Aspen Skiing Company wants to host men’s alpine ski racing for the first time since a 24-year-old Bode Miller claimed only his second World Cup podium in a slalom on Aspen Mountain in November of 2001.
The SkiCo sent a representative to the World Cup Finals earlier this month in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, where a now 36-year-old Miller grabbed yet another podium in his now storied career, finishing third in the super-G.
Lenzerheide is Aspen’s only competition in a bid to host the 2017 World Cup Finals – an event that includes both men and women and hasn’t been held in the United States since Vail in 1997.
“It was supposed to be decided in the fall at the FIS [International Ski Federation] conference and it wasn’t, so June is now what we’ve been told,” Aspen spokesman Jeff Hanle said of a pending FIS decision on the venue for the 2017 finals.
Hanle added Aspen, a regular stop on the women’s World Cup circuit, would love to get the men back as well.
“It’s always a continuing discussion from our point of view,” Hanle said. “We’ve looked at it any time there’s an opportunity to try to do it; we’ve tried to wiggle our way in there, and it just hasn’t happened.”
Vail’s Beaver Creek resort has regularly hosted men’s racing action on its Birds of Prey course, which debuted in 1997, and this season Beaver Creek unveiled a new women’s speed course next to the men’s course. Women’s races shifted from Aspen to Beaver Creek as a test event for the 2015 World Alpine Ski Championships at Vail and Beaver Creek next season (Feb. 2-19).
The women’s World Cup returns to Aspen in November, and those races are scheduled for at least the next three seasons. But Aspenites would also like to see the top men back in town at some point.
Aspen hosted men’s and women’s World Cup races the second season of the circuit’s existence, with Canadian great Nancy Greene sweeping all three disciplines and Stowe, Vt., and Steamboat legend Billy Kidd winning the slalom in March of 1968.
Aspen again hosted races in 1976, with all-time World Cup winner Ingemar Stenmark of Sweden claiming the slalom and Austrian great Franz Klammer taking the downhill, but it would be another five years before it became a regular World Cup stop in 1981.
In March of 1984, fresh from becoming the first American man to win an Olympic downhill at the Sarajevo Winter Games, Bill Johnson wowed the hometown crowd by reaching speeds of up to 75 mph en route to a win on Aspen’s Aztec downhill run. “Big Bad Billy Wins!” screamed the headline in the Aspen Times the next day.
“I can’t describe the bummer of still seeing the faded ‘America’s Downhill’ signs posted along the old Aztec course,” said Aspen Times columnist Roger Marolt, the son of Aspen’s first Olympian, Max Marolt (1960 Squaw Valley), and nephew of 1964 Olympian Bill Marolt.
“It used to be a bigger deal, but since it’s been so long since we’ve had a men’s downhill here, lots of people don’t remember how great it is or even know our history with the sport,” Roger Marolt added. “Never mind that the FIS [World] Championships put us on the map in 1950 and led to what Aspen is today.”
Aspen Mountain was only four years into its storied history as arguably America’s most iconic ski area when it hosted the first non-European World Alpine Ski Championships in 1950. Vail has hosted the event twice (1989 and 1999) since then and will make it a trifecta next season.
“For a town that prides itself on being jealous of Vail about absolutely nothing, not having the World Championships, much less even a men’s downhill anymore, really hurts,” Marolt said. “We don’t like to admit it, but our bid for the 2017 World Cup Finals speaks volumes in a whisper over the issue.”
Vail founder Peter Seibert was a member of the Aspen ski patrol in 1950. Also a ski racer, Seibert made the team for the World Championships but was injured and couldn’t compete.
Seibert would go on to found Vail in 1962, inviting Bob Beattie and his fledgling U.S. Ski Team to train on the slopes of Vail that first season en route to winning the first ever men’s alpine medals (Billy Kidd and Jimmie Heuga) at the 1964 Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria. Bill Marolt was on that Olympic team but didn’t compete in the historic 1964 slalom.
“We started with [Vail] at its opening and that year we had a downhill camp in 1963,” said Beattie, an Aspen resident who regrets not entering Marolt in that slalom race. “We were so cocky we thought we didn’t have to go to Europe, and I still don’t know that we do, to be honest with you.”
Cognizant of how hosting the Worlds had put Aspen on the international map in 1950, Seibert and his marketing guru, Bob Parker, relentlessly pursued big-time ski races and chased their dreams of hosting major events like the Olympics or the World Championships at Vail.
“Pete was a ski racer and even the first year he insisted on what you would now call a World Cup race here,” said former Vail Mayor Rod Slifer, who met Seibert while teaching skiing in Aspen and later joined him in Vail.
“[Steamboat legend and Kitzbuehel downhill winner] Buddy Werner and all of those guys were here and it was a big-time race, and then when we got big enough and well-known enough, then international racing was an important part of getting Vail on the map,” Slifer added.
The very first season of the World Cup circuit, Vail hosted a giant slalom won by France’s Jean-Claude Killy in March of 1967. Heuga, who was later diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and founded the Vail Valley-based Heuga Center (now Can Do MS), was second in that race.
Vail became a regular stop on the World Cup circuit in 1983, when American’s Phil Mahre and Tamara McKinney won GS races en route to simultaneously claiming the overall titles that season. Seibert had left the company he founded, but World Cup racing was part of Vail’s DNA by then.
Mahre raced at Aspen the next season (taking third in GS) in one of his final events before retiring as the all-time American men’s World Cup winner. Miller has since surpassed Mahre’s win total of 27 with his 33rd victory coming last season at Beaver Creek.
The World Cup Finals would be a major coup for Aspen, where six-time Olympic medalist Miller likely won’t compete. Many observers expect the oldest man to ever win an Olympic medal (bronze in Sochi) to call it quits by then. But two-time Olympic gold medalist and 23-time World Cup winner Ted Ligety would no doubt be a favorite in Aspen.
The World Cup Finals wrap up each season by handing out crystal globes for overall season and individual discipline titles (Ligety won GS and Eagle-Vail’s Mikaela Shiffrin claimed her second straight slalom title earlier this month in Lenzerheide).
The World Championships, by comparison, are a two-week, mid-season extravaganza held every two years to determine the sport’s greatest racers between the four-year span of the Winter Olympics.
Vail and Aspen are the only two North American resorts to host the Worlds, and McKinney, with her gold in the combined in 1989 at Vail, is only American who’s ever won a world championship medal of any color on U.S. snow.
And those Worlds only happened because Aspen pulled out as the U.S. candidate at the 11th hour, according to Vail Valley Foundation Chairman Harry Frampton, leaving Vail about a week to pull together the winning bid. Vail learned from those Worlds and won them again in 1999.
“I never thought we’d do three [Worlds], but it’s exciting, and this one’s going to be the best,” Frampton said of 2015. “We’re still a ski town, any way you look at it — that’s the heart. So to be able to host the premier event means it’s a part of our DNA. That’s why we’ll have 3,000 volunteers working. It is who we are, and I think that’s pretty darn cool.”
Former Vail owner George Gillett said those 1989 Worlds did two key things.
“The year after the World Alpine Ski Championships we went to 13 percent international skier visits [compared to 2 percent the year before], and that really validated Vail as an international destination resort,” Gillett said, and it was at those championships that Gillett saw Seibert and invited the Vail founder, former ski racer and Olympic dreamer back into the company fold.
“I’d been waiting quite a while for something like this to happen,” the late Seibert wrote in his 2000 book “Triumph of a Dream.”
This story was produced for the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum and a version first ran in the Vail Daily. The museum is located on the third level of the Vail Village parking structure, adjacent to Vail Village Covered Bridge. It is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. For more information, call 970-476-1876 or go to www.skimuseum.net.