Utah Olympic Park expansion seen as path to industry standard for ski racers | ParkRecord.com

Utah Olympic Park expansion seen as path to industry standard for ski racers

The Homestake lift, formerly of Deer Valley, sat in the Utah Olympic Park’s parking lot in the fall. It is scheduled to be installed in the first phase of a two-step expansion process that would give clubs designated training grounds.

Park City has hundreds of skiable acres, but very few of them mean much to up-and-coming Alpine and moguls athletes.

Park City Ski and Snowboard, the University of Utah ski team, and Rowmark Ski Academy are all betting that the best is yet to come, and putting millions of dollars down on investing new training terrain.

They should know how their investment is shaping up this fall when the Utah Olympic Park is scheduled to cut the ribbon on the first phase of its two-step expansion plan. Once it's completed, the UOP will give clubs and athletes sole access to the terrain.

That means more control, more time on training runs, and better-prepared skiers.

At the plan's initial unveiling in October, John Kanarowski, executive director of Park City Ski and Snowboard, said the expansion would be a "game changer" for the club, a theme Rowmark director Todd Brickson repeated Wednesday.

"What it boils down to is being able to provide the athletes with specific types for training," Brickson said. "And the ability to change the surface, which is different from what the public wants."

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Rowmark, PCSS and the University of Utah all share time on Eagle Race Arena (including CB's and Picabo's runs) and Payday at Park City Mountain Resort for alpine training. While it's a good venue overall, Kanarowski and Brickson said, it's not without its issues.

For one thing, relying on a massive ski resort whose first priority is opening runs for ticketholders isn't conducive for creating a well-coordinated alpine training program.

"The priority has shifted to making snow on other runs," Kanarowski said of PCMR's early-season plans. "And we totally understand that those are the pressures that Park City and Vail face."

But that means ski racers usually don't get on the snow very early – at least not at home. It used to be that young alpine skiers would start practice following the America's Opening World Cup, held most Novembers in Park City from 1987 to 2004. But those days are over, and with them the opportunity for early-season training that helped raise the likes of Ted Ligety and Steven Nyman.

The last two seasons, Kanarowski said alpine and moguls athletes haven't gotten consistent time on home snow until February – last year because of poor snowfall, this season the World Championships.

And by February, skiers have often already gone through a handful of important competitions that could have helped them qualify for national and international events.

To prepare for each season, PCSS athletes travel around the Mountain West searching for snow. And while the UOP expansion won't preclude travel, it will reduce it, Kanarowski said.

Those trips can take their toll on the athletes – some of whom are as young as 14 – as well as their families' pocketbooks. According to a press release, the average PCSS family spends $2,000 on travel competitions per season, and many alpine racers don't start hitting their stride until March or April.

Brickson said Rowmark skiers are in a similar situation.

"It definitely takes a lot of resources," he said of the academy's early-season trips to places out of state like Mammoth, Copper Mountain and Sun Valley.

Then there's the slope itself.

Clubs can't alter the snow on resort runs the way they would like to. Between practices, those runs will be re-opened to the public, who probably didn't fly to Park City to test their edges down ice.

Kanarowski said that an icy surface is not only a better simulation of World Cup races, but it's safer for the athletes too, since it doesn't shift as much under skis and create unexpected ridges that can be hard to spot in flat light.

Clubs will be able to hose down the course at the UOP, should they feel so inclined – which also helps keep the course skiable on warmer days.

"I don't know if there is such a thing as a normal winter anymore," said PCSS Alpine Director John Buchar. "But we're seeing these big swings going from normal temps (to warm), and to bring it back to freezing, sometimes it takes using that water, and we don't have control of that."

The athlete-only hill concept is nothing new in the skiing world.

Ski clubs in Jackson Hole, Sun Valley and Vail all have designated hills to train on. Kanarowski said PCSS's $3 million investment (along with another $3 million from Rowkmark and $1.5 million from the Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation, among others) will help bring the club up to speed and will save money in the long run.

"It's a trend that's kind of industry-wide, where the resorts are aiming for a more mainstream (service) … and clubs have had to develop their own training facilities," he said. "It's just a reality in our sports."

PCSS won't be leaving Park City Mountain completely. The club will still use Eagle and Payday, and the warren of offices and lockers that they rent beneath the resort.

"All the younger athletes; their home base will be PCMR, and we really don't see that changing," Kanarowski said. "For the younger athletes, they need to be skiing the whole mountain to develop their skillset. You want a more all-mountain foundation, and that's what PCMR will be, the place where we develop that."

Once the UOP expansion is completed, the Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation will handle scheduling. Each club will buy time on sections of terrain, and each athlete will be required to have a pass.

"We've been working really hard on a usage agreement," Brickson said of the clubs and the UOLF. "And we've all agreed on a very equitable way to share the spaces. All three teams are going to get just what they need."

The first phase will expand the training area behind the museum, including the addition of a lift. It will total about 11 acres of terrain that rises 400 feet over a path of about 1,200 feet.

The second area, set to be completed in 2020, will be more expansive. The hill adjacent to the bobsled course will be developed into a 30-acre ski area with another lift, and about 1,200 of vertical over 3,280 linear feet of ski run, which is projected to cost about $8 million to build.