There was an excitement in the air Saturday afternoon at the Utah Olympic Park. The tight-knit family of U.S. Freestyle Ski Team aerialists joked around with each other on a foggy knoll, bundled tightly in their new Columbia parkas with fur-rimmed hoods. Coaches worked with rakes and shovels to scrape the rapidly falling snow off the newly shaped singles jump. Soon it was go time the Olympic season was underway with the opening of on-snow training at the first aerials jump in North America to open.
For Winter Olympic athletes, November is a critical month. It's the transition from the gym to snow. In the past it meant travel to faraway venues. Today, with the support of venues like the Utah Olympic Park, Colorado's Copper Mountain and others, U.S. athletes are able to get better training and get it closer to home.
"The crew at the Utah Olympic Park is entirely responsible for all the athletes having the opportunity to get a few extra days on snow before the rest of the world," said rising Nordic combined star Bryan Fletcher last week. On Tuesday, Nov. 12, the Park opened the Olympic K90 hill for training the first day any jump site in the world was open on-snow. For the nordic combined team, plus men's and women's ski jumpers, it was an opportunity to get an early start to the season while sleeping at home.
Saturday was a nasty weather day for the aerials team, but no one cared. Caution was used with a radar gun gauging in-run speeds before the athletes hit the kicker. But soon, they were throwing big air uprights. Newcomer Kendal Johnson who four years ago discovered aerials skiing while watching Speedy Peterson win silver on TV in his Wisconsin home was first to throw an inverted. Soon after, Olympian Ashley Caldwell stuck a flip just feet from the spot where crashes took a toll on her each of the past two pre-seasons.
Two weeks earlier and a few hundred miles east, the U.S. Alpine Ski Team was the host to the only yes, the only downhill training in the world at the U.S. Ski Team Speed Center at Copper. A partnership between the U.S. Ski Team and Copper (owned by Park City-based Powdr, Corp.), the training center is in its third season and provides full-length downhill training with an opening date of Nov. 1 each year. It's making a difference.
Wonder why the snowmaking guns were blasting in early November at Gorgoza Park heading up Parley's? No, it wasn't the park trying to be the first tubing hill open in the world. It was to design a few snow features for the U.S. Snowboarding SBX team to get in a week of technical training before anyone else in the world. Last week athletes like Olympic silver medalist Lindsey Jacobellis and X Games phenom Nate Holland and teammates were able to ride features every morning the brainchild of veteran coach Peter Foley and the Team's friends at Park City Mountain Resort.
Athlete training infrastructure has been a vital focus for the Park City-based U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association in the past decade. Central to that initiative has been the complementary facilities between the USSA's four-year-old Center of Excellence training center and the 2002 Olympic venues. As an example, one day last week the nordic combined team spent a few hours jumping on-snow at the Utah Olympic Park, headed over to Soldier Hollow for a roller skiing time trial on newly repaved trails and wrapped it up with a recovery session at the Center of Excellence.
It's now less than 80 days to Sochi. Some of the World Cup seasons are already underway. But the ability for U.S. athletes to get a bit of an edge this month will pay dividends come February.
One of the most experienced communications professionals in skiing, Tom Kelly is a veteran of eight Olympics and serves as vice president, Communications, for the Park City-based U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. A Wisconsin native, he and his wife Carole Duh have lived in Park City since 1988 when he's not traveling the world with the team.