Highlands is new host to IPC giant slalom, slalom
December 9, 2014
Aspen Highlands and Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club this week are hosting the IPC Alpine Skiing NorAm Cup, the first high-caliber races of the 2014-15 para-alpine competition season.
Two giant slaloms and two slaloms (one of which was run Tuesday) are scheduled between now and Dec. 12 on Thunderbowl.
Held for the past two years at Copper Mountain, this is the first time the Aspen Highlands venue has been used locally for this prestigious series.
Tiehack's Racer's Edge is home to the nationals competitions that will be held in February, and in 2007, a World Cup race was run on Aspen Mountain's Strawpile.
"It's great to have our opener on one of the best hills in the U.S.," said AVSC athlete Kevin Mather.
It's also nice to enjoy some home cooking, he said, with the team skiing here since the David Stapleton Alpine Training Center's mid-November opening.
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"When you ski on a hill every single day, there are no surprises. You don't think about the terrain changes because you know the hill," Mather said.
This week's field is thick with medalists from the Sochi Paralympics, including AVSC's Tyler Walker and Laurie Stephens.
Last season, Walker was the overall winner of the World Cup globe while Stephens is one of the most decorated skiers of her time.
Both won their races Tuesday.
About 40 athletes representing six countries are competing in the NorAms and "IPCAs," the latter of which are events open to less experienced racers, according to IPC North American Race Director Erik Petersen.
AVSC's Melanie Schwartz, now in her third year with the team, said she too is enjoying competing on the Highlands venue, which opened Nov. 15 to team athletes.
"This is the first time I've had a race that really felt at home," Schwartz said.
Also vying for gold in the slaloms and GS races, which have categories for standing, sitting and visually impaired athletes, are Olympic medalists Stephanie Jallen, Danielle Umstead and 17-year-old Mac Marcoux.
Umstead and Marcoux were victorious in the first slalom while Jallen didn't finish her race.
Before Aspen Highlands officially opens Dec. 13, the venue will have hosted two sanctioned events, a USASA contest and this week's NorAms.
"Every single discipline, except Nordic, has utilized this hill before it's even been open to the public. That's pretty cool," said Cody Oates, venue manager.
Many in the NorAm field are looking ahead to the 2015 World Championships in Panorama, Canada, which are set for Feb. 28 through March 10.
Expected to be the largest gathering of international alpine racers since Sochi, the championships will field up to 130 athletes representing 30 countries.
Aaron Howell of Aspen said he is looking even farther into the future, to the 2018 Winter Olympics in Korea. But his immediate goal during Tuesday's slalom was to "clean up my obvious mistakes from the first run."
"To have such a good race venue this early in the season is great," Howell said.
Howell is among those AVSC adaptive athletes who are sharing some courses and at other times, training side-by-side, with the local kids. This reflects a change in how the program operates and is funded.
A total of 16 athletes, many of whom are associated with the national team, train either full-time or part-time with AVSC, said Jonathan Mika, adaptive program head coach.
According to Walt Evans, AVSC's director of excellence, finances have dictated that the program be retooled this season due to the uncertainty of federal grants.
"It's now a fee-based program for adaptive alpine athletes," he said.
Weekly with Walt
In addition to his on-hill duties, Evans hosts a half-hour program on GrassRoots TV called "Weekly with Walt."
Today's Dec. 10 edition features AVSC's two new mogul coaches, Kris and Nori Pepe. A married couple who were both former competitors, the Pepes will be discussing their approach to bump skiing and what changes they are bringing to the program this season.
"Weekly with Walt" airs at 7 p.m. Wednesday and is repeated throughout the week on Channel 12, upvalley, and Channel 82 below Catherine's Store.