Ghent, Team Alps win 12th annual Ajax Cup as skiing stars converge in Aspen

Skiing great Marc Girardelli among latest to take part in fundraiser

Vail's Abby Ghent, right, celebrates after it was announced she had edged Aspen's Galena Wardle, left, at the finish line of the final race in the Audi Ajax Cup on Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021, at Aspen Highlands. Both Wardle and Ghent are former members of the U.S. ski team, with Ghent's team sweeping Wardle's to win the Ajax Cup, the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club's annual fundraiser and ski race.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Marc Girardelli compared the Thunderbowl race course at Aspen Highlands to the infamous Kitzbuhel in his native Austria. Some of this may have been in jest, sure, as the “Streif” is among the most challenging courses in the world.

Still, it’s quite a compliment for the skiing legend to include the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club’s local training hill in the same sentence as the iconic Hahnenkamm. Aspen is, after all, a familiar escape for the five-time overall World Cup winner.

“The first time I was here was 1981 for the World Cup and in the meantime, I was for sure 20, 25 times here in Aspen,” Girardelli said from the base of Highlands on Thursday during AVSC’s annual Audi Ajax Cup. “Last year it was not possible. This year we tried to plan our holiday over Christmas and New Year in a way that we can join this event and we are happy to be here.”

Girardelli is the latest in a long list of skiing icons to have taken part in the Ajax Cup, which was held for the 12th time on Thursday overall and for the second straight year at Highlands after a decade on Aspen Mountain. The event, which is the local ski club’s largest fundraiser, was moved to Highlands last year to better safely accommodate skiers and spectators alike during the pandemic.

Ski icon Marc Girardelli smiles after racing in the Ajax Cup on Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021, at Aspen Highlands. Girardelli is among the sport's greatest, having won the overall World Cup title five times.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

While a native of Austria, Girardelli competed under the Luxembourg banner most of his ski racing career, which included a dominant stretch in the 1980s and ’90s. On top of those five overall World Cup titles, he won 46 individual races on the World Cup — including a few in Kitzbuhel — which ranks him top five all-time among men. Sweden’s Ingemar Stenmark continues to hold down the top spot with 86 career wins, while Lindsey Vonn’s 82 wins are first among women.

Girardelli also won a pair of Olympic silver medals at the 1992 Winter Games in Albertville, France.

“I find it always very positive when successful business people support the local club for the youngsters,” said Girardelli, who singled out Aspen’s Marc Ganzi — of polo fame — as a key player in getting him to join the Ajax Cup festivities and help raise money for the local children.

“It’s not important that they win Olympic medals, but it’s important that they do sports or they do get the feeling of success. You need to fight for success and that is the best school for life. Because sometimes, people don’t make sport, they have a lot of money at home, they think all the things are very, very easy. But that’s the wrong way. Young people should learn that success and achievement has to be fought for, and sport therefore is the best school.”

Ajax Cup is a dual giant slalom format between teams, with the skiers racing side-by-side to the bottom of the hill. There is a handicap system in place that allows skiers of all ability levels to compete against each other. Each team is led by a current or former professional, such as Girardelli. His team, called “Brothers in Harms,” made the semifinals before losing.

This year’s finals came down to Team Alps, led by Vail’s Abby Ghent, and Coldwell Banker Mason Morse, led by Aspen’s own Galena Wardle. Both women are former members of the U.S. national team, and it was Ghent who narrowly edged Wardle in the final race of the afternoon. It didn’t matter much at that point, as Team Alps had swept through CBMM in the final, simply making Ghent’s win the cherry on top.

It was the second straight year the Ajax Cup finals featured two female pros. In 2020, it was Kristina Koznick’s team outdueling the team of Aspen’s own Katie Ryan in the finale.

The 2019 Ajax Cup, the last held on the lower portion of Aspen Mountain, was won by the “West Side Hillbillies,” a team led by NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson and Aspen’s Alex Ferreira, the 2018 Olympic silver medalist in halfpipe skiing who grew up with AVSC.

Gallery caption: Photos: 12th annual Audi Ajax Cup

“We had a good turnout. We run this event to support the kids in the valley,” said AVSC executive director Mark Godomsky. “We are fortunate. As a club, we are doing things outside. I think kids, right now from a mental health perspective, need to be doing things. They need to be with adults. They need to be outside.”

Godomsky said the club currently offers scholarships to about 35% of its nearly 3,000 athletes, with the Ajax Cup raising a significant portion of those funds. He said there are more than 600 kids receiving more than $600,000 in scholarships at the moment, a boost from AVSC’s pre-pandemic numbers.

Finding more scholarship money, as well as making the club operational all 12 months of the year, has become a key focus for AVSC since the pandemic began.

“We are pretty excited that our foundation is competition,” Godomsky said, “but I think our true foundation these days is taking care of kids in the valley and giving kids in the valley an opportunity.”