Photos courtesy of Ryan Mooney/U.S. Ski Team
For the second consecutive year, amid Covid, the U.S. Ski Team traveled to Europe to fulfill the critical summer prep period, rather than the usual destination of South America.
Argentina and Chile, which have historically been the sites for both men’s and women’s speed and tech camps, are not allowing entry into their countries without a quarantine period. USST Alpine Director Jesse Hunt doesn’t believe it’s realistic for teams to travel and quarantine, unless they can ski during that time. While a few teams have risked traveling to South America despite the uncertainties associated with the quarantine restrictions, Hunt says that going in blind is asking for trouble.
Fortunately, open glaciers, favorable snow conditions, and familiar Covid protocols from the World Cup season have made Europe a viable training solution for the second summer in a row.
“This summer’s training plan is very similar to last season’s preparation in terms of volume and training sites,” said Hunt. “We skied a lot in April, May, and June at Squaw Valley, Mammoth and Mount Hood. Now we are training in Europe unless the option to train in Chile becomes available.”
Hunt and the alpine teams are targeting the glaciers that offer the best conditions for this time of year. For World Cup teams, that means Saas Fee and Zermatt, which offer both speed lanes and tech lanes, along with additional venues, such as Stelvio, Hintertux, Soelden, and the indoor facility at Snow Valley. With updated Covid protocols, including vaccinations, regular testing, masking, and social distancing when required, all national teams have traveled to the European glaciers for training alongside the Norwegian, Swedish, and Swiss national teams, to name a few.
But glacier skiing comes with differences from its South American counterpart. As Randy Pelkey, head coach of the men’s World Cup speed team, points out, logistics, snow conditions, and course length are a few variables his team faces that differ from South American in a typical season.
Logistics: It’s quite a trek to get to the glaciers in the morning, about 45 minutes between multiple trams, gondolas, train rides, and hundreds of other people trying to do the same. For the men’s speed team in Zermatt, there is still a skate to the start with equipment and skis in hand and an extended day at 10,000-plus feet in elevation. After a while, the commute, early mornings, and standing on your feet both ways can wear you down, especially at that altitude.
The early morning commute has even turned Mikaela Shiffrin into a coffee drinker.
“Somewhere between 3:45 and 4 a.m., wake up to get breakfast, coffee and a little movement session before heading to the gondola station for early loading,” said Shiffrin. “Sometimes the lines get aggressive too — it’s not uncommon to see some carnage with skis flying around hitting people in the face or just so much pushing that someone nearly gets knocked over, but generally with most of the World Cup teams, it’s fairly civil.”
In Chile, Pelkey recalls the ease of being on a chairlift most of the day, the ease of the commute from condo to hill, and the ability to load up 30-plus pairs of skis without taking three gondolas. But the daily commute does not stop the team from getting the work done with the equipment they need on the glacier.
“Its difficult, but coaches are carrying skis, everyone is carrying skis, and we keep rotating skis on snow,” said Pelkey. “Skis on snow this time of year is one of the most important things and just making sure we are narrowing down what we are going to use, what we aren’t going to use, they’ve just got to be used.”
Then, the journey back down into town. To make up for the hours of sleep missed at night, many athletes including Shiffrin settle down for extensive naps before dryland, physical therapy, video sessions and dinner.
“I just want to make sure I have the proper rest and alertness to make the most of these training sessions at 11 or 12,000 feet,” said Shiffrin.
Snow conditions: The biggest difference on the European glacier venues compared to South America at this time of year is snow. South America is experiencing its winter, with winter snow and winter conditions. Generally, glacier snow is really grippy, making it important for athletes to monitor their equipment. The grippy snow will follow when they head to Copper Mountain in the fall. As a result, the athletes will not have much or any time on “wintery” snow during this year’s prep period.
“The training times, it’s important, but it’s not as important as you think in the dead of summer on the glacier,” said Pelkey. “Sometimes the fastest guys there are not the fastest guys in the race season.
Course length: This time of year is all about volume and intensity for Pelkey’s team. A normal schedule would have the speed teams building into the season and into the different venues, ultimately with larger venues Kitzbuhel and Wengen toward the end. Last year, those venues varied and brought longer courses earlier in the season. It’s difficult to get the length to build up for those venues, especially in Europe, where the volume is already less than in Chile.
“We get a minute-10 at best there for downhill, and in South America we’ll get a minute-30, a minute-40 even,” said Pelkey.
Pelkey is tasked to make sure his team is prepared with enough time on snow. As far as compromising for the missed length that his team would normally get in Chile, he works to stimulate it in dryland. When the men return to the U.S. after their next training block in Zermatt this weekend, Pelkey uses the next block of time to get their strength numbers up before Copper opens. In his experience the four-week strength period pays off in March when his team tends to have a bit more mental and physical power sustained throughout the season. While he hopes the strength period will work to replace the missed length in their downhill training, ultimately, it’s difficult to replicate, he says.
“The physical stress and mental stress and the actual time spent focusing on skiing, I don’t think there is any way to duplicate it without the proper length,” said Pelkey.
A positive change?
There’s no denying that when South America lifts its restrictions and allows the team to return, they will. But in contrast with what the teams normally do in South America compared to the glacier, athletes and coaches see a lot of positive.
The glacier has also reunited ski racing’s power couple, Mikaela Shiffrin and Aleksander Kilde, whose presence has brought inspiration and happiness into Shiffrin’s daily trip to the glacier, she says.
“Aleks arrived a few days ago with the rest of the Norwegian men, it’s been so fun to see him in an actual skiing environment again,” said Shiffrin. “He’s so strong and so motivated and that’s pretty inspiring for me. He puts everyone around him in a better, lighter mood, and he definitely makes me smile. From what I’ve seen from his skiing, he hasn’t lost much. Of course there is a long way to go that he knows and feels that people can’t see from the outside, but he’s in a very good place at this point so that’s really fun to see.”
As for her own preparation heading into the all-important Olympic season, Shiffrin said, “I feel like I have some really great skiing and some not-so-consistent skiing, and one of my goals for this camp is to reel in that consistency and mindset that I need not only for training but more importantly for races as well. So aside from simply skiing, that’s a big part of this camp as well for me.”
Lanes are close on the European glaciers, stacked left and right with national teams and at times sharing training space. Shiffrin shared the joy of seeing so many of her teammates across the mountains of Switzerland and getting to watch the skiing of her peers, including Nina O’Brien and Paula Moltzan, which she shared looks clean and powerful. Shiffrin has also trained with Swedish slalom specialist Anna Swenn-Larson, who is returning from injury and will “absolutely be one to watch this year,” according to Shiffrin.
Logistics, snow conditions, and course lengths aside, the USST has brought intensity to the glaciers. For athletes who return to the same spot year after year, Pelkey sees the excitement of going to different places, keeping interests high and bringing a fresh perspective. And with a World Cup in Zermatt on the table, Pelkey also feels lucky.
“Zermatt has been great to us,” said Pelkey. “I think there is a lot of good with what we are doing but we are looking forward to getting back to South America in the future.”