Summer Sessions: A day on the glacier

The days start early. Training is always at high altitude. You hydrate and eat constantly. A day on the glacier is always tough both mentally and physically. But the snow conditions are typically excellent, making for high volume and an efficient start to the new season.

A typical day starts with a 6:15 am load. In Zermatt, it’s 45 minutes from valley floor to the Klein Matterhorn peak. We’re on snow at 7:00am. The air temperature is around -7 or -8c on a mid-summer day, but the snow is rock, hard. Groomed corduroy from the softer snow that has frozen overnight.

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The session will run around 4 to 5 hours. Uphill transport in Zermatt is by t-bar (very good continuous snow contact, but tiring as you are on your feet all morning).

IMG_4843The routine starts with a good warmup to prepare for the day – both activation and also drills, before a full session of gates – SL or GS. Gate training is usually underway by 8:00. Depending on conditions and how long the snow will remain firm, the next 3 to 4 hours will be focused on running gates.

FullSizeRender 2Training a 60 second course at nearly 4,000 metres literally takes your breath away. So pacing is important. Drinking fluids even more so. The glacier environment is very dry. Constant intake of food – snacks, fruit – are critically important to keep the energy levels up. Midway through every session, breakfast seems like a distant memory.IMG_4844

Zermatt’s layout is excellent, with multiple lanes that can accommodate speed and technical training, with an extensive freeride park alongside the alpine ski racing lanes. The profile of the glacier permits everything from World Cup caliber lanes to gentle slopes for the large groups of much younger athletes.

By mid-day, roughly 11:00, the snow begins to soften and is no longer firm enough to be productive, so courses are taken down and the 45 journey to valley floor is repeated in reverse.

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Afternoons are occupied by dryland training sessions which range from lifting to hikes to football (yes, soccer). After dinner, equipment issues are addresses, video reviewed and plans are put in place to do it all again, tomorrow.

Glacier insight: a latte at the ‘Bar del Rifugio” on the Italian side of the Plateau Rosa is 1.50 Euro. The same latte is 5 Swiss Francs in Zermatt. Guess where the coaches make a bee-line to once the courses are set up and athletes are focused on warm-up?

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Summer Sessions: Mornings at 3,883m

You can feel the altitude at 3,883 metres. The air is dry. Temperatures in the early morning hours hover around -10c. Visibility on good days is unlimited. It’s hard, mid-winter snow, often a dusting of powder over groomed corduroy.

IMG_4778Iconic mountains loom nearby. The famous dagger of the Matterhorn to the south. Mt. Blanc Massif is on the distant horizon. Alpinists slowly ascend the Breithorn to the north. The air is clean and clear. Colours vivid against a backdrop of white.

These are early starts, to take advantage of the hard snow which typically softens by 11:00. So we step out of the tunnel carved through the Klein Matterhorn close to 7:00am. On a good day, with cooler temperatures, the hard snow will last until noon, enough time for a solid session of slalom, GS or super G.

On the Matterhorngletscher, uphill transport is by t-bar to allow for the moving ice. This environment is always changing, so you always respect the mountain and glacier.

We’re joined by hundreds of ski racers and coaches. National Teams from Germany, Croatia and of course Switzerland. Private teams, regional teams and hundreds of kids from both sides of the mountain – some coming up from Zermatt, others from Cervinia.

The advantage of Zermatt is the altitude. As the highest training location in Europe, the snow conditions are reliable – the closest one can find to mid-winter in the summer months. In the early summer, the race lanes rented to the teams are dominated by technical skiers focused to slalom and giant slalom, with limited super G. While the teams train, mountain operations work on closing the crevasses to build a speed track which opens in August to permit full downhill and super G training as well as a full length giant slalom.

It’s a rare privilege to return once again to Zermatt and this very special glacier. To take in the spectacular beauty of the mountain environment at 3,883 metres. To share a ride on the lift with World Cup winners. To watch the best in the world, hard at work with drills and courses, honing their craft as they begin their journey towards Soelden, a mere four months away.

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The Summer Sessions: The Fischer Family

After three years competing as an NCAA athlete, Erik Read is now able to sign formally with Alpine Canada Pool ski suppliers.

IMG_4772This past Thursday, it was made official. Continuing for another two seasons with the Fischer Family who have been so supportive. “This is a great partnership” said Read. “The Fischer Team has been solidly behind me through the Nor-Am Tour and transitioning to the World Cup level. I’m grateful for their dedication to my career and for the support of everyone who provides me with such great service and product.”

The 2016-17 season was a breakout winter, with four top ten results from three different events. The highlight was a 7th place on the historic Ganslern track in the 77th running of the Hahnenkamm races at Kitzbuhel, Austria.

Other top ten results included 6th in the alpine combined in St-Catarina, 8th on the Face 2017_ZagrebBellevarde GS track in Val d’Isere and 9th in giant slalom on the Orieller-Killy piste also in Val d’Isere.

He was also a member of the Canadian Team which captured silver in the Alpine Team event at the 2015 FIS Alpine Ski World Championships. The same team finished 5th at the 2017 Worlds.

“This past season, my equipment was dialed in”, said Erik. “The Fischer boot guys – Reinhold Gappmaier and Hannes Reiter – did an amazing job to get the new Podium 150 working for me in both of my main events. And the Fischer Team at the factory was very supportive of our rep, Jan Šauperl, working closely with him.”

Erik is currently in Zermatt, Switzerland fine-tuning equipment prior to the first official on-snow session with the Canadian World Cup Combi Group, which will open next week in nearby Saas-Fee.

Photos courtesy @FischerSports

You can follow Erik on Instagram at Facebook at:

Instagram: hipsterikal

Facebook: skierikread

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With Fischer Sports CEO Franz Foettinger

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The Summer Sessions – Day 1

IMG_4761Sometimes the weather just doesn’t want to cooperate. The jagged tooth of the Matterhorn that towers over this Swiss mountain resort was not to be found this morning, with high winds closing the glacier.

Zermatt has a great reputation for good conditions, but there are those days when you just have to surrender and make the most of a day off.

So instead of hitting the slopes, it’s a lay day. Another day to check the gear, do some dryland training. Take advantage of an opening in the program to inspect the beautiful Mattertal. Do a hike. And catch up on sleep to push away the jet-lag.

The past three days have been productive. Visits to the factory and reps to organize gear for testing. A reconnaissance visit to Davos, host of the 2018 FIS Alpine Junior World Ski Championships.

IMG_4726Fresh off the plane on Thursday, first stop was with Fischer. A chance to connect, discuss testing of equipment to date. Lots of good work to prepare gear to test for this session on-snow.

Then we were off to Davos, to familiarize with the town and slopes in advance of the 2018 World Juniors. The race venue is centered on the Jakobshorn, which towers over the south side of the resort. The speed track starts from the peak, descending to an alpine plateau that sits some 500 metres above the town. The tech track is immediately adjacent to speed track, so with a common finish area it’s a compact race arena.

As the downhill is 450 metres vertical, unique to this Championship will be a two-run downhill for the men. We checked out both tech and speed venues with an early morning hike from valley floor to peak.

Then it was on to Zermatt for a week of equipment testing. The Canadian Junior/Devo Group headed to Les Deux Alpes for their first on-snow session.

IMG_4769So what does one do when the mountain is closed for the day? In Zermatt, you have a rich choice of hiking in every direction. Even without the signature peaks framing the backdrop, the Mattertal is one beautiful spot.

This afternoon I had a ‘walk up memory lane’, hiking the Gornergrat. This was the first time up in 42 years. My last visit was November, 1975 for our final training camp prior to the opening of the World Cup season. A tremendous tune-up, as the race in Val d’Isere two weeks later proved to be a memorable one for the Crazy Canucks.

In the mountain environment we are held hostage to the elements. The Klein Matterhorn top station is at 3,883 metres, so wind and weather dictate our access to the snow. Fingers crossed for more of those epic days where the images from the Matterhorngletscher take your breath away.

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Today, we are all Lobos.

Who are the Lobos? You may ask yourself as a fan of sport, as a ski racer or a skier why do I care?

New_Mexico_Lobos_logoOn Thursday, April 13 the Athletic Director of the University of New Mexico cut a 47-year old ski program that included both alpine and nordic ski programs for women and men.

So why should we care? We should be shocked that poor administrative decisions and budgeting are solved by cutting an athletic program – where the athletes pay the price. We should be outraged in an era of Title IX that a female athletic program is cast aside. We should be calling for accountability. And we should be demanding that any college or university puts athletes first. But as skiers and ski racers, we should be prepared to step up and fight hard for our ski racing programs.

We need to show, through overwhelming public reaction, that we care. We care about the athletes who made a commitment to the University of New Mexico, moved to Albuquerque and were ready to put four years of their lives into racing for their ski team and for their university …. to become Lobos.

We care about an NCAA ski system that has strength – which it does – with the growing interest in the Eastern Collegiate Ski Association, with new institutions working hard to join, with athletes at a wider number of colleges and universities qualifying for the NCAA Finals, for the growing number of Carnivals. That we care about a robust Rocky Mountain Intercollegiate Ski Association, that has tremendous strength in the quality of competition.

Jonas+RaasinenWe care about the well-being of our communities. That each NCAA Invitational or Carnival is an important part of the fabric of our ski family. They bring revenue and profile to host ski resorts and the surrounding hotels and restaurants. Red River Ski Area is the training venue for the UNM Lobos and is the host resort for the UNM Invitational. The ski area is owned by Drew Judycki, a young skier from Massachusetts who first came to New Mexico as a college student. The reach of each NCAA Invitational and the broad international following of NCAA ski racing puts ski resorts on the map, has significant economic impact and builds tremendous pride.redriver

The skiing community cares about instilling excellence in our youth and skiing student-athletes across the US  lead the NCAA. Skiing student-athletes hold the highest ranking for all NCAA sports nationally (by quite a wide margin). The Lobos Ski Team are ranked at the top in academics at UNM — the women’s team has a collective 3.9 GPA, while the men own a mark of 3.6.

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Note: in chart above, MSK is men’s skiing; WSK is women’s skiing

We care that NCAA skiing is now confirmed as a viable pathway to international excellence in alpine and cross country. The number of athletes that call themselves NCAA student-athletes or have graduated from NCAA skiing and are members of National Teams and compete in Olympic, World Championship or World Cup events, has never been higher. The list is impressive, led by 2017 World Championship bronze medalist Lief-Kristian Haugen (Denver) and the USA’s top slalom skier and 10th in the 2017 Championships in GS – David Chodounsky (Dartmouth). Other NCAA alumni who are making their mark on the world stage are from New Mexico (Joonas Rasinen 2013 NCAA SL Champion), Vermont (2017 European Cup overall winner Kristina Riis-Johannessen), Colorado (David Ketterer), Utah (Mark Engel), Westminster (Gulio Bosca). A similar list of exceptional athletes comes from cross country. (here is a link to a story in Faster Skier which captures the human cost and potential loss to US sport in Nordic skiing: http://fasterskier.com/fsarticle/after-the-podium-brenna-egan-and-the-human-cost-of-cutting-skiing/)18548_skiing_defunding_cpf

Over the past decade, the quality of athlete competing in NCAA skiing has lifted to the point where it is viable to race for four years, gain maturity and strength and return to a National Team and be competitive at the highest level. “The NCAA pathway makes a lot of sense”, David Chodounsky told me at Copper Mountain this past November. “It gave me time to mature physically, which I needed. So when I graduated, I had my degree and I was ready both physically and mentally to make a long-term commitment to ski racing excellence.” For those who are keen on stats, Chodounsky scored his first World Cup points at 27.

But where we, in the alpine ski racing community, should really care, is the broad impact of NCAA racing on our system in North America. The robust NCAA programs ensure the Nor-Am Tour is a viable and healthy step for all young athletes as they aim for the highest levels. The competition, the point profile, the diversity of nations and skill strengthen the Nor-Am, making the step to National Teams and beyond substantively more robust. We need a strong NCAA system to keep the Nor-Am strong.

It has been put forward that “there are now less than 35 ski programs that compete in NCAA”. This leaves a false impression. In fact, NCAA skiing has been growing with several schools clamoring to be added. The western conference (RMSIA) has seen Alaska survive a budget scare through public support for the program. Westminster is joining this season. Certainly, some schools do only offer partial programs, as several compete only in alpine or nordic. But this is not a relevant reason to discontinue a program, nor is the fact the team trains at a location 3 hours away from campus – in the nearby mountains – this is a reality all ski racers face throughout their careers.

Yes, it “only” affects 18 athletes, but this decision – if it stands – makes it very challenging for any of these athletes to maintain a high performance program or compete on the NCAA circuit without coaching or team support.

We need our National Ski Associations, regional and provincial programs, all ski clubs, athletes and parents to step up and show we care. As of last Thursday, we are all Lobos, to show our solidarity with the athletes, coaches and the families.

Sign the petition to show UNM we care about the Lobos Ski Team and NCAA skiing.

Link to petition: http://www.change.org/p/unm-board-of-regents-save-the-university-of-new-mexico-ski-team

The Daily Lobo: http://www.dailylobo.com/article/2017/04/17-unm-cuts-skiing

Ski Racing: http://www.skiracing.com/stories/new-mexico-to-discontinue-ncaa-mens-and-womens-skiing

 

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#NextGen Champions: The World Juniors

For 36 years the FIS Alpine Junior World Ski Championships has gathered the best ski racers in the world to compete in the six Olympic disciplines. Athletes between the ages of 16 and 21 from over 45 nations (and growing) gather at a ski resort selected a minimum of two years in advance, to compete and to gain experience in their pathway to the higher levels of our sport.

IMG_3889The World Juniors are unique. Convention suggests they are similar to the Continental Cup level – Europa Cup or Nor-Am – but this actually is not accurate, as senior athletes still dominate these levels. The World Juniors are the only competition worldwide that is exclusively for the best juniors.

“This event is a very important stepping stone for our program” said Canadian Men’s Development Team Head Coach, Johnny Kucera. “This is the first level where our athletes must qualify for a world competition. But it’s much more than that. Once here, they get their first taste of a major event: the huge number of teams, the pageantry, learning to manage the major Games environment. It’s an important step.”

The major National Ski Associations (NSA’s) use this event for benchmarking their athlete pathways. Typically, World Junior teams are made up of a blend of athletes. A very small number are already competition on the World Cup. The majority focus their season to the Continental Cup (Europa Cup, Nor-Am, Far East, South America & Australia/New Zealand Cup), the remainder are juniors that come from provincial teams and clubs. Through selecting the best juniors, NSA’s can measure the quality of their programs and the depth of their talent.

The leading nations of alpine ski racing make a significant commitment to their Development Teams. From Austria to Sweden, France to Slovenia, these nations ensure their best juniors are outfitted as a Team, fully supported by coaching, equipment service and team support staff and are prepared through year-round training groups. They profile their athletes as full members of their National Teams and provide media support to publicize their results as they too rely on sponsors and financial contributions to contribute to team budgets.

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Is there a correlation between a podium result at the World Juniors and subsequent World Cup, World Championship and Olympic podiums? Results support this, but not entirely. Using the Olympic Winter Games of 2014 and past two World Championships (2015, 2017):

  • Who did not medal: Approximately 60% of World Championship/Olympic medalists were on the podium at the Junior Worlds, but around 40% did not medal. Those who didn’t include some of the most successful athletes of our sport: Tina Maze, Erik Guay, Jean-Baptiste Grange, Felix Neureuther, Sophia Goggia, Leif Kristian Haugen, to name but a few.
  • Patience is a virtue: Reviewing the timeline of progression from junior to elite, generally it takes around 8 to 10 years to move from World Junior participation to contending for the podium at the world elite level. Looking forward, the juniors who competed in Are this winter should be some of the leading contenders for the World Championships of 2025, Olympic Winter Games of 2026 and World Championships of 2027.
  • A better benchmark to predict future success: The best measure of future success at the World Juniors is the top 10. With two exceptions, 100% of World Championship/Olympic medalists placed in the top 10 at the World Juniors. The exceptions? Two-time World Slalom Champion Jean-Baptiste Grange (best result 18th) and three-time World Championship slalom medalist Frida Hansdotter (best result 13th).

Those who guide athlete development and selecting National Teams, use the World IMG_3896Juniors as one benchmark, amongst many. Juniors are developing athletes who have not yet reached their physical or mental maturity – and may not for another few years. A limited number of athletes will soar quickly into the limelight. Most work diligently forward and will use a full decade to mature into contenders.

There are other factors that influence outcomes at the World Juniors. Equipment can be a major factor, as some nations will ensure their best are equipped with skis from their World Cup teams. Also, not every venue is a useful measure of excellence. At the 2016 World Juniors in Sochi, extreme spring-like conditions made start position a key factor for success. This year, in the men’s downhill at Aare, four athletes in the top 10 had start numbers of 30 or higher – a testament to the quality of the track and snow surface.

Some may question the quality of the experience at the World Juniors, that it is a waste of money and competing against the powerful teams can demoralize younger athletes. But if the goal is to compete at the world level, an athlete must start somewhere – to step up against the best. Every athlete will face tough moments that push their skill set and their self-confidence, where they discover they are no longer the best on their home hill. The sooner an athlete widens their view and seeks out tough competition to push, motivate or learn from – the better.

Athletes thrive on competition. They want to know where they stand. They need to know their strengths and weaknesses, what gaps may exist in technique, conditioning or mental attitude and to understand what they need to do to push their envelope. An aspiring athlete needs to be exposed to the work necessary to be a high performance athlete.

IMG_3934World Junior athletes get their day in the spotlight and then return to their respective Continental Cup series, National Championships and spring FIS races, bringing with them new experience. This, in turn, motivates those who aim to make the team in coming seasons, who aim to make their own mark even though they may have missed the big event. It is important to communicate throughout the athlete pathway that the World Juniors are a worthy goal to aim for.

This annual event offers an incredible opportunity to network with the leaders of youth programs from around the world. It’s a chance to observe the commitment made to youth development, to discuss their goals and hear of their challenges.

Best of all is the privilege of meeting future champions before they step up to an international podium.

The 37th edition of the FIS Alpine Junior World Ski Championships will be held in Europe’s highest city, home to the World Economic Forum and the historic Parsenn-Derby: Davos, Switzerland – January 28th to February 8th, 2018

 

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Åre 2017: Tusen Takk Sverige! On to Davos ….

Sveriges Alpina Nationalarenan, Åre – The 36th edition of the FIS Alpine Junior World Ski Screen Shot 2017-03-07 at 1.22.13 PMChampionships wrapped up today under threatening skies but firm racing conditions. The men took to the same slopes that will host the world in 2019 for their final event, the men’s slalom.

An up-tempo, tight slalom set on the varied slalom hill triggered an enormous exit from the first run, with only 49 of 130 athletes making it to the finish. Causalities from the first run included the marquee athlete of the event: Loic Meillard (SUI) and four of the Canadian contingent: Jack Crawford (Whistler Mt.), William Bruneau-Bouchard (le Massif) Jeffrey Read (Banff Alpine) and Sam Mulligan (Grouse Mt.).

Norwegian athletes Timon Haugan and Bjoern Brudevall stood 1-2 after the first run with a substantial lead, but the second run would take it’s toll. As the final racer of the top 30, the crowd was waiting for Haugan, who skidded out just before the steep final pitch which prompted a loud reaction from the large number of Norwegian spectators who had travelled to Åre. In this final race of the Championship, Adrian Pertl (AUT) overcame a 0.88 deficit to capture gold, narrowly beating Brudevall. Simon Esmonov (RUS) took the bronze.

IMG_3951Simon Fournier (Tremblant) and Huston Philp (Banff Alpine) made good use of moving into the top 30 after the first run. Simon moved up from 46th start position to place 20th and Huston from 41st to place 24th. Both delivered solid races in the 2nd run, with Simon placing 6th in the run to move up to 14th and Huston placing 4th in the run to end up 16th.

 

Marc Hodler Trophy Awarded

The final award of the Championship is the prestigious Marc Hodler Trophy which recognizes the top nation. Austria easily defended with a commanding win over Switzerland and Italy. Canada ended up 6th.

For the first time, 15 nations were ranked. Which means athletes from 15 different countries placed in the top 10, which demonstrates the widening appeal of alpine ski racing worldwide.Screen Shot 2017-03-14 at 7.21.32 AM

On the medal chart, Austria led the way with a command performance capturing 12 medals. Switzerland took 2nd, the USA 3rd and Canada tied for 4th. Of note: 11 nations won medals.

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The Closing Ceremonies wrapped up with four athletes from host nation Sweden passing the FIS Flag on to four athletes from Switzerland who will host the 2018 Championship. Europe’s highest city – Davos  – which will host the best junior athletes of the world next winter January 29 to February 10, 2018.

Tusen Takk (a thousand thanks) goes to Hans Olsson, the boss of the 2017 World Juniors and Chief of Race for the men along with his Team of volunteers and professionals who worked long hours to set a new standard of excellence in hosting this important event which profiles the future champions of alpine ski racing.

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There will be one more column about the World Juniors, to be posted in coming days. This will focus on the importance of the World Juniors, to our sport, to competing nations and to the athletes.

 

 

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