Endless winter: Kiwis call Aspen home
Nearly three weeks after the women’s World Cup swept through town, the slalom gates on Strawpile were back in place Thursday morning.With little fanfare and nothing more than an inquisitive glance from those who waited alongside them in the Shadow Mountain lift line, four men in matching blue and gray speed suits stuck to their well-rehearsed routine.While their fellow countrymen sunbathed under the Southern Hemisphere’s summer skies, the four spent three hours in the snow while clouds hung overhead. For one week on their five-month odyssey around the world, Ski Racing New Zealand’s men’s team called Aspen home.”This is my first time in America, and Aspen is sweet,” 20-year-old Andrew Greig said. “It’s a lot more laid-back than in Europe. We needed this.”Travel and training has filled December. Gearing up for races against world-class competition in Winter Park and Steamboat has been coupled with the emotions of yet another holiday away from home.It’s a feeling Tim Cafe, 18, Mark Bridgwater, 20, Mickey Ross, 25, and Greig know well. Ross – the team’s veteran and strongest Olympic hopeful – has been competing away from home since he was 10. Greig hasn’t seen summer in six years.
“I do miss summer, but I can’t really remember it,” Greig said. “My friends call me and say it’s 85 degrees and they are sitting by the lake. I tell them I’m going to freeze on the chairlift.”We’ve sacrificed a huge amount. We’ve sort of put life on hold, but we’re having a [lot] of fun.”The team has had no trouble maintaining focus, especially this season. These are tense times – the period before New Zealand announces its Olympic members is running short.The majority of the team has set its sights on the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia. But Ross, 168th in the world in slalom, has all but locked up a spot on this year’s team, first-year coach Nils Coberger said. To prepare, Ross will compete in World Cup slalom events in Wengen, Switzerland, and at Kitzbuehel and Schladming in Austria next month. After failing to qualify in three previous World Cup slaloms – and blowing out his left knee during a World Cup training run in 2003 – Ross’ expectations are modest.”My goal is really to finish in the top 30 and qualify for a second run,” said Ross, who bested a field that included Americans Bode Miller and Erik Schlopy in August’s Air New Zealand Southern Cup FIS Slalom. “To expect to do well at the World Cup, you need experience. Some guys spend two whole seasons before they even break the top 30.”I just missed the Olympics [in 2002]. [Turin] is really something I have worked for.”
While time has been consumed with the struggle to meet and exceed their own expectations, all four acknowledged the circuit can be draining. They eagerly anticipated their trip to Aspen since touching down in the States after a 7,000-mile flight on Nov. 7.In the midst of their hectic, fast-paced lives, they were eager for a respite. Aspen afforded them relaxation and rejuvenation. They had the opportunity freeski at Snowmass and Highlands and hike Highland Bowl.They saw “King Kong” to support director – and fellow Kiwi – Peter Jackson. Cafe spent time filling out the college applications he had intentionally avoided for months. Most of all, they enjoyed their downtime around town, mingling with the holiday crowd. The atmosphere reminded Greig of his hometown of Queenstown – but with a bonus.”The girls here love the accent,” he joked. “We had some late nights and early mornings, but it was good. It’s Christmas.” Coberger, who left his post as Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club’s alpine coach after two years to sign on with the New Zealand team, ushered the team around town. His contacts with AVSC made it possible for his athletes to train on local slopes for the first time. Coincidentally, it was in Aspen in 1984 that Coberger won his first-ever World Cup race.”This is the best training in Colorado for sure,” Coberger said. “Skico and the town have really looked out for us, and we have enjoyed our stay.”
As quickly and as quietly as they came, the team was off Thursday afternoon, headed first for Denver, then to Boston for New Year’s Eve. Because he, like the others, will be competing in New York on the second, Ross said he has learned his lesson from past years and is looking forward to keeping the celebration subdued. He said he was, however, confident the younger team members would “do us proud.”Because he, like the others, will be competing in New York on the second, Ross said he has learned his lesson from past years and is looking forward to keeping the celebration subdued. He said he was, however, confident the younger team members would “do us proud.”For five months, the team will be without the comforts of home. It will be nice to have a summer one day, but no one can complain about competing around the world – or the occasional stop in places like Aspen, Ross said. They may not have their families. Their only correspondence is through the occasional e-mail from a mate who offers words of encouragement, or leaves a message to say they saw the team on local television. They do, however, have one another. For all four, ski racing is the only life they have every known. Ski racing is normal. “This is home to us,” Bridgwater said.Jon Maletz’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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In the 50-mile race, three-time Olympian and Aspen bred Simi Hamilton bombed down Fanny Hill to capture the overall men’s title. Hamilton, who retired from professional cross-country skiing earlier this year, completed the race in a time of 4 hours, 17 minutes, 19 seconds. Nicole Tittensor, from Axtell, Utah, was the first woman to finish the 50-mile race.