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.
At the top of the course, the snowmaking guns are already churning out a steady stream of snow flakes. Soon, the blowers will kick in on the lower portion, as well.
This is far from cheap, even given the short window of availability. The operational costs will run close to $350,000 annually.
"But it's one of those investments we've made that absolutely impacts directly on athletes and their preparation," Marolt explained.
And while the target date could fluctuate, there soon will be a skiable cover of snow on the ground. There's not much precipitation in the forecast over the next few weeks.
"Whether or not Mother Nature comes to the ball early, we'll still provide a great product," Rodgers said.
Working with the U.S. Forest Service, the resort removed 1½ acres of trees to make the course wider. It also navigated around three patches of moonwort, a small perennial fern that's environmentally protected.
The course begins on the upper part of a trail called "Andy's Encore," meanders through a section dubbed "Oh No" and winds up on "Rosi's Run," with the finish line situated almost on top of the first tee of Copper's golf course.
The cost of the endeavor will be split between the resort and the U.S. Ski Team, which will receive support from its sponsors.
For the team, the expenses mainly center around providing infrastructure, items such as the 20,000 feet of new fencing to protect the skiers, as well as the water lines and power cables to run the snowmaking guns, which one of the team's partners is helping provide.
In turn, the resort will produce the snow and maintain the course with two winch cats keeping the terrain in race-ready condition.
Eventually, the venue could be a revenue generator. The team plans to lease the course to other interested countries, possibly even using it as a bargaining chip. If another nation wants to use the slope for, say, three days of training, a deal might be brokered to use that country's facility later on in the World Cup season.
Those details are still being ironed out.
For now, the terrain will be open to the World Cup squad, along with USSA clubs and regional programs.
And no restricted access, either.
"With this, we can go out at a realistic time and have all day to train," Marolt said. "With this, we give our athletes more of an expanded opportunity than we've ever had in the past. It gives us an opportunity improve to our chances internationally and in the Olympic Games every year.
"That's why this is a game-changer."
AP Sports Writer Pat Graham can be reached at http://twitter.com/pgraham34
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