Steamboat Springs There will be plenty of fireworks at Howelsen Hill on Thursday evening, as the opening ceremonies of the 2017 USSA Rocky/Central U14 Alpine Skiing Championships take center stage.
But the real fireworks will begin Friday morning, as 190 ski racers from across the country step into the starting gate at the top of the All Out ski run at Steamboat Ski Area for the first event of the week, the super-G.
Vying for titles
“I’m pretty fired up, I’ve been working on this for a long time,” said 13-year-old Steamboat Springs ski racer Cooper Puckett. “I’ve been looking forward to these races for a long time. It’s going to be amazing racing at Howelsen Hill in front of the home-town crowds."
Puckett said he hopes the races will be among several highlights for him this season. A solid performance could earn him an invitation to the U16 Championships, but he’s trying not to look too far ahead. Instead, he plans to keep his sights on posting top finishes in the super-G, giant slalom and slalom races this week, the first step to being invited to bigger races.
“I’m hoping our skiers will kick some butt,” said Erik Gilbert, U14 head coach. “This is their home hill, and being on All Out should be a huge advantage. Our skiers get to sleep in their own beds and show up and race just like they show up to train every day. I want them to have fun and realize that this is the time to relax and trust that all the hard work they put in on the hill this year is going to pay off.”
Of course, it will not be easy.
“In Alpine ski racing, this is the youngest age where they have to qualify into their championship event. There are more skiers in the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association racing system at the U14 age group than at any other age, meaning that the competition was really fierce just to get here. This is an accomplished group of racers,” said Jon Nolting, Athletic Director of the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club. “The racing venues on All Out and at Howelsen Hill will be an excellent test for these ski racers. They’ll be on the same courses as the NCAA Championships held last year, except we’ve built more terrain this year. We try to treat these young competitors to a true championship experience, like the Olympics. There’s a good chance that one or two of these racers will one day compete in the Olympic Games, but for the rest of them, this will be their big show. It is important that they make some great memories here.”
One hundred ninety boys and girls earned the right to race this week at qualification races held earlier in the year inside their own divisions. They represent the top racers for the Rocky Mountain Division (Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, part of Wyoming, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska) and the Central Division (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinios, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Iowa, North Dakota, part of South Dakota and Missouri).
“I think it really comes down to staying technically strong,” Puckett said. “You need to stick to the things that make you ski well.”
Friday will mark the first of four days of racing. The girls super-G race will begin at 10:15 a.m. on the All Out run at Steamboat Ski Area. The boys race will follow at 11:45 a.m. Because this is a speed event, all participants in Friday’s field must have competed in Thursday’s training run. Racers who don’t will not be allowed to compete in the opening event.
The action will stay at Mount Werner on Saturday, as the field moves to the giant slalom races. The first run for the boys is slated for 9:15 a.m., with the girls beginning at 10:30 a.m. The giant slalom event will include two runs, but those runs will be counted as individual races for this age group. That way, racers will get a second start, regardless of whether they finish the first run.
On Sunday, racers will move to Howelsen Hill for a dual slalom event. This is the first time in many years the dual slalom event has been on the junior championship schedule. Racers will take part in a qualifying run in the morning, with the top-32 racers advancing to knock out runs in the afternoon. Gilbert said the final format is still being evaluated, but fans should expect the field of 32 to begin at 1 p.m. and the finals to begin at 2:15 p.m.
That evening, skiers and their families will gather at the top of Thunderhead for an athlete’s celebration. Gilbert said this will not be an awards ceremony, rather a chance for skiers and their families to hang out and celebrate a successful week on the hill.
The championships will come to a close Monday, with the boys and girls competing in the slalom — the final event. The girls first run is expected to begin at 9 a.m., followed by the boys at 10. The skiers will also compete in a second run in the afternoon.
Gilbert said the conditions have been good for training this week, but the warm weather in the valley has caused the snow to become a little soft. Puckett said he hopes the coaches will have to use salt on the courses to enhance racing conditions.
"One of my favorite conditions is salted snow,” Puckett said. “A lot of racers don’t like it, but I do. It’s noisy and chattery … it turns slush into sweet ice.”
Going All Out — Video by Dan Gilchrist
To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email jrussell@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966