Snow sports enthusiasts across the Northern Hemisphere may still be waiting for the start of winter, but for the dedicated skiers of the World Cup circuit, the first event in Soelden, Austria is only about a week away. And while the athletes await the completion of the Soelden course, the U.S. Ski Team isn’t slowing down; they’re training giant slalom on the nearby Stubaital glacier.
Olympians Will Brandenberg, Tommy Ford and Nolan Kasper are there too. As is Warner Nickerson.
“Stubai is an awesome slope,” said men’s Head Coach Sasha Rearick. “It’s got a lot of terrain changes and some super steep sections. It’s a good spot for us to do our final push.”
Six hours drive away in Saas Fee, Switzerland four-time Olympian Sarah Schleper is resting after day four on snow. It’s quiet, traffic noise is non-existent. Saas Fee has been a vehicle free town since 1951.
Resi Stiegler is there too along with Megan McJames, Hailey Duke, Kiley Staples and Julia Ford. Before sunrise, the Team boards two cable cars and a train in order to get to their training lanes stacked high on the glacier over a mile above town. The vertical commute is so long, they store gates and timing equipment in a lift shack. Coaches will have everything locked into the cool ice surface by the time the athletes finish warmup.
“The training here is really good,” said technical Head Coach Trevor Wagner. “The girls are rocking. We’ve had four good days of training and we’re ready for a few more, but it’s time to race.”
Olympic gold medalists Lindsey Vonn and Julia Mancuso are stateside for a few more hours. The Trans Atlantic time warp is set to carry them to Munich, Germany, and then it’s a short drive to Pitztal, Austria. Each morning, hundreds of young racers line up pre-dawn to sardine into a cog rail that climbs 3,000 feet through the mountain to the glaciers fading legs. Vonn and Mancuso will be among the first in line.
In just over a week, these valleys will empty of people. Thousands more will exodus from Innsbruck and nearby cities. Their destination is Soelden, a postcard alpine valley tucked between Eastern Stubaital and Western Pitztal. A crystal clear river splits the valley as sheep dot the steep green surrounding landscape.
On Oct. 22, the masses will rally in downtown Soelden. A pulsating beat rattling windows as the fans cheer their hero’s at the evening bib draw. Saturday and Sunday are race days, igniting the 2011 Audi FIS Alpine World Cup season with a pair of giant slaloms staged on the Rettenbach Glacier, almost always perched above the Soelden clouds.
Miller has won here twice and Mancuso took second in 2007 kicking off a record season that put her in the hunt for the overall title. Ligety has been on the opening podium each of the last three years.
If team’s have any doubts on how well they’ve prepared for this season, Soelden is a good measuring stick.