Top athletes and storylines for 2019-20 ski and snowboard season
- X Games Aspen: Jan. 23-26, 2020
- Aspen Snowmass Freeskiing Open: Feb. 13-15, 2020
- Audi Power of Four Skimo Race: Feb. 29, 2020
- NASTAR National Championships: March 24-28, 2020
- Grand Traverse Skimo Race: March 27-29, 2020
- U.S. Alpine Tech Championships: March 28-31, 2020
Who knows what happened to fall, but with the Aspen mountains having received more than 3 feet of snow in October, we can go ahead and say winter is here. With snow comes the season for skiing and snowboarding, and therefore competitions.
The Roaring Fork Valley has always had its share of high-level winter athletes to watch each season, and the 2019-20 calendar looks no different. Aspen’s own Alex Ferreira has become a bona fide superstar and is a must-watch during X Games, the timeless Simi Hamilton is within striking distance of another Olympic run, and Wiley Maple looks to right all the wrongs from a 2018-19 season with so much unrealized promise.
This winter also brings the return of the NASTAR national championships and the U.S. Alpine Tech Championships back to Aspen, not to mention the annual spectacle of X Games over at Buttermilk, meaning some serious shreddage is about to go down this season here in our own backyard.
So to help get us amped, here are some of the top storylines to watch out for this winter regarding our local athletes and local competitions.
Not that X Games isn’t always the highlight of the winter, but without the Olympics or a world championship this season, X Games packs even more weight than usual when it comes to satisfying an athlete’s need for competition. ESPN’s annual winter showcase returns to Buttermilk for the 19th consecutive year from Jan. 23-26, 2020. Prior to last year’s competition, ESPN and Aspen Skiing Co. inked a new five-year deal to keep the event around through at least 2024.
“The reality is there aren’t many places in the world like Aspen,” X Games Vice President Tim Reed told The Aspen Times last year. “The community is awesome. All of the local support we get and our partners with (Aspen Skiing Co.), they are the best and we love working with them. We are thrilled to obviously add on five more years to the plan.”
There is potential that this year’s X Games may be missing a few major stars. The chances of Shaun White returning seem nil at best, and Chloe Kim announced she was taking the season off to focus on her studies at Princeton, but maybe she’ll decide to take a break and try and defend her women’s snowboard superpipe gold in a few months.
Around here, it’ll be all about cheering on Alex Ferreira. Aspen born and raised, he finally won X Games gold in the men’s ski superpipe last winter at age 24, the first local to win gold since 2010 when both Gretchen Bleiler (women’s snowboard superpipe) and Peter Olenick (men’s ski superpipe high air) each won.
“Best day of my life every day,” Ferreira said in June of winning X Games gold. “I just continue to be grateful and I will forever remember that moment. It’s so, so beautiful to know it’s been accomplished.”
With Basalt’s Torin Yater-Wallace, another X Games mainstay, possibly leaving the halfpipe behind, Ferreira could be the only valley local competing at X Games this year, although there are a couple knocking on the door of a possible invite.
NASTAR AND TECH
These aren’t World Cup races, but it’s still pretty cool. The NASTAR national championships will be in Snowmass from March 24-28, 2020, the first time they’ve been held there since 2015. NASTAR, which stands for National Standard Race, calls itself the “largest public grassroots ski racing program in the world.” Originally founded in 1968, NASTAR is a way for ski racers of all levels to compete against each other from all across the country through the more than 100 resorts that have NASTAR courses, including Aspen Mountain and Snowmass.
Organized somewhat in tandem with the NASTAR national championships are the U.S. Alpine Tech Championships, to be held March 28-31, 2020, at both Snowmass and Aspen Highlands. This will be the first time Aspen has hosted the tech championships in 60 years, which is hard to believe considering the area’s rich skiing history.
“When (the U.S. Ski Team) came to us with an opportunity to bid on it, it was kind of in tandem with this discussion around the U.S. Ski Team tech championships,” said Deric Gunshor, director of event development for Aspen Skiing Co. “Their vision is really to bring the two sides of racing together and we were excited to be able to offer a unique combination of venues so the two events could overlap.”
Don’t plan on seeing Mikaela Shiffrin compete, but most everyone else on the U.S. Ski Team currently at the World Cup-level is fair game. The festivities will include both men’s and women’s slalom and giant slalom races, as well as the parallel slalom national championships.
Another event to keep an eye on is the annual Aspen Snowmass Freeskiing Open, held Feb. 13-15, 2020, at Buttermilk. The Nor-Am Cup event is held at the X Games venue and will feature some of the top up-and-coming talent in the country, if not the world. The next X Games star could very well compete in the freeski open.
There are a handful of high-level winter sport athletes from the valley with plenty of experience, but none with the resume quite like Aspen’s Simi Hamilton. He’s long been one of the best sprinters for the U.S. men’s cross-country ski team, having competed in three Olympics (2010, 2014, 2018) and five world championships.
Prior to the 2018 Games in South Korea, Hamilton admitted retirement wasn’t far off. Yet, at 32, he looks ready to embark on yet another season competing on the World Cup. Maybe he’s feeling fresh based off his recent relationship status, which went from engaged to married only last month when he tied the knot with fellow U.S. Ski Team athlete Sophie Caldwell.
Not yet married but still chasing his skiing dreams, Wiley Maple is a go for another season on the World Cup. The 29-year-old Aspen cowboy is as entertaining as it gets, and is once again going solo as he isn’t officially on the U.S. Ski Team. This hasn’t proved to be a hurdle in the past, as some of his best seasons have come when he’s done his own thing, such as the 2018 season when he made his first Olympic team and got a start in the men’s downhill, finishing 30th.
Another Alpine skier to watch out for is Alice McKennis. The 30-year-old veteran is from New Castle and grew up skiing at Sunlight Mountain Resort. She briefly trained with the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club and was a longtime teammate of Lindsey Vonn’s on the speed team. One of her last significant races came when she finished a shocking fifth in the downhill at the 2018 Winter Olympics. A few weeks later in Are, Sweden, she made her first World Cup podium in five years.
“I’m not ready to stop that dream,” McKennis told the Vail Daily over the summer, during her rehab. “I still want to pursue it for a few more years and see what I can accomplish. From when I was young, it was always my dream to do this. So, I’m just not ready yet. I still think I have a lot to give to the sport.”
McKennis, who got married in May, is set to return from a major knee injury she suffered at an end-of-season training camp in Mammoth that cost her the entire 2018-19 season. With Vonn retired, there is an opening for someone like McKennis to step up and lead the charge for the U.S. women’s speed team.
While some, like Hamilton and McKennis, are close to the finish line, others here in the valley are just getting started. While not technically a rookie, Basalt Nordic skier Hailey Swirbul is one to watch. This will be her second year on the U.S. Ski Team and she is set to begin the winter competing on the World Cup, a major step for the rising 21-year-old who goes to school and trains in Anchorage, Alaska.
“It will be a rude awakening to the season no matter what. But I’m ready. I’m really excited,” Swirbul told The Aspen Times earlier this fall. “Probably going over there to get my butt kicked for a couple of weeks, but I think I’ll learn a lot. That’s my long-term goal is to excel on the World Cup one day, so I want to see what it’s like.”
Definitely keep an eye out for Aspen’s Cassidy Jarrell, as well. The 20-year-old is the next star in a long pipeline of great freestyle skiers and could join Ferreira in the X Games halfpipe sooner rather than later. This will be Jarrell’s third season competing on the World Cup-level, and looks primed to make a jump. Getting coached by Aspen legend Peter Olenick certainly helps. Should he make his way onto one of these early-season World Cup podiums, Olenick says an X Games invite could come Jarrell’s way.
Only a short way back of Jarrell are Tristan Feinberg and Hanna Faulhaber, who both made a big jump onto the big stage last winter as halfpipe skiers. Faulhaber joined Winter Park’s Svea Irving as the only two women on the U.S. Rookie Team this winter, while Jarrell is one of eight men. Don’t be surprised to see Feinberg’s name added to that list for the 2020-21 season.
“My main goal is to get both of them in the Olympics in 2022,” Olenick recently said of Jarrell and Feinberg. “And the path they’ve been on and the training they’ve been doing, I think, is really good and they have a good shot at it. It’s still a ways away, but those next two years will go by quickly.”
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