by Nancy O’Connell
After Almost a Half Century, ‘The White Circus’ will reappear on the slopes of Squaw Valley
‘It’s about credibility and responsibility. Big mountains need to have big races. And in the long run, I really do think it’s good for business because it’s good for the sport. The inspiration and enthusiasm that an event like this generates – that’s a long-term investment.’ –Dick Dorworth, 1969 World Cup Chief-of-Course
About a month before the FIS (Federation International de Ski) Congress was scheduled to meet and formally approve the 2017 Audi FIS World Cup tour schedule, Squaw Valley Ski Holdings President and CEO Andy Wirth was trying really hard not to get ahead of himself. Like a little boy the week before Christmas, he didn’t want to just assume that Santa was coming. But he was hopeful, confident and excited. Really excited.
On June 10, just days after getting the official nod that Squaw Valley will be hosting both a women’s slalom and giant slalom on March 10 and 11, 2017, Wirth is grinning from ear to ear. He stops short of jumping up and down like Tom Cruise on Oprah’s couch. This has been a long time coming, but it wasn’t part of Wirth’s original vision when he came to Squaw Valley. “It evolved over time,” he says. In Steamboat Springs, where he raised his family, Wirth chaired a number of World Cup races hosted at the resort and worked very closely with the U.S. Ski Team. He was also familiar with FIS level racing and had an extensive background that provided a foundation.
In short, he knew what he was getting into. More importantly, Wirth recognized the intrinsic value of hosting such an event. “When I came here, I was very aware of the history and legacy of Squaw Valley. . . as it relates to Alpine racing, it is without comparison. There are many reasons for that,” Wirth says. “Cultures are developed and they enhance themselves over time. Even before coming here, I knew KT-22 raises some pretty darn good athletes. It’s about spirit. It’s about challenge and everything in between.” For Wirth, the combination of an extraordinary mountain with legendary coaches and racers, creates what he views as a “remarkable heritage.”
He was tapped by California Governor Jerry Brown and Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval to chair the bi-state effort to secure the United States bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics. The effort was thwarted when the USOC (United States Olympic Committee) decided not to bid on the 2022 games. While the effort was dead in the water, the venue studies commissioned by the committee proved insightful. “We determined that we can’t host World Cup level men’s speed events like Super G and Downhill, but we’ve got multiple venues for technical events – Giant Slalom and Slalom.” Wirth points out that one way to secure the Olympics is to prove yourself is by hosting World Cup events.
As part of the Olympic bid process, the IOC (International Olympic Committee) requires a test event prior to hosting the games. In many cases, such as Sochi, and PeyongChang, Korea, World Cup races were allocated after their selection as Olympic sites. These test events are an essential part of the process. They were held at Whistler the year before the Vancouver games and at Park City prior to the Salt Lake City Olympiad. In 1959, Squaw Valley hosted the FIS World Championships as a test event.
The test event in Korea provided a perfect opportunity for Squaw Valley. After PeyongChang, the women will be heading to Aspen for the World Cup Finals. “There just happened to be enough space in the calendar to host a World Cup here, between those two events, Wirth says. He made it known to the U.S. Ski Team and to the FIS that Squaw was interested in hosting World Cup races. “This has been a long term effort,” Wirth says. “The intensity and complexity of securing this event was far from linear. We’ve gone to great lengths to secure this event – probably as deep as any resort has gone to secure a World Cup because we believe in it.”
Given the near Herculean effort required to win a bid to host a World Cup race, why bother? “It has zero, nada, nothing, zippo to do with promotional exposure. It does not have to do with television viewership,” Wirth says. He won’t disclose the price tag, in part because he doesn’t have the final bill, but it won’t be cheap. Wirth concedes that he could probably spend those funds more effectively in other ways if his sole objective was to promote the resort. It comes down to one simple yet intangible factor. “There is no replicating the inspiration that this race will bring to hundreds of young racers,” he says.
The experience of being slopeside to watch a World Cup race can be life-defining for a young racer in a way that watching a race on television never can be. Former World Speed record holder and world-renowned coach Dick Dorworth remembers coming to Squaw Valley to see Emile Allais ski. “It changed my life,” he says. “It’s a big deal to have big races – from Sun Valley to Squaw Valley to Aspen to Vail. Ski racing is what put those ski areas on the map and it’s an intrinsic part of the culture. It’s a money loser – it’s not selling lift tickets. But it’s a chance witness and be a part of something so much bigger.”
Dorworth coached for a number of years at Squaw Valley and now spends his winters in Sun Valley, Idaho. He sees the return of World Cup racing to Squaw as an opportunity live up to the legend. “It’s about credibility and responsibility. Big mountains need to have big races. And in terms of the legacy, the tradition – all of those kids on the ski team there – if they go to a race to see Julia Mancuso or Mikaela Shiffrin in person, it has such an impact. If you can’t see them in person, you don’t get it. And in the long run, I really do think it’s good for business because it’s good for the sport. The inspiration and enthusiasm that an event like this generates – that’s a long-term investment.”
Former World Cup champion Tamara McKinney agrees. She grew up skiing first at Mount Rose, and then at Squaw Valley and remembers going with her entire family to watch the World Cup Finals at Heavenly Valley. “Watching them award the trophies – that was it. When I realized these were the best in the world for the entire season, to see them holding up their crystal globes, it was amazing,” McKinney says. “That was my first glimpse of the magic of World Cup ski racing – the inspiration. To see it in person versus on TV. It became a tangible idea and then a tangible goal. That’s where it started for me.”
I think my brother McLane and I watched a reel-to reel film of the 1976 Innsbruck Olympics until it broke.” By 1980, McKinney was headed to Lake Placid. The three time Olympian won four World Cup titles and one overall title, and she says the Squaw World Cup will be one of the toughest stops on the tour. “It will be the women’s version of Adelboden, which is considered to be the most challenging men’s slalom and giant slalom.”
As a coach, McKinney says “you just can’t replace that excitement and energy– there’s nothing like live ski racing. It looks 100% easier on television. It’s so important for young racers to have the chance to come up and see the best in the world; to see the level of training and focus and fun. And to see just how far you can get with heart.”
Former U.S. Ski Team coach Tom Kelly credits fellow legendary Squaw Valley coach Mark “Sully” Sullivan. “Sully really inspired this. It was one of his main themes – you’re from Squaw Valley – you have all these people who made it to the U.S. Ski Team from here. You can do this.” Kelly was here for the 1969 World Cup and says, “the fanfare was really something. There was a huge fan club in the finish area. Next year will be great for American women to be here on home turf. It makes a big difference.”
Tom’s son Todd is now Head Coach of the Squaw/Alpine Ski Team. He raced World Cup for three years and understands what it takes to get there. We talk about home field advantage and he’s quiet for a moment. “It’s really big,” he says. “I remember going to Europe – it was my first time on a course that they’d all been skiing for 10 years. That was tough.” Kelly agrees that being in the states will give American women an edge and thinks fans will get to see some great racing. “The venue (on Red Dog) is at the bottom of the mountain, so it’s easy for fans to get to. The U.S. Women’s Tech Team was here training at a mini-camp for two weeks last spring. They are ready. We’re ready. And we’re looking to inspire the whole community.”
Kelly remembers going to Heavenly Valley to help boot pack the course for a World Cup race when he was 13. “We went up on the tram in the middle of the night. I think we made three or four trips. It’s not like it used to be, with big ruts carved in to soft snow. It’s so much more efficient now.” Todd’s dad, Tom, chuckles when he remembers the 1969 World Cup. “The snow,” he says. “There was so much snow. It was just crazy.”
In true Tahoe tradition, Squaw got hit with a huge blizzard just before the races. Dorworth, who was Chief of Course for the 1969 World Cup, says “it snowed for a week as it can (or could) only snow in the Sierra.” The downhill was cancelled. “There was just no way,” Dorworth says. The crew for the1960 Olympics had a tremendous amount of military support to boot pack and ski pack the courses but that was not the case for the ’69 World Cup. “It was one of the most stressful weeks of my life. I went and drafted everybody I could think of to come out and boot pack in exchange for free ski passes. We worked 10 to 12 hours a day and pulled it off. I feel really good about it. Considering how much it showed, we did a really good job and overall, the racers were really pleased.”
Squaw Valley native Eric Poulsen was one of the youngest members of 1968-69 U.S. Ski team. “I think it snowed nine feet in three days. I ran way back, close to the end. I remember coming down off of KT down on to Exhibition and dropping down into these huge holes. It was tough coming home and racing under those conditions.” Dorworth remembers the Giant Slalom was more like a luge by the end of the race and Poulsen says that’s a pretty accurate description.
And what if the Sierra Storm King comes raging in next spring? Event Director Kyle Crezee says he’s got a plan. “We hope for the best and prepare for the worst. Technology has given us the opportunity to have a firm, hard surface – the harder and icier the better. If we get snow, our objective is to blade the snow off to the side. We will have close to 300 volunteers and probably 75-80 paid staff. There will be five snow cats dedicated to this event, and I really think we can handle what ever Mother Nature sends our way.”
This summer, Crezee and his crew are doing a lot of work on the mountain to get ready. New hydrants are being installed and the snowmaking system is getting a substantial upgrade. “Our objective was to host the Nationals at a World Cup level and that put us in position to host the highest level of winter sports.” Crezee, who grew up racing in Southern California, is surprisingly calm given the task at hand. “This is our chance to show the world that ski racing is alive and well in the West. I can’t wait.”