I usually avoid anything even vaguely resembling a “mosh pit,” but this one happened to be the best mosh pit experience ever, complete with cowbells, thundersticks, and thousands of fans united by a common passion. It was the Audi FIS World Cup races at Killington held over Thanksgiving weekend.
You’ve heard all the stats: first World Cup in the East in 25 years; a women’s World Cup record-breaking 26,000 fans (or more) in attendance over the two days of racing; Mikaela Shiffrin winning her personal 10th-straight World Cup slalom; a parade of nearly 1,000 young Vermont racers; and hordes of hearty New Englanders, oblivious to falling snow, rocking out to the band O.A.R. But these figures don’t begin to relate the experience of having been there – up close and in person.
Last spring I was reminded that Killington had committed to hosting the events. My thoughts at the time consisted of: “Hmmm, a World Cup in November? That’s a huge risk, particularly considering I was playing golf last Thanksgiving.” But I also knew that Killington could pull it off if the weather even vaguely resembled whatever normal conditions might be these days. Another given that came to mind was that the demand for these races would be greater than the first chair on a powder day to the hundreds of thousands of skiers in the northeast.
That became apparent when all the volunteer positions, as well as the VIP tickets were claimed within hours of being made available. Everything that required a reservation was gobbled up much like I consume Thanksgiving stuffing. (Note: Most consider stuffing a side dish, while I treat it as the main course, but that’s another story.) As the summer progressed, the buzz in the extensive eastern skiing community grew and reached a crescendo by fall.
After being burdened with various responsibilities in most of my previous World Cup visits, I opted to be a spectator this time around. I suffered a brief bout of guilt when I heard that many of the volunteer gate judges were local ex-Olympians, and then even more guilt when I ran into a swarm of coaching friends a few days before the races who were trudging up the race hill to set up a few miles of B-netting. But I quickly got over it. I was committed to sitting back and enjoying this one.
Race Day: Being a natural born worrywart, I woke up fretting about fog, soft snow, suffocating crowds, Mikaela Shiffrin’s state of mind, and all manner of calamity. So I left early, arriving at 7:00 a.m. to a packed auxiliary parking lot, but jumped on a shuttle bus, waltzed through the security line, and I was there – no fuss, no muss. Despite the cold overcast and spitting snow, fans of all shapes and sizes poured into the arena. Some were obviously ski racing aficionados, but then there were the casual skiers, as well as beer-bellied fans wearing Budweiser sweaters and Red Sox jackets. Even my wife made the trek to link up with our family. Soon coffee machines, Porta-Potties, and shuttle buses were hopelessly overwhelmed, but it didn’t dampen the enthusiasm. As start time approached, my facial recognition program came close to crashing as I bumped into nearly everyone I’ve ever known who has owned a pair of skis over the past 60 years.
I’m not sure that I’ve ever witnessed a better venue than Superstar for watching a ski race. Fans could see about 50 percent of the giant slalom and nearly the entire slalom. They clamored up the sides of the race hill and stuffed themselves throughout the expansive public viewing area behind the finish line. For that portion of the racecourse that couldn’t be seen from the finish line, the big screen TV and scoreboard were prominently visible. With announcers Doug Lewis and Peter Graves pumping the crowd, I was surprised that when the first racer came into view, the cacophony of cheers, yells, and cowbells didn’t blow her bib into shreds.
And the crowd was totally indiscriminate in their enthusiasm – Norwegians, Slovakians, Canadians all received the same reception as they flew into view and carved their way to the finish. The decibels were amplified with the chants of “U.S.A, U.S.A” that greeted every American from the beginning to the end of the start order.
Saturday’s giant slalom took the “enthuse-o-meter,” into unprecedented territory, as the fans embraced Shriffrin’s fifth-place finish. Given her status as the favorite in the slalom on Sunday, the “enthuse-o-meter” was ready to explode.
Oh yes, I was nervous for Shiffrin as I waded back into the mosh pit on Sunday morning to find my lucky place to stand. I couldn’t imagine how she could even put her ski boots on the right foot, much less negotiate the unrelenting steep course on Superstar, which culminated in a series of lightning-fast combinations leading into the finish.
Running with bib one in the first run, Shiffrin quickly blew me out of my mud-caked Sorrels with her impossibly quick tempo, which only increased down the face of Superstar to take the lead. I quickly was reminded that TV doesn’t do this sport justice. Even the most ardent fan can’t imagine the speed and precision of not only Shiffrin, but all the top-seeded women.
But ski racers have to do it twice, and in reverse order of finish. Of the last 10 racers, each set a pace that seemed impossible to beat, yet the winning times kept getting faster. And then there was only one more racer to go – Shiffrin. Standing in my same good-luck spot, I couldn’t cheer because I couldn’t breathe, but thankfully everyone else didn’t have that problem, as the noise levels reached that of a jet engine.
Good start, quick tempo, lead increases, ruts and soft snow, late on a few turns, OH NO – margin shrinks, she recovers, blitzes the final 10 gates – then “No. 1” pops up on the scoreboard, crowd goes absolutely bonkers.
Little black dots swim across my vision due to oxygen depravation, but after a few deep breaths, I’m jumping up and down with my real friends, as well as all my new best friends.
Leaving the scene after the races on Sunday felt a bit like the day after Christmas. Something that I had long looked forward to was now over. But like receiving (or giving) the perfect Christmas present, I came away thoroughly satisfied, despite being hoarse from cheering, drained of adrenaline, and my smiling muscles sagging from exhaustion. I hope Mikaela found some time to take a nap after the races. I know that I will, while looking forward to what I hope will be a return to Killington next year.