Behind the Gold
November 29, 2016
Headlights pierced the morning fog that had settled into the valleys around the Green Mountains in central Vermont as hundreds of cars twisted and turned en route to the mountain. In the pre-dawn darkness, nearly a thousand kids and their chaperones made their way to the Killington Ski Club building as clouds obscured the sun – nearly two dozen ski clubs gathering together. This was a special day for ski racers.
For the past 14 months, since the announcement that the Audi FIS Ski World Cup was returning to the Eastern USA, every mom and dad of a young ski racer in New England knew that on Thanksgiving weekend, they would be taking their kids to Killington.
It was a grey, misty morning in Vermont. But it was a day that would forge dreams of future gold in the minds of young boys and girls. As they marched proudly into Killington's newly built stadium, their wide open eyes told the story. These were young ski racers from every corner of Vermont, about to experience the thrill of a lifetime.
The move by the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association to bring World Cup ski racing back to the Eastern USA for the first time in 25 years was a calculated investment in kids. Giving thousands of ski racers an up-close view of their sport and heroes could have a profound impact on an entire generation.
In Saturday's opening giant slalom, you could scan the crowd of over 16,000 and find every single set of eyes squarely focused on the race course – absorbing every bumpy rut with the athletes, heart skipping a beat as they knifed down the course.
"When the kids watch these races, what they see is Mikaela Shiffrin's perfection and precision," said the state's youth racing program Vermont Alpine Racing Association (VARA) Director Julie Woodworth. "They have such a high regard for her – she's a Burkie (Burke Mountain Academy) and from Vermont. And it's also good for them to see that she was fifth and that's OK."
There's something special about being part of a live ski race. You can feel the tension in the air. You hear the beautiful sound of skis carving a turn, or feel the agony as you hear them skid on the ice.
"It's so much cooler to see it in person," said 11-year-old Abrie Howe of the Mt. Mansfield Ski Club in Stowe. "I see them on TV but I had no idea how big a deal it was until I saw it in person."
But it wasn't just the racing – it was getting to meet athletes and see them as individuals.
"It's so important to see them as real people," Woodworth added. "These kids know that these athletes are at the highest level and they want to be close to them and soak up their expertise – even it's just watching them walk by."
In her ever humble way, Shiffrin takes on the role of hero in her own unique way.
"That role of being an inspiration for young girls is growing," she said. "As more people tell me I inspire them, it also inspires me."
But being a hero also has its challenges, which Shiffrin feels every time she steps into the starting gate.
"I'm generally not a confident person – I have a lot of self-doubt," she said. "But I am generally a really happy person. Sometime these races get to me as I feel I need to be something special or I need the public's approval.
"Today I tried to make the choice that I don't need approval and that's a message to all the young girls. You should ski for yourself, not for anyone else. I don't care what people think about me. I'm doing MY thing and I'm a happy person. I love that and it's a really special time for me to be back here ski racing."
The athletes left a lasting impression on each and every one of the 30,000 fans who packed the stadium during the weekend at Killington.
"Mikaela's focus, poise, humility and friendliness represent the very best of New England and our skiing community," Killington President Mike Solimano said. "While she undoubtedly inspired the next generation of ski racers, she also inspired the entire Killington team, myself included."
It all adds up to future gold. For young Abrie, she left Killington with many memories and new goals.
"I feel like it would be really cool to be on the U.S. Ski Team," she said, as she went outside to watch second run.