When the 2020 summer kicked into full swing, ski teams, clubs and snow-starved racers across the country were left with a feeling of unfinished business. With COVID-19-related restrictions in place, training in the Southern Hemisphere or on European glaciers was off the table as teams approached their summer sessions. Then, Copper Mountain pulled some strings and enabled hundreds of racers to access its high elevation slopes this June for two and a half weeks of much coveted – and missed – time on snow.
“The camp in June was crucial for us,” said Alice McKennis, one of several U.S. Ski Team athletes to attend the June camp. “Watching our competitors overseas, it appears that most of the teams – the Austrians, Germans, Swiss, Italians, Swedes – have access to glaciers within their own home countries. No one on the U.S. Ski Team – athlete or coach – thought we’d be skiing before July. When Copper came together, it was a bonus.”
POWDR, which owns and operates Copper Mountain, has established itself as a glowing standout when it comes to bonuses for the alpine racing community.
“It’s another example of Copper Mountain’s and POWDR commitment to the sport to make that training available for the national team and other clubs,” said Aldo Radamus, Alpine Director of Team Summit, which brought around 50 athletes to the June training camp. “Everyone from the highest level of leadership at Copper was racing against the clock. The snow was melting and the Covid response was moving into subsequent phases. It involved bringing furloughed staff back on, bringing groomers back into position along with lift operators, ski patrol, crews setting up netting insulations, all of that. They worked at breakneck speed to meet requirements of county health departments and mandates. I’ve done a lot of camps around the world at that time of year. I’ve never been at a camp with better conditions. It wasn’t just OK. It was phenomenal.”
The need for speed
Ask any racer from around the globe who travels to Copper to train every November at the U.S. Ski Team Speed Center and they will describe conditions the same way.
“At the Speed Center, we have such great access and such quality,” McKennis says. “The younger athletes are getting in great training from the D Team to World Cup. Even outside of the U.S. Ski Team, regional teams and top teams from everywhere come here for early season training. Being able to train next to the Austrians, the Swiss, all the Europeans, it’s so valuable. You get that pace before the speed season begins.”
Opened in 2011, the Speed Center was built through a partnership with POWDR and the U.S. Ski Team, offering what is typically the world’s only November venue with top-to-bottom super G and downhill training.
“At Copper we have the unique ability to have early season training because we are high. We have robust snowmaking and amazing terrain,” says POWDR Resort Division’s Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Tim Brennwald. “In the fall, there’s opportunities on the glaciers in Europe and the national teams will chase those opportunities. But nowhere even in Europe at that time do you get the length and consistency of the snow that we can provide at Copper.”
Alpine tech center opened last season
Last fall, POWDR doubled down on Copper’s training facilities by adding an Alpine Tech Center, fronting the full expense, estimated between $4.5 and $5 million. The venue features more than 450 meters of full-length giant slalom slopes with water injection and state-of-the-art snowmaking capabilities.
“It’s the best technical venue around,” Radamus says. “It raises the training level for national teams, top academies and local teams. It became our full-time local training venue last season. Having dedicated training space is really advantageous for the resort and the training programs that benefit form it. It allows snow quality to be maintained and it is a great way to segregate public skiers from competitive athletes, which makes the environment safer for all users on the mountain. Sharing the same field of play with developing athletes is one thing unique in snow sports. A high school football player is not going to line up on the same field as the Denver Broncos, but that’s the environment that exists at Copper. When Mikaela [Shiffrin] is training on the slopes next to U-14 skiers developing their skills, it creates a unique opportunity for our athletes.”
As anyone who has ever so much as carried a bundle of B-net can attest, building training and racing venues is no easy task. POWDR’S commitment to world-class venues also extends to becoming a fixture on the World Cup. Killington has become what is arguably the most popular stop on the women’s tech tour since 2016, when the Vermont Resort – purchased by POWDR in 2007 – began hosting women’s giant slalom and slalom races over Thanksgiving weekend, marking the East Coast’s first World Cup alpine races since 1991.
Killington races bringing the crowds
“It’s a risky time of year to pull off an event like that. Our snowmaking crew and event staff is something we’re very proud of. But for four seasons now, it’s a big race because the East Coast has a ton of density, a ton of skiers. When you look at the amount of ski academies back there and they all show up en masse with a daily crowd of 16,000-plus, it’s a testament to the enthusiasm,” Brennwald says. “When I was a kid in 1978, I went to Stratton to watch the men race. I think the last World Cup [on the East Coast before Killington] was Waterville Valley [in 1991]. The East quite frankly has been starved. There are very few places on the women’s circuit where a crowd like that shows up. We’re very proud of the event.”
Mikaela Shiffrin, the hands down favorite (and defending slalom champion) at Killington, regularly expresses her appreciation for the outpouring of passion, enthusiasm and support she experiences at the Vermont races. She also took to social media this June to thank Copper for “putting in such a big effort to make this camp so productive for everyone involved while keeping us safe and healthy.”
Continued commitment (COVID notwithstanding)
The U.S. Ski Team racers attending the June camp had to produce two back-to-back negative Covid-19 results before arriving at Copper and all racers on the slopes followed strict face-covering and social distancing guidelines.
“It went as well as it could,” McKennis said. “Everyone understood and followed the guidelines.”
POWDR’s Mt. Bachelor also pulled some strings this spring, hosting a special training camp for Ted Ligety and Tommy Ford. If conditions allow, the company is considering making spring/summer training camps a regular offering.
“That’s something we’ll take a look at in the future,” Brennwald says. “When you talk specifically about this summer, we had a decent snow season and were in a position to do that. Jesse Hunt called and said, ‘Can you help out in any way?’ We had a good experience with it. If we have the ability, that’s something we’d look at continuing.”
As far as Brennwald sees it, alpine racing is a crucial component to POWDR’s overall business model, but also holds heartfelt place on a personal level throughout the company.
“Looking at how alpine racing relates in the overall picture, we have 12 resorts across our portfolio. There are a variety of different customers – alpine ski racing, freestyle, big mountain, never-evers who are taking lessons. When you look at who makes up the population of skiing, it’s a large group. Alpine racing in particular has been near and dear,” he says. “We have a lot of people in the company who have real history in the sport. When we look at the competitive side of stuff, those families come up through junior racing. Those are foundational people, cornerstones within the sport. Their kids are skiers. We try to cultivate that. We are strong supporters of all of our ski clubs at local mountains.”
Generally speaking, ski racing is not as widely embraced or as well supported in the U.S. as it is in Europe, but POWDR is doing all it can to make sure America’s snow sport athletes are not only welcome with open arms but have a special place of their own at its resorts.
“The Speed Center is the only place in the entire world where the U.S. Ski Team gets first pick. We can make the hill how we want it, do whatever we need to do,” McKennis says. “In Europe, we’re always asking the Austrians, the Italians, ‘Can we train here?’ When we’re at Copper, if something needs to happen, it will happen. Europeans get that treatment al the time.”
A U.S. Ski Team veteran who grew up in Colorado, McKennis recalls the training opportunities – or lack thereof – before POWDR stepped in.
“I remember my first couple of years on the U.S. Ski Team. The only speed training in November was at Copper down Main Vein [an intermediate public slope]. It was extremely limited. There was one slope time at 6 a.m. It was a big deal if someone said the D Team can send two athletes to tomorrow’s speed session. Athletes like me who have experienced training prior to the Speed Center, we’re not taking it for granted. Some of these younger athletes, I look at them and think, you don’t know how good you have it. What POWDR has done is for the good of all ski racing. There’s so much more access now. Hopefully that’s something we’ll see shine through other generations.”
Copper photos courtesy of US Ski & Snowboard.