Olympic ski racers don’t get good at flying down mountains at breakneck speeds by outrunning ski patrol. Not here in America, anyway. While Olympic ski teams from other countries are frantically jumping on planes to Colorado and onto the early-season bandwagon, US athletes get first dibs on the full-length, top-to-bottom downhill course at Copper Mountain.
“Having this facility here is super-huge for us. It’s a really good track. It has lots of everything—gliding, steep sections, and jumps,” says three-time World Cup giant slalom champion Ted Ligety, who landed Olympic gold in combined at the 2006 Games and will be making another bid this February in Sochi. “It’s a rarity to have this kind of speed training in November.”
The US Ski Team Speed Center at Copper Mountain made its debut in 2011, and with the help of cold October temperatures and eighty-seven massive automatic snowmaking guns, it opened its vast slope to America’s Sochi-bound athletes this season on November 1. At the top of the Super Bee chairlift more than 12,000 feet above sea level, the Speed Center track begins on a steep start mound typical of Olympic and World Cup downhill and super G courses. From here, athletes kick off and fly down sections of Andy’s Encore, Oh No, and Rosi’s Run—covering two miles of changing terrain, soaring around gates and over jumps, and reaching speeds of up to 75 mph. And sometimes crashing: witness Lindsey Vonn’s dramatic fall here in November that derailed her planned return to World Cup racing at Beaver Creek.
More typically, the Speed Center helps national team athletes get a head start on the competition. US Ski Team veteran Marco Sullivan attributes last season’s World Cup podium finish in Lake Louise—his first in more than three years—to his early-season training at the Speed Center. Alice McKennis, who landed the first World Cup victory of her career in January 2013 in St. Anton, Austria, before shattering her tibial plateau racing in Germany a couple of months later, credits Copper for helping her regain her racing legs and setting her back on a trajectory for the Olympic Winter Games.
“You couldn’t ask for better preparation for the World Cup and Olympic season,” she says. “It’s pretty unique for us to be able to have such a long run to train on so early in the year.”
Although the US team gets first access to the Speed Center, World Cup and Olympic teams from alpine powerhouse nations Austria and Norway also travel to Copper for early-season training. The Speed Center also hosts a series of races in early November—the first of their kind anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere—that bring in Olympic athletes from around the world, even Russia.
“The US Ski Team Speed Center is the only full-length training venue found anywhere in the world in the early season,” says Copper Mountain’s competition manager, Martin Gray. “Only at Copper can national teams train and really prepare their legs for the season in front of them—this year an Olympic year.”
In mid-December, after the elite athletes leave for World Cup race season, two miles of stacked fencing is removed, and the Speed Center transforms back into open blue- and black-rated slopes that anyone can ski for the remainder of the winter. And retrace the tracks that for some will lead all the way to Sochi.