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America’s best skiers will wrap up season with national alpine championships in Sun Valley

Eric Webster is the director of events for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association
Eric Webster is the director of events for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association

This has been a historic season for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, holding more World Cup events on domestic soil in its history. And the season comes to a big finish with the U.S. Alpine Ski Championships in Sun Valley.

“It's the culmination of the season to name national champions,” said Eric Webster, director of events for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. “Athletes are competing not only for a national championship but for future spots on the U.S. team.”

Just prior to Sun Valley hosting the best of the best men and women skiers in the nation, Webster visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to preview the event.

“It’s a massive effort on the front end to get that baseline in place. And then the other big factor with a race of this caliber is the safety installation.”

GEORGE PRENTICE: It's Morning Edition. Good morning. I'm George Prentice. It has been just about five months since the Sun Valley Resort announced that it would be hosting the US Alpine National Championships in 2023 and again next year. But here we are, days away.. scheduled for Sunday, April 2nd through Wednesday, April 5th in Sun Valley. Some of the best skiers on the planet competing in slalom giant slalom Super-G events. Eric Webster is director of events for US Ski and Snowboard Association. Mr. Webster, good morning.

ERIC WEBSTER: Good morning, George. How are you?

PRENTICE: I'm well. I think it might help our listeners…. If you could paint a word picture for us of what this event might look like and maybe even feel like?

WEBSTER: Yeah, 100%. So what we're talking about here is the Toyota US Alpine National Championships presented by Stifel. This is an annual event that we host. We partner with resorts around the country to host annually to showcase, you know, our top and up and coming athletes. And basically it's the culmination of the season to name national champions and also holds a lot of credibility because athletes are competing not only for a national championship but for future spots on the US team.

PRENTICE: Well, this has been a significant year for snow in our region. Can you talk about all of the factors that you and your team have to depend upon to have folks who are always monitoring the weather and track conditions?

WEBSTER: So, fortunately, Sun Valley has a steeped tradition of ski racing. I think Sun Valley opened in the mid-1930s and not too long after that they dug right into supporting tradition of Alpine ski racing. They're well versed in what it takes to do that. But yeah, we have on the ground now in Sun Valley actually probably for the last 7 to 10 days already, a team from our side working with the staff at Sun Valley and the volunteers at Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation, preparing the surface. And that's the that's the first thing that needs to happen and the first step in the process. And literally for ski racing, I guess the best way to describe it is a firm, consistent surface is what we're looking for. So we'll go in and like you said, Sun Valley has had an amazing most of the Intermountain West has had an amazing snow season. So creating that surface, which is the base of or the foundation of the ski race, they'll actually inject water into the into the snow and a thaw or a freeze cycle. So on the nights we know we're going to have sub, you know, subfreezing temperatures, they'll go in and water or inject water into that snow surface. So they get a consistent 4 to 5in of firm, consistent surface that we can work off of. So in the case of snow during or leading up to the event, we can always get back to that. I guess let's just call it a race surface. That does take a lot of work. If that happens. If, for instance, the night before one of the events we get a significant snowfall, we'll have snowcats, slippers, shovelers working on course to basically remove any of the new snow to get back to that racing surface. It’s a massive effort on the front end to get that baseline in place. And then the other big factor with a race of this caliber is the safety installation. And those take a lot of work and effort. So there's what's called A net and B net, and B net is basically the safety netting that you see along the side of a of a race course. A net is a permanent installation and is a little bit taller. There is some A net on the Super-G course at Sun Valley and that's already been installed. But the B net  is huge labor intensive, takes a lot of manpower to install that prior to the race. So those are kind of the two main things that it takes to run a race of this caliber.

PRENTICE: Let's talk about manpower. It sounds like it's significant. How are you with manpower, and how big of an operation is that?

WEBSTER: It's a big take. A lot of staff and volunteers. I don't know the exact number, to be completely honest. But typically, in the 120 to 150 range for a race like this, it's a combined effort between us, US ski and snowboard, some expertise that we bring to the table, and then Sun Valley and Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation all working. Come together to provide the manpower that it takes. But yeah, it's probably daily, 120 to 150 people. Like I said, you've got to have a team of about 30 or so experienced skiers to slip the race line. And as the race progresses throughout the day, to continue to keep that track as clean and consistent as possible, each section of the course has we call them gatekeepers, but they're actually spotters to make sure that the athletes pass the gate properly. They're kind of the on-hill referees for the course starters finish referees and then of course all the ancillary events that go along with an event like this.

PRENTICE: And you said some skiers….. I think the phrase was “slip the course.”  -What does that mean?

WEBSTER: So course-slippers. So basically they'll go down and side slip the race line to clear any loose snow. You know in the lead up to the to the race the course slippers will go through and make sure that the line is clear and then they'll be staged throughout the throughout the race in different groups and different areas. So as the race progresses, if the referee or the race director deems that we need a group of slippers to go through, they'll call for them in between the racers. It's just really to provide as fair and consistent a track, a race track as possible for the entire field.

PRENTICE: And the men and women that we will be seeing…these are men and women looking to join a World Cup team…and maybe an eye toward the Olympics?

WEBSTER: So we'll have a handful of the World Cup skiers come back to compete in this. And along with some of the top skiers from each of the regions in the United States, and then all of our, I guess, aspiring racers trying to get on to the World Cup tour.

PRENTICE: So the next Mikaela Shiffrin or the next Lindsey Vonn?

WEBSTER: Exactly.

PRENTICE: And the level of excitement in your organization, I'm going to guess it's tangible come race day.

WEBSTER: Oh, 100%. Yeah. This is a great opportunity to see, like you said, those up-and-coming racers. You know, for us, it's kind of bittersweet. It's, you know, signals the end of the season. It's been a historic season for us here at US Ski and Snowboard, We've hosted more World Cups on domestic soil than we ever have. And then, of course, we've had amazing results for all the teams at the World Cup level headlined by Mikaela Shiffrin, breaking record after record.

PRENTICE: Well, congratulations on all that. Eric Webster is director of events for US Ski and Snowboard Association. Mr. Webster, we will see you in Sun Valley.

WEBSTER: Looking forward to it, George. Thanks for the time.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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