The spirit of Squaw Valley | ParkRecord.com

The spirit of Squaw Valley

Tom Kelly

Park Record columnist

A first-run lead solidly in the books, teenage World Champion Mikaela Shiffrin waltzed through TV and media interviews in the finish area at sunny Squaw Valley. She dissected her first run, reminisced about her season, and chatted about being back together with her ski-racing friends at nationals. But she was also anxious to move on to spend time with the hundreds of kids lining up to meet their new hero.

"It’s important to me. Just a couple years ago, that was me on the other side of the fence," she said with a smile skis in one hand, Sharpie in the other. "I want them to see that I’m no different than them. I’m just a goofball having fun ski racing."

So began the process of meeting her fans every one of them decked out in full race gear and ready to get to their own training after they snared an autograph.

"It’s fun to hang out with all the younger kids and it’s cool that they all came out and watched," said fellow World Champion Ted Ligety. "It’s definitely nice to spend some time with the young fans."

U.S. Championships are a rite of spring a homecoming for globetrotting World Cup skiers, a breakthrough opportunity for aspiring Olympians from USSA clubs around the country. But at a place like Squaw Valley where skiing tradition runs deep it’s oh so much more.

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There’s a culture at Squaw like no other ski-racing community. It emanates from the 1960 Olympics; it was carried on by the likes of Tahoe City’s Jimmie Heuga and perpetuated by World Cup stars like Tamara McKinney. When you grab a beer at the KT deck after a day of skiing, you’re likely to rub elbows with the likes of Olympic champions Jonny Moseley or Julia Mancuso.

In fact, it’s no surprise that just about every kid in town is sporting a POC helmet thank you, Julia!

Opening race day was a Thursday yes, a school day. But that didn’t stop a few hundred kids from showing up to watch Mancuso, their hero. She was equally honored to spend time connecting with the kids.

It was also a time for the local heroes to shine. Julia extended her own record with U.S. title number 16 this time in giant slalom (her super G string was snapped); hometown boy Travis Ganong ripped to gold in super G; and Truckee native (and former Park City Ski Team athlete) Tim Jitloff took GS.

There are few sports like ski racing connecting a lifelong family sport like skiing on the same level as the sports’ pros. Few sports would find its heroes budgeting time to spend it with kids in the middle of a competition. But that’s what makes skiing so special.

Right now the hundreds of kids who stormed the finish each day are just youngsters having fun. This is their mountain. This is their sport. It’s hard telling who, but you just know there’s an Olympic medal or two underneath one of those helmets.

NOTE: Park City, you’ll get your chance to meet and celebrate Ted Ligety with a community celebration at Park City Mountain Resort, Saturday, April 6, at 1 p.m.

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.