’s event was 2017 and 2018 champion, team “Super G!”
“We always go into the Ajax Cup with a little bit of trepidation. We want the weather to be great. We want all the racing to be safe. We want to have close competition,” Davenport said. “This year there were a lot of unknowns moving from Ajax over to Aspen Highlands onto the Stapleton training venue. But it worked out beyond anybody’s expectations. And I think anytime in life we do something that exceeds our expectations, we are winning.”
What the 2021 event looks like, and where it’s held, is anyone’s guess. But one thing this week’s event proved is that Aspen Highlands could become a worthy long-term home for the Ajax Cup, although a return to its roots on Aspen Mountain is very much in the cards, assuming the pandemic doesn’t have any more of a say.
Location aside, the Ajax Cup again served its primary function, which was to raise money for the ski club and give some of the biggest skiing aficionados the chance to step back in the starting gate for a day.
“The diehards were out and it’s cool to come back to the basics of what this is all about. It’s about racing hard,” Ryan said. “In a year of such lows, it’s cool to find some highs and some accomplishments in a year where we didn’t get much done. … AVSC is a beacon of light.”
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