There are few sports like downhill ski racing a thin sixteenth-of-an-inch piece of steel gripping ever so precariously to a sheet of ice, as a human being uses gravity as a friend to slice perilously downhill at speeds around 70 mph. The men have Kitzbuehel's fabled Hahenkamm, where a run down the legendary Streif confirms your grit as an alpine ski racer. Then there's Wengen, with its 2.5-mile Lauberhorn, where your legs nearly burn your racing suit with searing pain as you endure over two minutes of bumping and banging.
Now, it's the women's turn as Raptor was set free last weekend at Beaver Creek.
When the alpine ski racing world descends on Vail/Beaver Creek in February, 2015, it will be a showcase! Since the debut of the men's Birds of Prey downhill in 1997, Beaver Creek has been known as the home of one of the best speed courses in the world, mixed with a hill crew second to none. With the exception of a last-minute makeup super G two years ago (won by Lindsey Vonn), Birds of Prey has been a men's-only affair.
That ended last weekend with two days of speed racing on a course the women pretty unanimously labeled as not one of the best, but THE best. You heard words like challenging, relentless, bravery and more.
In front of a live national TV audience for the first time in World Cup downhill history, the women dropped in fearlessly with long, sweeping, high-speed, arcing turns -- never letting up for an instant for a minute, 41 seconds. Super slo-mo dissected the high speed turns with carving skis bouncing and banging at nearly 70 mph. This is what ski racing is all about -- hanging onto a thin edge, one step from disaster.
While it wasn't the weekend the U.S. women's number one rated speed team had hoped to achieve, it nonetheless introduced to the world a new level of ski racing for women.
Raptor is truly top-to-bottom racing -- there's no place to let up, no section to rest or regroup. You have to be on it from start to finish.
The term "raptor" is derived from the Latin word rapere, meaning to seize or take by force. The birds in this family have well developed senses, especially vision, and large, powerful talons and beaks that aid them in hunting their prey.
That pretty much describes Swiss superstar Lara Gut, who continued her dominance of the Audi FIS Alpine World Cup with back-to-back powerful wins on Raptor.
"It's a complete downhill," said Gut. "An eye opener," exclaimed NBC's Steve Porino. "It's not a course where you can be perfect," said the U.S. Ski Team's Stacey Cook.
As you push out of the start, your mind begins racing thinking about the steep, twisty-turny course you are about to dive into. What truly sets Raptor apart for athletes and fans are the sweeping arced turns down the steep, icy pitch. It's one of the most "flowing" downhill courses you will ever see. One after another, the women arc long sweeping turns. And that long arc means speed a lot of it, with a tempo of around 65 mph through turn after turn until the women soar off the Red Tail Jump into the finish.
"It's challenging to say the least," said Cook. "It's narrow and in your face. We're right up against the fences and there's a lot of forces to deal with, particularly high speeds combined with big turns, which is something that doesn't get combined very often in women's downhill. You're going to have to be really strong to be fast."
This weekend's women's downhill in Lake Louise will be quite the opposite of Raptor long, gliding, cruising sections. But you can bet that Raptor will still be on the athletes' minds, waiting patiently for next February's World Championships.
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.