Before Copper Mountain's speed center, there was no bridge time for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard teams to train before the World Cup circuit begins in Lake Louise, Canada, around the Thanksgiving holiday.
Now, the teams will have nearly three weeks to prepare - thanks to dedicated snowmaking at Copper Mountain, which partnered with the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) on the speed center project.
It's the only venue in the world that offers the team a training facility of such length and quality in November, USSA officials say, catering to Olympic gold medalists like Ted Ligety (Park City, Utah), Bode Miller (Franconia, N.H.), Lindsey Vonn (Vail) and Julia Mancuso (Squaw Valley, Calif.) To celebrate the second year of the speed center, athletes and fans will come together in a special VIP preview event, in which select Copper Mountain passholders will tour the facility and meet the team the day before the training center opens.
"What this venue has done for our team has been astronomical in terms of performance," USSA chief press officer Doug Haney said, highlighting the women's downhill team's superior finish last season. They topped closest competitor Austria by 636 points to be the top women's team in the world. The team also sent six athletes to the final race of the year, which is only open to the top 25 racers in the world. Austria, the next best team, sent three team members.
"It's a game-changing venue not only for us but for our athletic program," Haney said. "There's no full-length downhill training center in the world at that time of the year. The only time you can train full-length, downhill at that time of year is in Colorado at Copper Mountain."
In recent years, Copper Mountain stepped up to be a part of the association's legacy project. The hope is that the partnership will continue well into the future, with the speed center fitting into Copper's plan to develop not just alpine facilities, but also freeskiing and more. Copper is often the first North American ski area to build a halfpipe, and new management direction is linking ski school with Woodward at Copper to build a more dynamic learning opportunity for youths.
Before this, USSA sent athletes to train on glaciers, where getting the same distance isn't possible.
The speed center is also a dedicated facility for the team. It's there for coaches and experts to manage with training lanes, snowmaking, features, courses and more. It's there for the athletes to use - and they like being able to walk out of their residence at the base of the Super Bee chairlift and be at the facility. It allows for more time to sleep, alpine team member Alice McKennis said.
"(The speed center) is really important, especially because a lot of our summer training can be in different temperatures and snow conditions," she said. "Half the time, you're racing on spring snow, which is not what you're racing on in winter. (This facility) is pretty much guaranteed to have winter snow. It gives us a chance to get dialed in."
McKennis, who hails from Glenwood Springs, was coming off an injury last year, and she credits the speed center as a way to boost her confidence in the waning weeks before the World Cup circuit began.
Marco Sullivan, a veteran of the men's alpine ski team, said it's too early to tell if the speed center makes a significant difference in the team's performance, but added it helps to prepare the athletes for the first round of competition.
"We're always trying to find the best training, obviously," he said. "That November block is important because it's our final tune-up before we start racing for the year. ... It hasn't been proven that it will give us huge gains, but we should be sharper coming into the season."
Both McKennis and Sullivan are eager to get back onto the snow after being in various gyms for the past month following Portillo, Chile.
"I've been beating myself to death in the gym to get in shape before ski season," McKennis said, adding that she's now in Colorado, resting before hitting the slopes at Copper Mountain. She and Sullivan and a good portion of the team were at the Center of Excellence in Park City in recent weeks. Sullivan arrives in Colorado on Sunday.
Sullivan pointed out what Copper Mountain officials have mentioned - that the facility will be continually tweaked and updated to meet the team's needs.
"Last year it was a lot more of a work in progress, getting the nets up and snowmaking installed," Sullivan said, explaining that he'd like to see more features. "Last year, it was pretty plain Jane. It was good, but I think they can spice it up by adding a few more features."
Last year, the course opened in roughly mid-November, so the earlier opening gives the team longer training time.
"We got a few good days of training. This year, on Nov. 1, it's ready for us to start training. We'll get two solid weeks of good training. I think we'll be more prepared than we've ever been going into Lake Louise on Thanksgiving weekend."
As for the Oct. 31 event, the athletes are excited to have the chance to divert their focus from training for a day to meet fans and say thank you to Copper Mountain for its partnership.
"It's been a huge effort on behalf of Copper and USSA to get this whole venue up and running, with a lot of money and manhours. ... We're always so focused on training and skiing, it's nice sometimes to just take a break and meet the people behind the scenes and say thanks," Sullivan said.
Passholders can still enter for a chance to tour the facility with USSA athletes. Enter via Facebook at http://on.fb.me/SXuMYG to win tickets for two for the tour followed by open skiing and riding and lunch with the team. Entries are accepted through Oct. 28.