Herwig Demschar had every right to figure Killington could pull this off.
When I spoke with the former head coach of the U.S. women and Austrian men’s alpine teams back in 2016 in preparation for the first World Cup skiing event to be held on the East Coast in a quarter-century, Demschar said he had spent the previous five years wondering why the East Coast wasn’t more of a destination for international skiing events.
“Why don’t we promote the East more?” he asked. “Especially because there are most of the ski clubs, most of the ski academies that produce athletes for ski racing. Why don’t we go back to this place?”
But if Demschar received any resistance to his idea in terms of arguments over snow control, mountain elevations and crowd size, then he had the ultimate trump card.
“I could hear the crowd the whole second run, from the start to the finish,” Mikaela Shiffrin said after her win in the slalom at the Killington Cup last November. “The crowd really carried me down the hill, and it’s just amazing to race here in front of everybody. The atmosphere is incredible.”
That crowd is proof. It has been three straight years of record-setting attendance at the base of Killington’s Superstar trail, buoyed in part by the presence of World Cup and Olympic champion Shiffrin, the native of Vail, Colo., who might as well have Vermont as her official second home. Three straight years, the product of Burke Mountain Academy has taken the slalom event on Killington Cup Sunday, each win before a fervent crowd that has opened eyes on the professional skiing circuit.
“Killington Resort and the fans have proved once again that the East can successfully host world-class global ski racing events,” Demschar, chair of the Killington Cup organizing committee and VP of international business development at Powdr, said. “The bar has been set higher with each passing year of the World Cup at ‘The Beast of the East,’ and the rest of the ski racing world is taking notice.”
In fact, it was at a media event hosted by trade group Ski New Hampshire later that month when the commissioner for New Hampshire’s Department of Business and Economic Affairs, Taylor Caswell, hinted in jest that he was expecting a similar show to Killington’s attendance of 18,500 when Waterville Valley hosts the U.S. Freestyle Championships in March.
Of course, Waterville was the site of the last alpine World Cup event prior to Killington in 1991 when Maine native Julie Parisien won giant slalom. Waterville president and general manager Tim Smith is already on record, saying on New Hampshire public radio, that he thinks the crowd numbers the World Cup brought 27 years ago will pale in comparison to what the resort expects in March.
That’s the sort of bar that Demschar is talking about.
Much of that success has everything to do with Shiffrin, the de facto poster girl for the event, not to mention the World Cup in general. In the weeks following her win at Killington, Shiffrin remained on an electric pace, securing three World Cup wins over the course of eight days, including back-to-back wins in the super-G at Lake Louise, Canada, and St. Moritz.
“Everyone involved, from volunteers to groomers, put on another great showing for athletes and spectators,” Killington president Mike Solimano said. “We’re very much looking forward to keeping this event on the East Coast next year.”
That question of continuation seems to be a slam-dunk considering the results, something I asked Shiffrin about in the weeks leading up to the event.
“I hope it’s sustainable,” she said. “For me, whether we’re racing in Aspen or we’re racing in Killington, it’s a pleasure. Aspen — I’m living in Colorado, so I’m home basically. But on the East Coast, I lived there for so long that it also feels like home. Really either of those two places, as long as we keep getting the World Cup back in the U.S., I think that’s the most important thing.”
The vibe at the races is unmistakable, particularly in the midst of November when all of New England was enjoying one of the best starts to the season on record. As my sons and I booted up in the parking lot, an attendant came over to suggest the best spots to ski in the woods that week, at the same time shaking his head over the fact that we were discussing hidden gems only two days after Thanksgiving. Taking a stroll through the retail and marketing village there was an energy fueled in part by local commerce, musical acts and a general acknowledgement that few places could be better at that specific moment.
High energy, enthusiastic crowds and a World Cup champ with local roots kicking off what might be her best season on the slopes yet. A perfect recipe.
“Showcasing Killington and the state of Vermont to the international ski community for a third year in a row has us and the entire surrounding community boasting with pride,” Solimano said.
Waterville and Sugarloaf hope to follow the momentum kick-started at Killington. Sugarloaf hosts the first-ever U.S. Alpine Speed Championship from March 16-21. Waterville is the host for the 2019 U.S. Freestyle Championships March 15-17 and the slalom, giant slalom and parallel slalom in the U.S. Alpine Championships, set for March 23-26.
“We are looking forward to bringing elite ski racing back to Waterville Valley Resort,” Calum Clark, U.S. Ski and Snowboard chief of systems and operations, said last summer. “The membership and fan base in the East is vast and extremely engaged with the sport, and our athletes love competing in front of them.”
East Coast ski racing. Who knew?
Demschar, for one. But I think the rest of us New Englanders might have rightfully had a pretty good idea as well.