Feature December 17, 2015

Go Time

Sun Valley Hosts the U.S. Alpine Championships

The young ski racer slammed her skis against the hard-packed snow of the start gate and focused on the vibrating resonance of P-Tex against snowpack. The sound brought her full attention to the importance of the moment. The chaos of the start tent was a familiar backdrop as she prepared herself to hurtle down several thousand vertical feet of rock-hard, water-infused racecourse. When the starter began his countdown, the hubbub of racers, coaches, officials and onlookers was nearly overwhelming. But once out of the gate with a mighty push, the junior skier burst into a realm of near-silence that only a competitive downhiller would understand.

One of many young ski racers giving her all that day at the 1987 U.S. Alpine Championships in Crested Butte, Colorado, the little-known competitor was going for broke. After all, she had nothing to lose in her pursuit of the glory that would accompany a trip to the podium. In fact, she had a world of fame to gain. When all was said and done, this no-name athlete from a small Idaho mining town posted the fastest time for a junior athlete in the USSA-sanctioned event. It was a sign of things to come. The racer’s name was Picabo Street.

“The anxiety hit me like a ton of bricks when I got on the chair and flew over the course for the first time. I was so nervous that I wanted to jump off the chairlift,” the eventual Olympic and World Cup champion recounted from her Park City home. “I wanted to ski my heart out and attack the course and eat it up, not let it eat me up. I remember Doug Lewis and Billy Johnson attacking the course and wanting to approach it like they did… attack, attack, attack,” Street said, reminiscing.

Such was the mindset of the highly competitive, massively talented Street. “After all, it was the U.S. Championships. It was the highest profile race of my life up until that time,” Street said.

This spring, March 22 – 27, racers from all over the country will have the opportunity to experience a similar adrenaline rush on the Warm Springs side of Sun Valley’s Bald Mountain at the 2016 U.S. Alpine Championships. The competition includes slalom, giant slalom, super-giant slalom and combined men’s and women’s events that will lead to national champions being named and careers being made. This is the first time since 1951 that the championships will have been held in Sun Valley. They are scheduled to return in 2018.

Julia Ford, U.S. Ski Team, 2015 U.S. Alpine Championships Ladies Downhill Winner

“Our race heritage is an important part of who we are,” said Sun Valley Mountain Manager Peter Stearns. “We’ve had long-standing support of the racing community here in Sun Valley.” 

Stearns, the multi-talented overseer of America’s iconic Bald Mountain, speaks from experience. He has seen the better part of four decades of skiing and racing on Baldy. “This event has the potential to bring the entire community together to showcase our amazing valley,” Stearns added as he looked out his office window at the base of the River Run gondola. “It’s going to take the effort of everybody in the community to make the event a success.”

The need for the Wood River Valley community to join together in support of the event is a sentiment shared by Street. “The whole community will have to work together toward the common goal of putting on the best event possible. Everyone needs to be on the same page. Everybody should embrace the event and be behind it completely,” Street offered. “The message to visitors should be, ‘We want you to come visit and stay as long as you want’. The mentality should be that you never get a second chance to make a first impression.”

Rob Clayton, executive director of the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF), agrees. “The opportunity to rub shoulders with the best in the world is invaluable for our kids,” Clayton said from his office at the SVSEF Warm Springs training center. “For our top guns, it’s further motivation and inspiration to be able to compete in this event. The U.S. Championships should boost motivation individually and inspire the program. This is the big time,” Clayton said.

The event will be viewed by an estimated 576,000 households across the country, as NBC Sports television will air a one-hour coverage of the races. The championships will be accompanied by a variety of VIP parties, a parade and several in-town soirées complete with live music in outdoor venues. There will even be an associated nighttime big air event featured under the lights on Dollar Mountain. 

Racers such as Lindsey Vonn, Ted Ligety, Mikaela Shiffrin, Julia Mancuso, Andrew Weibrecht and Steven Nyman are expected to compete, in addition to a host of other pre-qualified racers who will take their shot at the U.S. titles. In short, onlookers will get the chance to view the best the United States has to offer.

“The most joyous sensation I have is how the young racers will benefit and grow as a result of their exposure to the event,” Street said. “Children are 25 to 35 percent of our population but 100 percent of our future,” she continued. “The community has an opportunity right now to join hands for the sake of the children, not just local kids but all the kids in the industry. It’s not just about winning, it’s about cultivating and perpetuating a culture and mindset for the next generation.”

“We’re really excited. I think it’s going to be huge for the area,” Stearns commented. “It’s incredibly exciting for this town. We are dedicated to doing this and doing it right. Together this community can do incredible things.”

When asked if she will be in attendance to view the events in her hometown, the former U.S. champion Street responded enthusiastically, “Absolutely. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.” 

This article appears in the Winter 2016 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.