Mikaela Shiffrin rode the chair lift to the top of Copper Mountain on a sunny June day and took in a sight she hadn’t seen in a while: A freshly groomed, snow-packed course just waiting to be skied.
A little tropical, too, given the warm weather that had the carefully manicured slopes turning mushy by mid-morning.
Didn’t matter. It was just energizing to be back on skis.
The two-time Olympic champion and the rest of the U.S. women’s team, along with the men’s Europa squad, recently returned to snow for a two-week, pay-strict-adherence-to-social-distance-guidelines camp in Copper Mountain, Colorado. This was a chance to zip through a course again after the season abruptly ended in March due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Being back skiing, on the snow, it just felt like home,” said Bella Wright, who made her World Cup debut last season. “It felt like we were back doing what we’re supposed to be doing.”
The main objective of the camp that ended last week was nothing more than honing technique. For about three hours a day — beginning around sunrise — the team turned in run after run on the giant slalom course. Shiffrin and the other technical racers also were able to charge through some slalom gates.
“To get this training in during June is something we need because we missed spring training,” U.S. women’s coach Paul Kristofic explained. “It’s just great quality mileage in the bank.”
It marks the first time the team has been assembled in an organized setting since the 2019-20 season was halted in March just as the women’s squad prepared for a World Cup race in Are, Sweden. Shiffrin was set to make her return to the slopes after taking a six-week break from the circuit following the death of her father. Federica Brignone of Italy captured the overall crown, ending Shiffrin’s three-year reign.
Several European teams have already returned to training: The Austrian men’s and women’s teams in Soelden, the Swiss team on the Zermatt Glacier and the French in Courchevel and Val D’Isere.
French racer Alexis Pinturault posted a video on social media with the comment: “Sunny and Cold GS day in June.”
In the Rocky Mountains, more like sunny and warm.
Copper Mountain made it work, though. The resort is the home of the U.S. ski team’s speed center and has a crew up for the challenge — no matter the tricky conditions. The hill still had around a 60-inch base following their closure in mid-March due to the pandemic.
Given the varying temperatures, it was far from easy to prepare the three trails for the group. Some days, it would rain. Some days, it would be 50 degrees (10 Celsius), with the course turning into a slimy, wet consistency.
Enter the course groomers, who worked their magic sometimes late into the night.
“It’s like grooming a slushy,” laughed Mike Looney, the senior slope maintenance manager at Copper Mountain. “But when the weather cooled down, it got a little bit better to manage and then it started setting up. By the time athletes hit the course in the morning, it was a nice firm, race product again.”
Looney, who’s in his 23rd season at Copper, estimated the last time they groomed the trails at Copper in June like this was about 15 years ago, when they had spring race camps.
“You get a nightly game plan of where the thin spots are, where the wet spots are, and you fix them,” Looney explained. “Then, you do it again the next day.”
Shiffrin certainly appreciated the momentous efforts of the snowcat operators to make the training sessions possible.
“We’re one of the first sports that’s found a way to get training and it’s a huge production,” Shiffrin posted on social media. “For all people involved, it’s amazing they’re trying to pull this off.”
The team followed strict protocols, too, such as no more than two skiers on a chair lift at a time and facemasks worn everywhere (except when skiing). They also had one person doing the grocery shopping and limited contact to within their small bubbles — the speed team with the speed team and the tech squad with the tech squad.
Everyone’s temperature was taken twice a day.
There were no positive tests reported.
“To be able to train at Copper in the spring is something we’ve always wanted to do and to be able to achieve it in a really challenging situation with COVID is a real win for the team,” Kristofic said.
Some of the coaches and technicians live in Europe and couldn’t make it to the camp due to travel restrictions. Also, a portion of their equipment remains in Europe as well.
“We’re pooling our resources the very best way we can,” Kristofic said. “Of course, what an opportunity we had. We had to do this and take advantage of what we have on home soil, because it could very well be the only training we’re going to get.”
After the training sessions, the team took advantage of the nearby terrain. Some athletes went mountain biking. Others went for hikes or fishing. Wright preferred roller-blading, even logging 11.2 miles on one excursion.
“That was a workout in itself,” said the 23-year-old Wright, who hails from Salt Lake City. “Super peaceful.”
The ski team is hoping to hold another camp in July, possibly at Mount Hood in Oregon.
As for a World Cup season, Wright remains optimistic.
“I’m trying to just keep hope and know that somehow, someway we’re going to get to do what we love this year,” Wright said. “It might look a little different. But if we’re on skis, that’s a win.”