Pro skiers are at the heart of what makes AVSC’s annual Ajax Cup so special
Wendy Fisher is feeling the pressure. Like it or not, she takes over as the professional for team “Super G,” the two-time reigning Audi Ajax Cup champion, and doesn’t want to be the one to end the streak.
“Everyone is going to be looking at our team tomorrow and be in the spotlight,” Fisher told The Aspen Times on Sunday. “Am I the one that is going to break their reign? But I’m going to be optimistic. I’m going to try my hardest. It is a team effort. I think last year I won most of my pro races, so I think I actually did pretty decent as a whole.”
Fisher, a 1992 Winter Olympian and two-time World Extreme Skiing champion who now lives in Crested Butte, said this is her ninth time taking part in the Ajax Cup, the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club’s largest fundraiser and ski race that is celebrating its 10th anniversary. Monday at the base of Aspen Mountain, 16 teams will square off in a dual giant slalom tournament with the Gorsuch Cup on the line.
“The reason I started coming is just the group of people,” Fisher said. “In the ski world, you are all kind of buddies and you try and help support each other. And it’s a mini reunion. So that is an easy yes.”
Last year, the Ajax Cup raised around $800,000 for the club, that money helping support the roughly 2,400 athletes who take part in AVSC programming. Co-race director Chris Davenport, a big mountain skiing icon and Aspen resident, hopes to see that number top $1 million this time around.
“Unfortunately, skiing is a really tough sport to afford for a lot of families, and this is a good way to kind of give back, pump some money into the ski club,” said former World Cup ski racer Daron Rahlves, one of the 16 pros taking part in this year’s Ajax Cup. “It gets together the community. It is building culture and it’s a fun time.”
Rahlves, the 2001 super-G world champion from California, is competing in the Ajax Cup for the second time. A 12-time winner on the World Cup, Rahlves has a soft spot for Aspen as he said this is where his parents met and where he mostly learned to ski while on Christmas vacations as a child.
“My first taste of skiing really was coming here,” Rahlves said. “It’s just one of those feel-good places.”
The list of Ajax Cup pros — assigned to teams mostly at random — this season isn’t short of World Cup or Olympic talent, with many coming from the same era that included Rahlves, such as Marco Sullivan, A.J. Kitt and Casey Puckett, a five-time Olympian and AVSC coach who co-directs the races with Davenport. The pro list also includes some homegrown products, such as Katie Ryan, Jake Zamansky and Alex Ferreira, the reigning X Games Aspen gold medalist in halfpipe skiing.
Last year, it was two-time Olympian Megan McJames who led team “Super G” to the repeat crown. McJames was a late scratch for this year’s competition, opening the door for Jonas Nyberg’s return. The former Swedish ski racer and brief AVSC coach was the pro for team “Super G” when it won in 2017.
“It’s so amazing to come back. This Aspen community is a special little bubble,” Nyberg said. “I haven’t raced for three years, but when you get in the gate and put your poles out, then the horns grow out. You are going for it, always, trying to find the fastest line. It’s just so much fun every time you get back into the gates.”
This time around, Nyberg is competing with “Chicks on Sticks” and will get to wear the team’s special speed suit during Monday’s race, which depicts a piece of women’s swimwear on both the front and back. Nyberg admitted it fit a little snug for his taste but was happy to represent nonetheless.
Davenport, who usually races as a pro, opted to sit this one out and gave his spot to Nyberg’s friend Calle Lindh, another former Swedish ski racer who saw some success on the World Cup and even competed in the 2015 World Championships at Beaver Creek. Davenport will step in to help as a commentator instead.
“He is one of my best friends, so I wanted to bring him here just to show him the Aspen thing,” Nyberg said of Lindh, who didn’t know he was going to be racing until Saturday night’s team draw at 7908. “That’s the great thing about it. Everyone is here having fun, having a good time, and then we are helping kids get on skis. It’s awesome.”
The 16 teams are divided into four groups, with the winner of each group making it into the semifinals. A dual giant slalom setup means racers will compete side-by-side, the winner being the first to cross the finish line. A handicap system is in place to keep races competitive.
Racing starts around 9 a.m. Monday with the finals set to go down early- to mid-afternoon on The Little Nell run. General viewing from the side of the course and the base is free, although a ticket will be required to access the VIP viewing area or to get into the after-party at Scarlett’s Aspen.
Going until Monday afternoon is an online auction, with many unique prizes that include a VIP experience with NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson and a ski trip to Chile with Davenport. The auction can be found at charityauction.bid/audiajaxcup.
Again, that money goes back to the club and its 2,400 athletes.
“The clubs are what made skiing fun. I fell in love with skiing, showing up and being with a bunch of kids, ripping around with fun coaches,” said Fisher, who grew up skiing at Squaw Valley Resort in California. “To not be able to access the mountain and the freedom of it is a shame. So I definitely support kids out on the hill. I just think it’s for your livelihood and to be able to feel that experience of adventure.”