Alessandro Trovati, File, Associated Press
COPPER MOUNTAIN, Colo. — Just two weeks before its scheduled opening, the winding downhill course remains mostly covered in mud with hints of scrub brush poking through the only traces of snow in sight.
In years past, it would have taken a blizzard for this slope to have a shot at being skiable anytime soon.
Only, this isn't any year and this isn't any trail.
The U.S. Ski Team has invested millions to partner with Copper Mountain and launch its own training run at the resort from Nov. 1 to Dec. 10. There are 87 automated snowmaking guns on standby, prepared to work around the clock to blanket the nearly two-mile course and guarantee Olympic gold medalists such as Lindsey Vonn, Julia Mancuso, Bode Miller and Ted Ligety an early base of solid snow under their skis.
No other country will have a training course quite like this.
Not this long. Not this sheer. And especially not this early in the season.
The 20-year deal with Copper gives the Americans an opportunity to squeeze in additional speed work just before the World Cup season gets into full swing.
The U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association also believes the venture could pay off with more medals at the 2014 Sochi Olympics that would build on a record haul of eight in Vancouver almost two winters ago.
"This speed project is a game-changer for us," said Bill Marolt, the president and CEO of USSA. "It gives us an opportunity to improve our chances."
Before this $4.3 million undertaking, the Alpine team traveled to New Zealand and Chile each summer for early season speed training, just hoping the conditions would be sufficient.
Sometimes, the snow in the Southern Hemisphere would be sparse and hardly make for the most productive of downhill sessions, which put the team at a disadvantage right out of the chute.
"This is an insurance policy that we'll have good training regardless of what we get in the summer," Marolt said. "If we get good training in the summer, this becomes frosting on the cake. If we have snow conditions in the summer where we can't get the training we want, this becomes part of the core training program. This is an effort to ensure ideal preparation."
Not to mention more podium finishes.
"It doesn't take a ton of training to be competitive. You just have to have quality training," said Ligety, who will begin his quest for a fourth overall giant slalom title next weekend in Soelden, Austria. "That's where this will be a really good advantage for us."
Another in a recent string of them.
In May 2009, USSA opened the "Center of Excellence," a $22 million sports palace in Park City, Utah, that features world-class training equipment, nutrition center and rehab facilities.
"We're trying to provide the best opportunity for athletic success," Marolt said.
The collaboration with Copper was first broached nearly six years ago. But just as the two sides were making progress on a plan, the recession hit and the project was shelved.
Only after Intrawest sold the resort to Powdr Corp. two years ago did talks pick up again.
"All the stars aligned and we were able to get a deal done," said Gary Rodgers, the president of Copper Mountain Resort. "The course we're building is second to none. It gives athletes the ability to train in race conditions."
The resort is situated at 9,700 feet above sea level and has an average nighttime temperature hovering in the mid-20s this time of year.
Those conditions are conducive to making — and retaining — quality snow, especially since the north-facing slope is shielded from the glare of the afternoon sun.
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