World Cup ski racing returns to Killington after pandemic pause
From 2016 through 2019, Thanksgiving weekend at Killington was crowded, noisy and jubilant.
Thousands of roaring fans watched the best women ski racers in the world rocket down a wall of ice and blister through slalom and giant slalom courses.
The fact that Olympic champion and Burke Ski Academy alum Mikaela Shiffrin kept winning just added to the euphoria and clang of cowbells.
Last year however, there were no cheering fans.
The International Ski Federation canceled World Cup races in North America because of the pandemic.
This year, Killington is back on the international schedule, and women’s head coach Paul Kristofic says Team USA is thrilled.
“Well honestly, it’s probably our favorite stop for the technical team all year, to be able to race at home in front of home fans and huge crowds," Kristofic said. "It’s the biggest crowds we get in World Cup, so it’s super exciting for our racers to go back.”
The World Cup is alpine skiing’s premier international racing circuit. Unlike the Olympics, which are held every four years, World Cup races are held every year from October through March.
Athletes are awarded points based on their finish at each race, and those points are added up over the entire season.
This year’s races will be even more important, because they’ll count toward qualifying for February’s Winter Olympics in Beijing.
Killington Ski Resort president Mike Solimano says because of that, a record number of skiers from 20 different teams will be competing at Killington, something he admits is both exciting and daunting.
“Of course, the FIS [International Ski Federation] — which is the governing body — wants to make sure that they're all safe, and that they're not catching COVID," Solimano said. "So, we have a lot of protocols to make sure each of the teams are effectively in a bubble.”
For instance at the Killington Grand Hotel, where most of the racers will be housed, they’ve had to figure out how to ensure Germany’s team doesn’t interact with Switzerland’s, that Canadian racers don’t eat breakfast with the Slovenians, and that everyone can keep their distance.
“And if you think about how complicated that is, that's very hard,” Solimano said with a laugh. “So for instance, Friday night, we've historically done a bib draw. We usually have a band and the top racers go up on stage and we make a fun event.”
Bib draws are a big deal for ski racers, because the number on your bib determines which order you race in. Fans and the press have loved being part of it in past years, but Solimano says this year, it’s one of several traditions they’ll skip.
“Because we're not allowed to have any of the athletes interact with people, so [it’s] hard to have a bib draw without any athletes," Solimano said.
Athletes will also not be signing autographs or mixing and mingling with fans like they have in the past.
Fans, too, will have to follow new protocols. To get in, you’ll need a pre-purchased ticket and proof of vaccination status or a negative COVID test within 72 hours.
The races will be outdoors, so masks will be optional. But Solimano says you’ll need one if you go inside or ride a parking lot shuttle bus.
While past races have attracted upwards of 15,000 people a day, resort officials want half as many this year.
To help with crowd control, they’re charging $5 for general admission tickets that used to be free, and selling a limited number. Fewer seats in the pricier grandstands will be sold, and people will be spread out more.
Down the mountain at Taco-X — a restaurant that’s within sight of the slopes — co-owner Adam Lindberg says the pandemic is still on everyone’s mind, but he’s tired of it.
He says he’s lost thousands and spent thousands because of COVID: adding barriers, developing new protocols, limiting seating and being forced to close early last year.
After all the uncertainty of the past 20 months, he says the economic boost from the World Cup will be welcome.
“It most certainly is a very big week up here for sure," Lindberg said. "It’s good for business, it’s good for Rutland and the greater area.”
He’s right. Ken Jones, an economic research analyst with the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development, says based on data from previous years, the World Cup generates $6 million in spending in Vermont.
Ben Colona hopes some of that comes his way. He owns Base Camp, a ski and bike store in Killington, and he thinks the World Cup will help jumpstart the whole season.
“People are pent-up to do things," Colona said. "I mean, everyone wants to get out and have some fun and see their friends and all that good stuff. If you can do it in an outdoor environment, which makes it better — and people love this particular event in general — and I think they’re really excited to get back and cheer on the females out there.”
Killington Town Manager Chet Hagenbarth says that while Vermont’s COVID cases have been rising, he hasn’t heard any pushback from locals worried about hosting big crowds this weekend.
“Obviously everybody is still concerned in general, but given how the resort handled last season, and we were open for business and many people wanted to do outdoor type of events, which this is…. is a real positive for the community," Hagenbarth said. "And I think everybody’s excited to have it back.”
Last week, the resort overcame one more hurdle. The International Ski Federation approved snow conditions at Killington.
Warmer-than-usual weather this month has made snowmaking on Superstar, the slope where the races take place, much more difficult.
But with the Ski Federation’s green light, Saturday’s and Sunday’s races are officially a go.