By Polly Lynn Mikula
The World Cup course on Superstar is icy. Really icy. And that’s intentional. Race officials literally inject water into the snow at varying depths along the course to make sure it’s hard enough to hold up from the first racer to the last, giving them an equal opportunity to compete.
Most recreational skiers wouldn’t be able to stay upright on it. But these racers are not recreational skiers, nor are they skiing on off-the-shelf equipment.
“You can’t race Formula 1 in your Jetta,” said Martin Wilson, head women’s Alpine coach at Killington Mountain School, using the analogy to illustrate both skill and equipment differences.
So how do these elite racers turn on bullet-proof ice?
“It’s very counter-intuitive,” Wilson said. “The first reaction most people have is to tense up and try to stop or slow down when they hit ice, but it’s much safer to relax, stay loose and actually move more, not less.”
“You have to train yourself to overpower your mind,” he added. “Mental practice is key also to be able to ski with courage and conviction.”
“Hold an edge” is not a term Wilson uses, nor is “athletic stance.”
“We all know what we mean by those terms, but they are misleading. You never want to ‘stand’ or ‘hold’ a position when racing. No two frames of a video should be the same. It’s the building of the edge angle that gives a racer the best grip,” he explained.
Instead, Wilson uses phrases like “rolling out an edge” and “peeling onto the snow” when analyzing the mechanics of a turn.
“Mikaela doesn’t create a super aggressive angle, but her motion is progressive. It’s very fluid,” he said, adding, “You must be adaptable. Every turn is different and you’re constantly adjusting to conditions and situations.”
Wilson explained, “You’re much more vulnerable if you’re standing still and I push you than if you’re walking and I push you. If you’re walking you can easily adjust and keep going.”
The same is true of ski racing. If you think of it as “holding an edge” (as some have been taught) you’re much more vulnerable than if you’re in motion throughout your turn, he explained.
Additionally, Wilson analyzes the racers’ arc angle, acceleration, bio-mechanical positions and much more, helping the racers refine their technique to shave off time.
“It’s all about refinement, 100th of seconds divide the pack,” he said. “Turning six inches higher on a gate could make the difference between a World Cup racer and not.”
Equipment is also key.
“If your equipment is not ready, then you’re not ready,” Wilson said. “It’s just not going to happen. You should just go home.”
Yes, it really does make that much of a difference, he insisted.
Skis used in World Cup races have better grip, they’re stiffer, and they’re built with more metal, among other differences.
Many of the top pros (like Mikaela Shiffrin and Lindsey Vonn) actually have skis custom-made for them, Wilson noted. At that level, they can really feel the difference of micro adjustments to their equipment. “It’s like the princess and the pea,” he said.
Then there’s the maintenance of that equipment. On an icy course, skis don’t stay tuned very long.
“Sometimes you may only get 2-3 runs before skis would be untuned and not worth skiing on,” said Wilson. “Tuning makes that much difference.”
Professional racers bring a quiver of skis with them when training and racing. He suspects Shiffrin will have at least five pairs for the Killington Cup races.
Wilson was training a group of KMS students in Hintertux, Austria, when he spoke to the Mountain Times. He said the snow conditions there were “like skiing on pond ice.” The students had to bring up at least three pairs of skis to train.
Tuning, Wilson said, is something that all skiers can – and should – benefit from.
“Tune your skis if you want to have a good time,” he said, bluntly. “It’s a game-changer and it will truly affect your enjoyment of skiing. It’s your investment in your experience. It truly makes it worth more.”
While learning to overpower your mind to move fluidly across bullet-proof ice while careening down a steep course takes years of practice and a lifetime of refinement; getting the right equipment is solvable, he continued. “Invest in the right equipment and keep it in good condition,” that’s the first, and easiest place to start, he said. Training begins from there – and it “never ends for those of us who choose to be students of the sport.”
Photo courtesy Killington Resort
Mikaela Shiffrin makes fluid motions around the gates during her first run in the Women’s FIS Alpine Skiing World Cup slalom race, Sunday, Nov. 26, 2017, in Killington.