Local hill hosts Olympians for alpine championships

Lake Placid, N.Y.: the undisputed Winter Sports Capital of the world. For five days in late March, the best ski racers in the United States descended upon the site of the 1932 and 1980 Olympic games, just a short drive up the Northway from Rensselaer. Whiteface, located in nearby Wilmington, N.Y., played host to the U.S. Alpine Championships from March 19–23, hosting three disciplines: Super-Giant Slalom, Slalom, and Giant Slalom.

Many members of the U.S. ski team that recently competed in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia last month were in attendance for one of the final USSA sanctioned races of the season. Although the biggest names on the U.S. squad—Lindsey Vonn, Julia Mancuso, and Bode Miller—were absent, it didn’t lessen the playing field one bit. Turin gold medalist in the Super Combined and recently crowned World Cup Champion in the Giant Slalom Ted Ligety graced the dreaded Draper’s Drop, as well as Olympians Steve Nyman, Will Brandenburg, Kaylin Richardson, Sarah Schleper, Tommy Ford, and nine others from the record-setting team. Hometown favorite Andrew Weibrecht, who earned a bronze medal in the Super-G at Whistler, was in attendance, but only as a spectator. The Lake Placid native dislocated his shoulder during the Downhill at Kvitfjell, Norway, ending his season early.

The first event of the Championships actually happened off the trails of the famed Whiteface. Due to the difficulty in preparing a Downhill course, that portion of the competition was held during a NorAm race in Aspen, Colo., in late February. Up-and-coming Squaw Valley skier Travis Ganong took the men’s title, barely edging out Nyman, while Leanne Smith took the gold medal for the women, beating out fellow Olympian Stacey Cook.

Just days after finishing the final NorAm race of the season, members of the U.S. team headed over to the Adirondacks for the final three phases of the competition. Although Mancuso, a surprising two-time medalist at the 2010 Olympics, was originally slated to compete, she dropped out at the last minute to compete in a freeride event in France. Members of the U.S. ski team were not the only ones in attendance, however. The U.S. Alpine Championships also doubles as the USSA National Championships, allowing the best JI-II skiers the chance to prove themselves on a national stage. Many competitors, especially on the women’s side, were skiers from the top Division-I schools in the country, such as Denver University, St. Lawrence University, and Dartmouth University, among others. On average, roughly 90 men and 80 women competed in each event, with some participating in only one discipline.

Saturday played host to the Super-G, the only speed event to be held at Whiteface that weekend. True to its name, the event is a cross between the Downhill and the Giant Slalom—integrating the speed of the former and the technicalities of the latter. Racers are allowed to inspect the course for one hour before start time and only have one run, as opposed to the Slalom and Giant Slalom where they are scored on the combined time of two runs.

The 1,685-meter run started right off the Freeway Chair and followed down Upper Parkway onto Upper Thruway, before descending down Draper’s Drop for a tiring finish. Weather conditions were not in the competitors’ favor; unseasonably warm weather turned the already threadbare snow into a mashed potato mess, just begging to rip apart an ACL or two. Ganong persevered, taking his second title of the games. Brandenburg finished second, while Warner Nickerson rounded out the top three. The women finished close to how they started with Keely Kelleher taking gold, Chelsea Marshall placing second, and Laurenne Ross taking third.

“It’s warm out here, so there’s definitely an advantage of running first. When it’s like that, the track is smooth,” explained Ganong in a post-race interview. “I skied pretty well; I nailed all of my marks. It was fun.” Kelleher echoed the same remarks, noting that wearing bib No. 1 has its perks, such as trusting herself as opposed to the course reports.

Conditions for Sunday’s Slalom became even more of a mess as unpredicted cold weather overnight froze the slush that had covered the mountain the day before. Although icy conditions are preferred for racing as ice does not deteriorate as much as snow, the alternating layers of slush and ice were not holding up to skiers’ expectations. Workers schlepped up hundreds of gallons of water and innumerable bags of salt to try and tame the difficult course, but to no avail.

Ford, who turned 21 on Saturday, earned a belated present with his first U.S. title in the Slalom. The Bend, Ore., native attributed his northwest training to his success, noting that “Everyone here is used to injection and clean courses on their World Cups, and I’m used to running ruts. I’ve been running them my whole life and I actually kind of like skiing them sometimes.” He was joined by Schleper, one of the top U.S. female skiers in the Slalom.

The victory was bittersweet for Schleper, who returned for her 13th year with the U.S. team after taking two seasons off for ACL reconstruction on her knee, and the birth of her son. “This title is really the icing on a hard two years. It was a lot of fun; I love my teammates and I loved being here,” Schleper said.

For the men, David Chodounsky and Nolan Kasper rounded out the top three, taking a podium sweep for current Dartmouth students and alumni. Schleper was also a Dartmouth grad. Canadian Erin Mielzynski and Hailey Duke placed second and third, respectively, in the event.

Ford wasn’t done with just the Slalom; after taking second place at the U.S. Alpine Championships in the Giant Slalom in 2008 and 2009, his gold on Monday was a hard-earned victory. It came as no surprise to see Ford finish on top, as the GS was his best event, placing 26th during the Olympics in Vancouver. His more difficult competition would come from Ligety, who recently raised his second crystal globe for the Giant Slalom earlier this month. Having not skied well since before the Olympics, Ligety disappointed fans once again by placing eighth after his first run and opting to skip his second. With the deteriorating weather conditions due to the intermittent rain, and the several course holds as a result of constant maintenance, Ligety ended on a high note and chose to leave early. Ganong, who was in running for his third title of the Championship, skied off course during his second run. Placing second for the men was Warner Nickerson, while Chris Frank took the No. 3 slot.

As bad as Monday’s conditions seemed, Tuesday’s proved to be much worse as the women finished out the event with their Giant Slalom. Heavy rains and fog on the course made for the worst conditions possible for the skiers. In a surprise move, Mancuso registered for the final race of the year, just coming off a third-place finish off the Nissan Xtreme Freeride World Tour in Verbier this past Saturday. Mancuso took home a gold in the Giant Slalom in the 2006 Turin Olympics, and would have defended her title in Vancouver had a freak accident not forced her to retake her first run, essentially knocking her out of medal contention.

Mancuso led the field after the first run, posting a time of 1:03.10, followed by Megan McJames and Smith. Of the field of 75 skiers, only two-thirds finished the difficult course.

Following the second run, Mancuso finished out on top, posting the third fastest of the second runs and the overall best time. Ross finished in the No. 2 position, while Sweden’s Malin Hemmingsson edged into third place, completing an exciting week of racing.

At the conclusion of the weekend, Richardson announced her retirement from racing, nine years after first joining the team.

Although the weather was not up to par to usual World Cup standards, the U.S. Alpine Championships gave competitors a happy ending to a long season. Seasoned veterans were able to awe fans with their sheer speed and talent, and provided them an opportunity to get a look at what’s to come for the U.S. ski team in the upcoming seasons.