World Cup Racing Returns to Squaw Valley After 48 Years

The World Cup is coming, the World Cup is coming … for the past few months, ski race fans in Lake Tahoe (and further afield) waiting for the World Cup felt like kids waiting for Christmas. And just like Christmas, the event was subject to a massive amount of planning, marketing, and intense preparation; the huge winter we have experienced made it even more complex.

So, how did it all turn out? Your reporter was privileged to have a unique insider view as both an on-hill course volunteer and a credentialed media representative for Pugski.com (thanks Phil!).

The team at Squaw Valley worked solidly for more than nine months. It took an enormous level of coordination and preparation leading up to a race weekend with 200 staff and 4,509 volunteers. One of the most demanding GS/SL hills in the United States, Red Dog had undergone intense preparation since September. Once temperatures dropped in November, the focus was on making and stockpiling snow (little did we know what Mother Nature had up her sleeve); once the snow started, the focus turned to grooming and treating the hill to ensure a WC-quality surface. Months of grooming (or, more accurately, packing in 40+ feet of snow) and watering the hill left it in near-perfect race condition 10 days before the start. Then, to no one’s surprise this season, Tahoe received another 4 feet of snow Sunday before the event. But that didn’t stop a thing: Squaw brought in an army of volunteers to help slip the hill, up to 16 hours a day!

The hard work paid off, and on Wednesday, when I stopped by to pick up my credentials and volunteer jacket, the hill looked to be in terrific shape … but there were still more curveballs to come.

Photograph by Dory Breaux

Thursday 9 March

On Thursday, the course-slipping crew had an acclimatization session, partly to brief everyone on requirements and partly to ensure that the slippers could actually stay upright on the surface. This is a not-insignificant requirement since a course worker going down on the hill can cause all kinds of issues: destroying the course, impeding a racer, or costing valuable TV time and possible overruns on the live coverage. They also wanted to make sure we did not obstruct TV coverage (so much for getting my Pugski.com helmet stickers shown across Europe). With the herd partially thinned, the slipper crew — which largely consisted of Masters racers, ex-Junior racers, and Squaw locals — was ready for race day.

Photograph by Dory Breaux

After swapping my helmet for a Pugski.com cap, I headed to the opening press conference. As a newbie, I didn’t know quite what to expect. It was a pretty eclectic bunch, ranging from AP, San Francisco Chronicle, and European ski reporters to representatives from local broadcast and print media, podcasts, and even high schools. I had many inquiries from fellow media about Pugski; I chatted beforehand with Jonny Moseley, and he recognized the name and knew about the site.

The opening panel consisted of Moseley; Julia Mancuso; Squaw Valley’s Kyle Crezee, head of the organizing committee; Andy Wirth, Squaw Valley CEO; and Tiger Shaw, USSA CEO. Many interesting points emerged from this high-powered group. It turns out that Mancuso was one of the original proponents of bringing the race here. After seeing the gap in the calendar between the pre-Olympic familiarization races in South Korea and the World Cup finals in Aspen, she pitched it to Wirth and the Squaw ownership team. The event was planned to “inspire the next generation of ski racers” and I am sure as an opportunity to showcase Mancuso on her home hill.

Full credit goes to the management team at Squaw for accepting the challenge and rising to the occasion. For a resort that had not hosted a WC event for 48 years to propose the event, get approval from FIS and USSA, and then be ready for it in less than nine months is an incredible achievement: normally something like this has a two-year lead time. Wirth gave full credit to his team as well as the community.

Photograph by ScotsSkier

Although it is tempting to think that the races were being held for short-term economic gain, nothing could be further from the truth: they are but one element of a much broader plan to bring top-class racing and events back to Squaw. Tiger Shaw emphasized this point, given that the United States now has four current WC venues (Squaw plus Aspen, Beaver Creek, and Killington) and a strong desire to host events more regularly. For Squaw, it was an opportunity to promote the resort as more than just a big-mountain destination. Given the Tahoe snowpack this season, it also provides a great option for Euro ski team training in May and June. Also notable was Squaw’s drive to ensure a carbon-neutral footprint with appropriate offsets. For Mancuso, of course, the pride of showcasing her home hill was tinged with disappointment as injuries had not healed sufficiently to allow her to race.

I was able to ask the final question to the panel; props to Moseley, who after our earlier chat called out Pugski.com by name, which led to a few inquiries afterward.

Some reflections (ok, opinions) from the press conference: Andy Wirth, who can be a fairly polarizing figure, came across as an effective leader with a very clear vision for the future. Tiger Shaw, it pains me to say as a racer and USSA member, appeared to be more of a solid administrator than the visionary leader so many of us had hoped for. Granted, he has a very difficult job balancing so many donors, the USSA board, and multiple interest groups, but I had wished to see a change agent to refocus USSA so that it would better support the next generation of racers.

The day finished off with the opening ceremony. In keeping with the wider community theme, it included a parade with racers from all the Tahoe teams. It was a terrific opportunity for the aspiring stars of tomorrow to be a part of the event and rub shoulders with their heroes.

Photograph by Dory Breaux

Friday 10 March: Giant Slalom

Finally, race day was here! Unfortunately, the day dawned slightly overcast with temperatures rising and not much of an overnight freeze. The GS course start required a short hike above the top of the Red Dog lift, and the course needed salting before the first run. The slip crew cleaned the hill before the salters and then helped grind it in after letting it set for 10 minutes.

At long last, the track was ready, the forerunners had gone, and Bib 1 was in the gate. This is what everyone had been waiting for! Near the top of the course, a steel band was beating drums; at the bottom and in the now-full grandstands, the crowd was ready with a good number of cowbells and banners — yes, just like you see at the European races (but with fewer painted faces).

Photograph by ScotsSkier

And wow, did these girls let it rip! Red Dog is a hugely demanding course. Out of the start, there are six or seven gates on relative flats that need to be tucked. Then you launch over the lip onto Dogleg, and it doesn’t let up: steep pitches, serious sidehill fall-away, lots of rollers down the final face (where the crowd at the bottom can see nearly half the course), and a demanding set with lots of swing set by the Swedish coach. I have watched U.S. Nationals, NorAms, and NCAA Division 1 ski racing, but this took it to a whole new level. It was incredible skiing with a real close-up view (as well as audio: racers’ choice words are similar in every language!). When the course slip chief instructed us to slip the low late line, I pointed out that he had 20 Masters racers lined up: the low late line is our natural habitat!

Tessa Worley in Bib 4 took the lead, but then, even from the top of the hill, we could tell Shiffrin had surpassed her when the crowd went wild. Still, the depth of talent goes all the way through the field, which we got to see as we made three cycles through the course. Fortunately, the surface held up pretty well and no one on our crew fell.

So, on to Run 2, where U.S. skier Megan McJames had joined Shiffrin in the top 30. Some serious slip work and salting got the track in shape with a course set by the Italian coach. This set was more flowing and brought out the competitors’ best. The first run had looked more like a men’s GS, with the women throwing their skis sideways in a stivot at times, but now they could really show their skills.

Photograph by Dory Breaux

As we moved into the “Great Eight,” things really heated up. Sofia Goggia was having a wonderful run and was a second up at the last interval, but she stuck her hand through a panel on the final pitch and lost a pole with eight gates to go; even so, she kept it going and still made a decent time. Federica Brignone then took over the lead, and it was down to Worley and Shiffrin, the final two skiers. Worley failed to pass Brignone and fell into second place. Could Mikaela do it in in front of a U.S. crowd? She looked strong on the bottom of the course (I had timed my slip well!), but the clock showed that she was dropping time, and at the last interval she had slipped to 0.02 behind … but somehow over the last six gates she pulled it back to take the win by 0.07, and the crowd erupted. A U.S. win!

At the post-race press conference, she was asked, ”So what is your secret, Mikaela?” “I am hugely ambitious and not afraid to say so — and that may intimidate some of the girls.” (Looks like she is starting to mature and work on the mind games.) But she continued, “You have to put in the work, study video, and prepare.” For GS she watches a lot of Ted Ligety, Marcel Hirscher, and of course Tessa Worley. Judging by her improving GS results, it is working.

Saturday 11 March: Slalom

Day 2 dawned bright and sunny after a harder overnight freeze: skiing down Red Dog to the slalom start at 8 a.m. was, shall we say, interesting. At the top of the slalom course, it was evident that the lower temperatures had provided a true World Cup surface, somewhat resembling blue ice, and the top five gates showed that the course setter was taking no prisoners. (Oddly enough, after the slip crew cleaned up the track and cycled round, our numbers were somewhat depleted ….)

The crowds built up much more quickly than Friday. The grandstands were full, and people lined the course 300 feet up the hill. It was a real party atmosphere with an air of anticipation, the bright sunshine keeping the mood light.

Photograph by Dory Breaux

The top 10 showed what a tough course it was. They had to attack out of the start with the first five gates on a steep pitch with lots of swing. Holdener was second out of the gate and laid down a time that was going to stand up to challenge. Shiffrin, in Bib 7, had some rocky moments (and some great saves) and was not showing the dominant form we have come to expect in her slalom. The groan from the stands told us she had not gotten ahead of Wendy; she was 0.02 sec behind, with Petra Vlhova filling out the top three at 0.4 back.

As we went down the running order, the carnage ensued. Most problems began at Gate 3, as skiers charged the start but just could not hold it on the pitch. Resi Steigler went on a slide for life for 200 yards down the hill, finally stopping in the netting. Lila Lapanja, who had not gotten a start in the GS to the disappointment of her home Tahoe crowd, made it farther but blew out at the 15th gate. The surface was holding up pretty well, with no big holes, and the slip crew was able to focus on clearing the slough between each racer.

Photograph by Dory Breaux

After the first run, there were 32 finishers and 15 DNFs. Megan McJames missed the top 30 by two places, but Alexandra Tilley, the sole British skier, made it in 21st position.

With the temperatures rising quickly, salt would be essential for the second run. The course set by the Austrian coach was as punishing as the first run. Slipping became much more necessary to keep the course in shape, pushing away the snow thrown up below the gate as the grooves in the line cut through to a hard base. Again we witnessed a high DNF rate as the course took its toll.

This time I timed my slip run to perfection, ending up 10 gates from the finish with the top five still to run. Bernadette Schild and Sarka Strachova both threw down great runs, and Vlhova blew out, so we were ready for a shootout between the top two. Shiffrin nearly lost it at the third gate but made a terrific recovery. Uncharacteristically for her, the top two-thirds of the course was more like survival skiing, but she kept it going down the hill. As she passed us, she was turning up the wick and looking much more like the Mikaela we are accustomed to, skiing into first place to the roar of the crowd. With only Holdener to run, the stage was set.

Photograph by Dory Breaux

Like Shiffrin, Holdener had some big moments at the top of the course. She kept attacking doggedly, but as she neared us it was apparent that it was becoming a struggle. She battled away, tightening the line and almost boot-topping the gates, but this of course brought other problems, with the slight loss of pressure and break in momentum that it causes. I turned to one of the Italian coaches and we simultaneously shook our heads that she was not going to make it. But she gave it everything she could, as she probably knew she was dropping time. Going into the final flush a few gates from the finish, it looked too straight — and it was. Game over. Groans of sympathy from the crowd and then cheers as they celebrated Mikaela’s double win on home soil and the retention of the slalom globe. It was disappointing to see Wendy go out like that so close to the finish, but that is the nature of slalom racing.

At the press conference, all three podium finishers were brought in individually. Strachova was very happy; it is a tough hill that in her mind is similar to Aspen so she hopes to carry the same form there. She was very complimentary about the event, which was a common theme among all the women there; they seemed to be enjoying the weather and venue despite it being near the end of a long season.

Next up was Schild, a much more bubbly character. In perhaps a sign of the dynamics on the women’s tour, her comment on Mikaela was, “She is nice but not very outgoing; very focused.” Schild’s approach to encouraging kids was much more about ensuring they were having fun and building on that, in contrast to the more disciplined, drill-oriented approach of Shiffrin in response to a similar question. For Schild it was a special result here, where she and her sister had spent several summers with the Poulsens, the real pioneers of Squaw Valley.

Finally Mikaela appeared, obviously drained but happy. As it had appeared to spectators, she had taken the first run more conservatively than usual, focused on gathering points rather than simply going for the win, not an easy thing to do. This was only her second two-win weekend, and now she was just ready to sleep. It was not mathematically certain, but these 200 points pretty much locked up the overall World Cup title for her; true to form and her intense focus, however, she was not yet ready to claim it.

Photograph by ScotsSkier

Overall Impressions

What an incredible experience! Squaw Valley pulled out all the stops. From an external view, everything appeared to run to plan and on schedule; inside access revealed some unexpected issues (as always), but the organizing team took them in stride.

For the crowd and volunteers, it was a rare opportunity to see ski racing at its pinnacle. For me personally, it was a unique experience with dual insights, and I feel privileged to have been able to represent Pugski.com. Hopefully, through this rambling missive and my daily updates on the site, I have been able to help more of you share in the occasion. For all ski racing fans (and even those not so focused on racing), it is something I would encourage you to experience if you ever have the chance.

Squaw Valley is back on the World Cup map. Judging by the strong attendance of younger racers, with their helmets, clothing, and programs all bearing autographs from the stars on the hill, its return is indeed “inspiring the next generation of ski racers” — the true definition of success!

Photograph by Dory Breaux