Club athletes, coaches, volunteers are integral ahead of Audi FIS Ski World Cup event

Photos and story by Geoff Mintz, Ski & Snowboard Club Vail

It takes a village to make the Xfinity Birds of Prey Audi FIS Ski World Cup happen, but there’s little doubt that, without Ski & Snowboard Club Vail (SSCV), these races wouldn’t be possible.

This view was confirmed by Tom Johnston, alpine technical advisor for U.S. Ski & Snowboard, as he was overseeing the installation of several hundred yards of B net just above the Birds of Prey finish area on Tuesday of race week.

The installation of B net (the orange fencing that lines parts of the course and protects racers in the event of a crash) by SSCV coaches is part of a long-standing collaboration between the local ski club and the Vail Valley Foundation, organizer of this week’s Xfinity Birds of Prey World Cup races at Beaver Creek.

It’s just one of the ways these races are made possible and enhanced by the manpower and expertise of the ski club. Over a nine-day period, starting the morning after Thanksgiving, SSCV mobilizes more than 50 coaches, athletes, and parent volunteers per day to help set up and refine the Golden Eagle course — that’s nearly 4000 man hours.

The club’s responsibilities include installing B net, slipping the track, and facilitating the runner crew (workers who fix broken gates and respond to problems on the course).

“Ski Club Vail provides a large pool of young, healthy coaches who can do hard labor for long periods of time,” Johnston said with a smile. “They’re also professionals at installing safety protection, so we don’t have to manage every installation.

“The ski club also provides a large pool of younger workers, the athletes, who can do a lot of slipping and really polishing the track, which makes it the high level that it is,” Johnston added. “For sure, without the ski club, it would be a much lower-level event.”

Johnston said it’s a good experience for young racers to be out on the hill, so they can see how much work goes into putting on a ski race. The military-style command structure of the Birds of Prey race crew is something kids should experience more often, he said.

“Every time a ski passes over the snow it melts it,” Johnston explained. “It breaks down the bigger crystals into smaller crystals. It creates more density, that’s what gives it the nice surface.”

John “JC” Cole, SSCV’s Human Performance Director and two-decade veteran of the club, has been moonlighting as SSCV’s general on the hill at the Birds of Prey for 12 out of the last 20 years. He can still remember a time before the creation of the Beaver Creek Race Department and the Talon Crew when Ski Club Vail was responsible for running the race from beginning to end. He said the event is much better supported these days — which is why it has become so highly regarded among the international racing community — but SSCV coaches, athletes, and volunteers are still thrilled to play their part.

“This is a big commitment for everybody involved. We’re pulling athletes away from training and coaches from coaching, but at the end of the day, it’s an incredible opportunity for them to be out here. … It’s a cultural thing. We live in a ski town. We’re incredibly lucky to have the only World Cup downhill race in the U.S. right here in our backyard, and these kids have an opportunity to see the absolute best in the world come out and compete. It’s just so cool.”

Asked what he’s learned over the last 20 years setting up the Birds of Prey course, Cole said simply, “Work smarter. … It’s a long-term strategy. You’ve got to know what the big push days are, when we’re going to be up there all day. And you’ve got to know when to get everybody down off the hill and get them recovered.”