Colorado ski mountaineers planning for an uncertain World Cup season in pandemic
FRISCO — While U.S. Ski & Snowboard pro and rookie team athletes currently train at the Saas-Fee Stomping Grounds in Switzerland, local U.S. ski mountaineers are planning for their winter season amid some uncertainty.
On Thursday afternoon, Grace Staberg of Silverthorne — a 2020 U.S. Youth Olympian and a member of the 2019 U.S. Ski Mountaineering Association Youth National Team — received another denial for her visa application to live and train in France this winter. Staberg would like to continue to live and train in France with ski mountaineering star Laetitia Roux after doing so last winter before the novel coronavirus pandemic cut her time in Europe short.
But with the pandemic lingering as fall turns to winter, Staberg is considering other visa application options, including potentially applying for entry to stay with Roux in another European country, such as Switzerland, Italy or Austria. Even then, traveling to, say, Switzerland would require at least a 10-day quarantine.
Wherever she’s able to go, Staberg hopes to depart the U.S. just after Thanksgiving in order to be ready for the first International Ski Mountaineering Federation World Cup race, which is currently scheduled for Dec. 19-20 in Italy.
The World Cup events aren’t the only major international competitions scheduled for this year. The 2020-21 season is slated to feature the International Ski Mountaineering Federation World Championships, which occur every other year. The event is scheduled to start Feb. 26 in La Massana, Andorra.
For an athlete like Staberg, COVID-19 makes the logistics of her planned season much more difficult to determine. Though she would like to leave for Europe after Thanksgiving, the two U.S. qualifying events for the Andorra World Championships will be on home soil. Considering the visa challenges, Staberg said going to Europe to train and compete before returning for an American qualifying competition and then leaving for Europe again may be tricky.
U.S. Ski Mountaineering Association president and Summit County local Ram Mikulas said the association’s world championship qualifying events are currently slated for Eldora Mountain in Nederland in early December and for Sunlight Mountain Ski Resort in Glenwood Springs in early January. At those events, Mikulas said the current plan is to require racers to wear facial coverings while at the start-finish area and while in transition areas. Competitions are also subject to change due to public health guidelines and ski resort rules.
“I would love to race at the world championships but I think the first question is whether or not they will happen,” Staberg said. “Right now I’m planning on going forward with World Cups and the world championships. But if I get a visa I’m not sure if I’m comfortable coming back home and getting stuck again, like last year when I came home.”
On Friday, Mikulas said only one International Ski Mountaineering Federation World Cup, slated for France, has been canceled while all others are currently scheduled to take place. Even if the events do end up occurring, he said travel restrictions for American ski mountaineers like Staberg will likely be more difficult to navigate compared with European athletes looking to get into other European countries.
“Really it is yet to be determined if our athletes will be able to make it over,” Mikulas said. “It’s kind of a case-by-case basis based on where the race is located, in which country.”
As they plan for the season amid the pandemic, Mikulas said the U.S. Ski Mountaineering Association has had a medical director communicating regularly with the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee as well as other national governing bodies to draft a plan for COVID-19 precautions.
“The goal is to hold all of the races that we have held in the past, but in a safer environment,” Mikulas said. “There’s still some uncertainty on when exactly races may happen — we may have to shift a race to a weekday. But the interest is there.”
Mikulas said the International Ski Mountaineering Federation is hopeful for the sport’s inclusion in the 2026 Winter Olympics in Italy and this season is an important one for ski mountaineering in the United States. He added that “things look positive” as the federation is working closely with the Italian Olympic Committee and the International Olympic Committee.
“Italy is one of the strongest (ski mountaineering) countries and they’re ultimately the nation that has a lot of say whether or not a new sport comes into a given Olympics,” Mikulas said. “A lot of that has to do with the resources they put forth, and they also have a good chance to win medals, which is an encouraging piece for them to make it happen.”
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Even before its traditional start in Soelden, Austria, on Saturday, the season is surrounded by many questions — and they are not just about who will win the races.