After a week of brilliant sun and sapphire skies—a hue often referred to by locals as Baldy blue—clouds rolled in, bringing flat light and a somber tone for the first run of the women’s slalom at the 2016 U.S. Alpine Championships in Sun Valley, Idaho. The flat-light conditions might have created a sense of hesitation in less-experienced racers, but the veteran in the start gate couldn’t have been more at ease. After all, this was Mikaela Shiffrin, America’s all-time finest slalom specialist.
Shiffrin’s first run was flawless. Her smooth edge-to-edge turning transitions flowed with a natural sway that were equally laden with power and grace. The consistency of her movements resulted in a finish time that gave her a commanding lead, one she would extend with her equally masterful second run. And, almost as if by design, the sun reemerged for her triumphant finish in front of the raucous crowd that cheered in a state of race-infused exuberance.
As quoted on the official Olympics website, Shiffrin said, “Skiing is my art. It’s like a puzzle or a painting or music. When I ski, it’s like a song. I can hear the rhythm in my head, and when I start to ski that rhythm and I start to really link my turns together, all of a sudden, there’s so much flow and power that I just can’t help but feel amazing. That’s where the joy comes from.”
In addition to her dominating win in the slalom championship, Shiffrin went on to win the giant slalom (GS) title as well, dusting her competitors by nearly three-quarters of a second, despite a near fall merely three gates into her run. The GS victory contributed to her standing as America’s alpine skiing darling and added to her already impressive list of accomplishments.
The 2016 U.S. National Alpine Championships held in Sun Valley were a return of big time racing to the slopes of Sun Valley’s famed Bald Mountain. Not since 1977, when the World Cup visited the Wood River Valley, had a race of such magnitude been held here. The men’s slalom victory then went to Phil Mahre, an up-and-coming 19-year-old from White Pass, Wash., who edged out Ingemar Stenmark, considered one of Sweden’s greatest athletes to this day. Phil Mahre’s brother, Steve, placed third.
The Toyota U.S. Alpine Championships will return to Sun Valley March 19-26, 2018, with the accompanying celebrations and crowds that are emblematic of ski culture at its most passionate.
Steeped in history and heritage, Sun Valley was once known as one of the most famous race venues not only in the U.S. but also in the world. The National Championships will bring the Wood River Valley right back to its roots as a top ski racing venue, and the vibe throughout the community will be electric.
Among the impressive field in 2016 were two racers with local hometown roots. Tanner Farrow and Kipling Weisel, both members of the U.S. Ski Team, attacked the slalom, GS and super giant slalom (super-G) courses inspired by their hometown friends and neighbors who cheered them on emphatically.
Farrow, 24, hails from Ketchum, and has been charging hard since suffering a serious knee injury in 2013. Three short years later, in front of his hometown fans, Farrow finished 10th in the super-G on a very challenging Bald Mountain course. Heading into this winter, which is highlighted by the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Farrow is putting up
some impressive results, including a recent seventh-place slalom finish in Argentina’s South American Cup.
Weisel, a 22-year-old product of the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation, had a banner year in 2017 on the NorAm circuit, ranking fourth overall with a first-place ranking in alpine combined, third-place ranking in super-G and fifth-place final standing in the downhill discipline. At the 2016 National Championships, Weisel impressed the Sun Valley crowd with a respectable 10th-place finish in alpine combined. A talented racer in all disciplines, Weisel is a potential future star on the U.S. Ski Team.
Farrow and Weisel, who will again be competing on their home slope in the upcoming National Championships, are racing their way onto a very elite list of locals who have achieved greatness in skiing lore. As is well-documented, Gretchen Fraser who made her home in the Wood River Valley, was America’s first Olympic gold medal champion, earning her podium finish in the 1948 Olympic slalom competition in St. Moritz, Switzerland. She also won a silver in the alpine combined event during the same Olympic Games.
Others from Blaine County who have achieved international ski racing acclaim include Christin Cooper, who won a silver medal in the 1984 Olympic GS in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, in addition to five World Cup victories during her career.
Picabo Street, one of America’s most successful ski racers ever, won an Olympic gold medal in 1998 in Nagano, Japan, in the downhill and Olympic silver in the GS in Lillehammer, Norway, in 1994. These Olympic triumphs complemented nine World Cup victories in the downhill and a downhill World Championship in 1996.
The list of local snow sport heroes who have achieved Olympic and international acclaim also includes Terry and Tyler Palmer, Susie Corrock, Langely McNeal, Betty Bell, Abbi Fisher-Gould, Kaitlyn Farrington and Zach and Reggie Crist, to name a few.
When asked about the significance of racing in the National Championships, Reggie Crist, the senior of two X-Games champion siblings and a downhill competitor in the 1992 Winter Games, held in Albertville, France, said, “This is the one big race where all the best skiers in the nation come together. The U.S. Nationals is the one opportunity where you get to gauge yourself against the best skiers in the nation. You get to find out where you stack up.
“These are the best racers in our country. There’s nothing like true head-to-head competition to see where you stand. This is an athlete’s opportunity to say I belong in the elite group of skiers in our nation.”
For younger competitors, it can also be a springboard to greater accomplishments. “I remember my first U.S. Nationals at Copper Mountain, Colorado, in the mid-1980s,” Crist reminisced.
“I started near the back of the pack and Tommy Moe was starting right behind me. He was 15 years old, and he’d blown out his downhill suit, ripped it wide open. He was a total basket case. But he had the run of his life and finished third behind Bill Johnson (1984 Olympic downhill gold medalist) and Doug Lewis (1984 and 1988 Olympian). That was a springboard for him at a very young age. Tommy’s ability to do well in the big races probably was drawn from his finish in Copper and the confidence that he could do well in high-pressure situations.”
Wally Rothgeb, chief operating officer for the race’s organizing committee and former U.S. Ski Team member, reported that among other developments, the racecourse this year has been improved. A treed area between the Greyhawk and Hemingway runs has been cleared to allow for the super-G and GS courses to weave in and out of the sloped terrain, creating a more challenging course while allowing for more strategic viewing areas to be established, including areas to accommodate bleachers. The finish area will be the same as it was in 2016: at the bottom of the Greyhawk run.
In addition, a new team event will be held that will pit racers against each other in a head-to-head team format, an event common at many international competitions. Rothgeb added that there will be more VIP and community events as part of the championships this year, giving the community an opportunity to become more involved in the activities.
Ultimately, the most significant aspect of the races is the community volunteerism in the championships. In 2016, nearly 500 members of the Wood River Valley community volunteered during the event, many former racers themselves.
“Skiing and ski racing are central to our community,” offered Tony Parkhill, director of Sun Valley’s Snowsports School and Mountain Guest Services. “The ski races are exciting and fun to watch, but it’s the celebration within our community of our history and heritage that matters most. It’s all about the community. We’re incredibly proud of what we have here. This event is catalytic to the community, and our ski racing history is something we identify with. We’re proud of it.”
As far as future race events in Sun Valley, many rumors abound. Will the World Cup return to the slopes of Bald Mountain? Is the return of the National Championships merely the beginning of a long list of high-profile race events in Sun Valley? Though there are not currently any scheduled major races on the horizon, the door is open to events in the future.
Regardless, whether the sun shines or flat light abounds, this coming March will shed light on the nation’s finest alpine skiers right here in Sun Valley. Ski racers, both household names and up-and-coming unknowns, will attack the courses with the athleticism and grit that rewards the brave and talented, and delivers greatness to those who ascend the podium as America’s best. 2