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Snowsports competition bursts pandemic bubble as protocols mix with medals

26th January 2021 | Craig Altschul

Resorts in this article: Beaver Creek, Killington Resort, Kitzbühel, Lake Louise, Cortina d'Ampezzo, Grindelwald - Wengen

World Championships

World Championships

Copyright: Ski Racing Media

The entire sports world has been turned upside down by the pandemic. We blew bubbles as kids, now some sports leagues literally played out the remainder of their seasons in them. New protocols were introduced seemingly by the hour. We endured annoying piped-in crowd noise on TV. Games were cancelled, rescheduled, postponed or played with whatever number of athletes teams could muster that hadn’t tested positive.

Still, the more insular world of ski and snowboard competition had at least one leg up on most other sports. The competition is held outdoors on mountain slopes where social distancing is reasonably possible and continues on relatively unscathed. The season, despite several recent bumplets, is marching toward a spectator-less World Alpine Ski Championship in Cortina, Italy in February and a Winter Olympiad a year out in China.

An unfortunate casualty of the Alpine World Cup season was the early cancellation of season-opening events in North America including those set at Killington, Vt.; Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada and Beaver Creek, Colo. Those early events tend to fire up interest among Americans and Canadians to follow competition on TV, as the season is largely payed out-of-sight in Europe.

“The winter sports organizations such as the International Ski Federation (FIS) and International Biathlon Union (IBU) have each adopted protocols,” Tom Kelly, who led communications efforts for U.S. Skiing and Snowboarding for nearly three decades, told OnTheSnow.com

“FIS has largely maintained pretty much its planned schedule, other than dropping those events in North America, while IBU has gone to a more centralized bubble. So, two different models and both working pretty well,” he said. 

Kudos to event organizers

Jon Franklin, CEO of Ski Racing Media and the newly revived World Pro Ski Tour, has been impressed by the response by those hosting events. 

“Let’s give great kudos to the organizing committees and resort senior leadership for creating an international racing season in a time when most ski resorts in Europe are closed,” Franklin told us. He said the World Pro Ski Tour head-to-head events at Steamboat, Colo. Feb. 6-8 is set go on as scheduled with all precautions in place. The only spectators will be via TV.

However, the persistence of the pandemic has caused some of those schedules to start to fracture a bit as the season meets the mid-point. Officials in Wengen, Switzerland desperately tried to save the running of the famed Lauberhorn downhill races earlier this month, shutting schools and offering to close off the resort to everyone but the competitors. But, a jump in positive cases among British ski instructors at the resort led the Canton of Bern to cancel the event entirely.

To make matters even worse, the Lauberhorn races were moved to Austria, Switzerland’s oldest skiing rival. The World Alpine Ski Championships in Cortina, Italy Feb. 8-21 will go on without any spectators, meaning those incessant cowbells will only be ringing on real bovines. It, too, will be a made-for-tv event this time.

The Snowboard World Championships were originally scheduled to be held on the same slopes in China where the 2022 Winter Olympic events are planned in Zhangjiakou, about an hour’s drive from Beijing. But, all pre-Olympic events have now been virus-zapped. The snowboard title events rescheduled Idre, Sweden Feb. 11-13. 

Competition, through it all, has taken some good turns this year for several U.S. athletes, with the emergence of some promising “new” (though they’ve been waiting in the wings a good long while) stars.

Mikaela Shiffrin, who inherited the U.S. Women’s Ski Team “superstar” mantle from newly retired Lindsey Vonn, won her first slalom in 13 months Jan. 13 in Flachau, Austria. It was her 68th World Cup win. But, she has lost her slalom front-runner status at this point to Petra Vlova of Slovenia.

The American from Vail, Colo., 25, is slowly coming back after last season abruptly ended, and she had to deal with the personal sadness of losing her beloved father — the man that was always there for her — to a fatal household accident. She will lead the U.S. into the Worlds at Cortina.

Easy for Breezy again

Meanwhile, the emergence of the oft-injured downhiller Breezy Johnson is bringing in some smiles before Cortina. Johnson, from Jackson, Wyo. suffered significant leg injuries in 2017, 2018 and 2019, but is back enjoying the scene now. She won her first World Cup downhill in Val d’sere, France in December and then added a third place finish a few days later at the same venue. She has been a member of the U.S. team since 2015.

The news from the U.S. men’s team looked really good prior to the Worlds with the emergence of Ryan Cochran-Siegle, 29, son of Barbara Ann Cochran who won slalom gold in the 1972 Olympics.

He became the first American man to win a super-G race in 14 years on the steep Stelvio course at Bormio, Italy. But then, he crashed at Kitzbuhel last weekend in the downhill and suffered what he termed a “minor broken neck.” He admitted returning in time for the Worlds would be “pushing it, but he hopes to return this season. 

Tommy Ford, 31, from Bend, Ore., a 10-year team veteran, had picked up sixth, second, fifth and 10th this season in giant slalom events, before crashing hard at the last gate in a January event at Adelboden, Switzerland and needing to be airlifted to the hospital. He suffered minor head and neck injuries, but a knee was being evaluated. Veteran Ted Legety, now competing on both World Cup and Pro tours, plans to ski at Cortina as well.

Meanwhile on the snowboard front, two-time Olympic gold medalist Jamie Anderson from Lake Tahoe, California, part of the Monster Energy Snowboard Team, kicked off her 2021 season by winning the Women’s Snowboard Slopestyle final against an elite field of international riders.

The rest of the season? Fingers crossed. 

Tahoe's Jamie Anderson took home gold in women's slopestyle.   - © Marcus Skin

Tahoe's Jamie Anderson took home gold in women's slopestyle.

Copyright: Marcus Skin

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