Downhill: Transforming experience … into results

UPDATED (July 21) – For over two decades the Canadian Rockies have been a picture-perfect backdrop for athletes, coaches and volunteers working tirelessly to deliver one of the most reliable race blocks on the FIS calendar.

Over a three-week period through late November into December, Lake Louise is home to ski racing elite for the opening speed events for the men’s and ladies World Cup Tours. Once the World Cups are complete, Nor-Am speed events, which were included for the first time in 1995, move onto the track. This makes the Lake Louise Nor-Am events the longest-running Continental Cup level races held in conjunction with the elite World Cup.

Almost every Canadian and US athlete competing on the World Cup have earned their spurs at this western Canadian ski resort.

From the beginning, the primary objective was giving younger athletes exposure to speed in the right training environment. “We saw this as a great opportunity to take advantage of the safety build-out of the World Cup and give our younger athletes invaluable experience on a world-class track”, said former Alberta Alpine General Manager, Maureen O’Hara-Leman, who oversaw running of these races in the early years.

Lake Louise is seen as a perfect opening downhill for the World Cup men, a high-speed eye-opener after a long training season. For the ladies, it ranks as one of the toughest tracks on their Tour. So following the World Cup, the race track is ‘detuned’ (track re-groomed, jumps shaped) and shortened to align with the Continental Cup level of competition where athletes are still learning the ropes of speed.

The Olympic downhill still remains a test, delivering high-speed (bumping up to the range of top speed of 130 kph), the challenge of big air, rough tracks, variable visibility, blind corners, fallaways and gliding. Hundreds of athletes have been given a fair taste-test of what to expect if they are aiming for the World Cup and beyond.

“Downhill is the biggest adrenaline rush in sport,” says Nigel Loring, CEO of Alberta Alpine, whose staff and volunteers are the anchor to run the annual Nor-Am races. “This is a huge opportunity for athletes to ’round out’ their experience for speed. It is a perfect transition from regional speed venues to the World Cup as it gives athletes all the elements they need on a track that can offer great conditions and is one of the most reliable in the world.”

Training is not reserved solely for athletes. Look behind the athletes blitzing the downhill track and you find an extensive network of officials and volunteers working diligently to make the race arena safe, exciting and challenging.  “We see the benefits out past the athlete experience, as this is the very best training ground for our volunteers” said Darrell MacLachlan, men’s Chief of Race and Executive Director for the Lake Louise WinterStart World Cup. “These are the people who will gain experience at the Nor-Am, to give them the training to move up to the World Cup or any major events in Canada. The World Cup and Nor-Am race committees share resources and meet regularly. We see this as is a combined work force, relocating material in the spring and doing build-out in the autumn.”

It should be no surprise the outcome of this investment into younger athletes on the Nor-Am would be strong World Cup results. The evidence is clear: Lake Louise is one of the most successful World Cup venues for the Canadian and US Ski Teams*, with the following record as of December/2015:

  • 57 World Cup podiums for Canadian and US Ski Team athletes (46 by USA, 11 by CAN)
  • 17 different Canadian and American athletes on the podium
  • 10 of the 17 also appeared on a Lake Louise Nor-Am podium
  • 155 top 10 World Cup results
  • Inaugural World Cup podiums for Johnny Kucera (1st win), Manny Osbourne-Paradis, Erik Guay, Kelly Vanderbeek, Britt Janyk, Jan Hudec (1st win), Marco Sullivan and Stacey Cook

*Val Gardena is the most successful World Cup venue for Canada, with 16 podiums.
*Beaver Creek is the most successful World Cup venue for US men, with 26 podiums.

Canadian journalist Beverly Smith, reporting in the Globe and Mail on Johnny Kucera’s first World Cup win at Lake Louise on November 26, 2006,  wrote “He knows the track well: he’s been racing at Lake Louise for the past six or seven years, he said. It helped.”

events-nor-am-werryIn addition to the athletes noted above, the Lake Louise Nor-Am podium record reads like a who’s who of ski racing, including a long list of athletes who have moved on to World Cup, World Championship and Olympic success: Julia Mancuso, Jonna Mendes, Travis Ganong, Laurenne Ross, Andrew Weibrecht, Alice McKennis, Ivica Kostelić, Scott McCartney, Ben Thomson, Francois Bourque, Natko Zrncic-Dim and Larisa Yurkiw. Even the most successful athlete on the hill with 18 wins in downhill and super G at Lake Louise raced in a Nor-Am before she reached the World Cup level. Lindsay Vonn raced the track once – a super G – in 2001.

If any more evidence is needed to validate the benefit of the Nor-Am to the athlete development pipeline, consider the outcome of the ladies World Cup on December 6, 2014 where US and Canadian athletes, all graduates of the Nor-Am, took five of the top six spots. (

Is Lake Louise too challenging for the Nor-Am level athletes? Absolutely not. The safety record is one of the best in the business, thanks to a highly experienced race organizing committee and the careful management of the track surface as the event is transitioned from the men’s World Cup through the ladies World Cup to the Nor-Am. Many of the Nor-Am athletes are prepared through forerunning experience from the World Cup races. The typical progression for first-year FIS athletes is forerunning the Nor-Am. Size of fields have been small in recent years, making management of the field easier for the jury. And running the Nor-Am was never a cash-grab for the organizers. In fact, the event relies on significant goodwill from both the Lake Louise Resort and the World Cup organizing committee to find ways to economize to keep the budget in check.

Setup of any speed venue is an enormous task. The rationale of coat-tailing a Nor-Am to the World Cup is to take advantage of the hard work invested by the WinterStart Race Committee. In return, on the final day of Nor-Am racing, as soon as the last athlete crosses the finish line the athletes, coaches and small volunteer crew spread out on the track, roll up their sleeves and in three hours the entire race track is stripped bare of B-net, crowd control fencing, airbags and finish corral.

The core mandate of sport organizations is to deliver podium potential. To give athletes the exposure and experience on world-class venues to learn to become champions, to build a pathway that will transition athletes into the World Cup and to the podium in World Championship and Olympic competition.

The the evidence is clear: supporting a Continental Cup event on a World Cup venue gives younger athletes the tools for future success.

White Circus – Weiß Zirkus – Cirque Blanc will take a break during the Olympic Games in Rio, to take in the excitement of world-class athletes competing on the world stage. 

If you find an error in the stats listed above, please let me know. I try my very best to be accurate.

An enormous thank you to Dustin Cook who forwarded correct stats regarding CAN & USA podiums at Lake Louise and that Val Gardena is the most successful venue for Canadian men.


About Ken Read

Tough, Informed, engaged. Athlete centred, committed to good governance.
This entry was posted in Continental Cup, FIS, Investing in athletes, Nor-Am, Ski Racing, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Downhill: Transforming experience … into results

  1. Pingback: Downhill: Transforming experience … into results | Robert G Richardson

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