Team Breckenridge's Katy Harris skied her way to the eighth-fastest time during downhill training Sunday at the 2012 USSA Marriott Rocky/Central J3 Junior Championships, currently taking place in Vail.
Now celebrating 35 years of competition, The United States Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) Junior Championships are back in Vail again this season after taking a year off Golden Peak and moving to Aspen. Team Breck coach Jeff Westcott says his athletes are a little bummed the downhill course isn't as long this year, but described the Golden Peak race arena in Vail as a primo venue nonetheless.
"It has all the elements of a good downhill course," Westcott said Sunday while watching his athletes speed down the course during downhill training. "There's two air spots which have the athletes feeling a little apprehensive to begin with, but after that first run they really gain their confidence."
Putting in a bid to host the junior championships is a massive undertaking, said Westcott, and the advantage reaped by the local athletes is well deserved.
"The amount of work and financial commitment it takes to see an event like this through is huge," says Westcott. "It gives the local athletes a home-course advantage, and that's totally fair. It's hard to overstate just how much work something like this takes."
That home-field advantage was evident at Sunday's downhill training; the Ski and Snowboard Club Vail women swept the top three spots and the men claimed seven of the top 10.
But for many of the kids, it was more about the experience than the results.
For coach Brandon Koress, the junior championships represent the highest level of competition his athletes will see this year.
Koress' Southeastern Wisconsin-based Holy Hill Ski Club qualified four athletes to the 2012 USSA Marriott Rocky/Central J3 Junior Championships, formerly known as the Junior Olympics. Those 13- and 14-year olds are among 165 top-level competitors from 18 states within the Rocky/Central region competing in what will be, for many of them, the biggest race of their lives thus far.
"It's one of the greatest race venues in the country, and we got really lucky this week with some great snow and great conditions," Koress said Sunday from the sidelines of the downhill course. "Coming from the Midwest and skiing the big mountains is a real treat for these kids, and they earned it."
Koress says his athletes have put in a lot of time on their little hills back home to get here and, now in Vail, it's great to see their commitment paying off.
"On the hill they're very serious, but when the competition is finished it's great to see them smiling and having a good time," he said. "You can tell they're just thrilled to be here."
Race officials like Scott Ransom, the USSA's Technical Delegate (TD) on hand at the event, say Vail provides an amazing experience at the Golden Peak venue.
"In one word, I'd say 'awesome,'" said Ransom from the Downhill sidelines on Sunday. "It's about as close to perfect as you can get."
Ransom came to the rockies from Thunder Bay in Ontario, Canada, where he just wrapped up TD-ing for older athletes at the FIS Giant Slaloms. He says watching the J3 (13 and 14 year-old) athletes is a great way to see young athletes come into their own, sometimes right there before your eyes.
"I really like seeing the progress of the young athletes from run to run, and their ability to ramp it up and take more to the course each day," he said. "The venue is really well done and well protected, so it's great to be able to see the kids do their best without having to worry about other things interfering."
The J3 Junior Championships officially begin with Opening Ceremonies tonight at Golden Peak at 5, followed by downhill on Tuesday, super-G Wednesday, giant slalom on Thursday and Friday, and wrap up with slalom on Saturday. The week's culminating event will be the awards banquet at 5 p.m. Saturday at the Vail Marriott in Lionshead. Ski-racing fans won't want to miss it; the evening will conclude with a drawing for 2 VIP credentials for the 2012 Birds of Prey World Cup races generously donated by the Vail Valley Foundation.