Ski racing’s NorAm Finals set to return to Aspen Highlands this April after five years
In a year with so little going on, John Rigney was happy to offer the North American skiing community the chance to end the season with something positive. The Aspen Skiing Co. senior vice president sees the NorAm Finals, which Aspen will host this spring, as a positive and needed springboard into next winter’s Olympic season.
“We kind of knew there would be very few players in the space that would be entertaining the idea of hosting major events this year. It’s just the nature of this pandemic,” Rigney said Wednesday. “We thought if we could get this toward the end of the season it might be a great way to keep continuity in supporting athletic achievement, but also give these races a venue to do something meaningful during the competition season.”
U.S. Ski & Snowboard made the announcement Wednesday morning that the 2021 NorAm Finals will be held April 5-16 at Aspen Highlands, a joint endeavor between the U.S. ski team, Skico and the Aspen Valley Ski & Snowboard Club. The event will include men’s and women’s downhill and super-G races, as well as giant slalom, slalom and parallel races.
“It’s huge for the town in general, just for the young kids, the ski club, to see elite-level racing back in town,” said Aspen’s Wiley Maple, a retired World Cup ski racer who competed in the 2018 Olympic downhill. “It’s the highest level of skiing you can do in the U.S. outside of the World Cup. That’s where the next generation of World Cup skiers are going to be leaving their mark is in the NorAm circuit.”
Maple fondly remembers the last time Aspen hosted the NorAm Finals, which was back in 2016 on Aspen Mountain. Maple defended his NorAm downhill crown that year and took the season-long NorAm title to help keep him in the World Cup mix for the following season.
Aspen has a long history of hosting signature skiing events, notably the 1950 world championships and the 2017 World Cup Finals, not to mention Buttermilk Ski Area having hosted ESPN’s Winter X Games each year since 2002. Those World Cup Finals in 2017 were the last major alpine races held here in Aspen — the World Pro Ski Tour did make a stop in Snowmass in 2018 — after the 2020 U.S. Alpine Tech Championships, originally scheduled for this past spring at Aspen Highlands, were canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“That’s what this town was made on. The world championships back in the day got people to come to Aspen, got it on the map,” Maple said. “People just in general like racing in Aspen, because pretty much everything about Aspen is awesome. Except for the price of the hotel room, maybe.”
Most of the logistics regarding this year’s NorAm Finals at Highlands remains unknown. Rigney said Skico can host the event as part of the ski area’s operating plan, “but we will most definitely be crafting a COVID safety plan to be reviewed in advance of the event” to keep in line with Pitkin County safety guidelines, whatever those are at the time.
Rigney also hopes for some sort of spectating to take place, but too much remains unknown about the virus to know if that will be possible. One of the reasons Highlands was picked to host the event is it can remain somewhat low key and out of the way as the NorAm Finals start April 5, the day after Highlands is scheduled to close for the season.
While nothing is official as of yet, Rigney said progress is being made for Snowmass to host NASTAR finals in April as well. Snowmass had also been set to host NASTAR finals last spring before it was ultimately canceled because of COVID-19 concerns.
Both the NASTAR finals and the U.S. Alpine Tech Championships are slated to return to Aspen in 2022.
“April is a long way off. We are going to have to determine whether spectators and support can be on site or not, but we will cross that bridge when we have better visibility into how things are going. I’m glad we have a little time between now and then,” Rigney said. “It’s going to be a great way to end this year and springboard into next year’s Olympic season. And that event may mean a lot to a lot of people who are striving to make that next level of team.”
While the World Cup is alpine skiing’s main stage, both the Europa Cup and the North American Cup are considered to be on that second tier in the skiing hierarchy. The NorAm Finals could include anyone from Olympians with World Cup starts to those knocking on the door of the U.S. ski team to club skiers hoping to make a mark.
The event also will be another chance for AVSC to showcase its Stapleton Training Center, which will host the races. The venue often hosts World Cup teams from across the globe for preseason training camps and is hosting the Wilder Dwight Memorial races this week and hosted the University of Denver ski team’s races this past weekend, not to mention AVSC’s Ajax Cup on Dec. 30.
“It will be fun to have the focus of alpine skiing be on Aspen,” said AVSC executive director Mark Godomsky. The local ski club will be responsible for most of the on-hill setup. “It’s a great time for us to show off our venue and show off all the hard work that’s been done on it. It’s a quality hill and I think people are going to be excited to have the chance to be on it.”
Monday, April 5, NorAm Downhill Training, Men/Women
Tuesday, April 6, NorAm Downhill Training, Men/Women
Wednesday, April 7, NorAm Downhill #1, Men/Women
Thursday, April 8, NorAm Downhill #2, Men/Women
Friday, April 9, NorAm Super-G, Men/Women
Saturday, April 10, NorAm Super-G/Alpine Combined Women
Sunday, April 11, NorAm Super-G/Alpine Combined Men
Monday, April 12, NorAm Slalom Women, Giant Slalom Men
Tuesday, April 13, NorAm Slalom Women, Giant Slalom Men
Wednesday, April 14, NorAm Giant Slalom Women, Slalom Men
Thursday, April 15, NorAm Giant Slalom Women, Slalom Men
Friday, April 16, NorAm Parallel Event, Men/Women
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On this episode of The Drop-In, we’re giving you a peak at the X Games venue at Buttermilk and walking you through how things are going down this week when competition kicks off on Friday