New sport fulfills need for speed|
Scripps Howard News Service
Friday, Feb. 26 5:14pm ET
A cynic looking for a cheap laugh might say speed skiing is a race discipline Americans can dominate because turning isn't required. In fact, it's prohibited.
"You make a turn on a speed track and you're banned for life," former speed skier Bill Miller concedes. "It's the cardinal sin."
Actually we're both joking. There is a speed track at Vars, France, where racers are required to make a 130-mph turn in the runout. Miller says it's the coolest turn in the world.
There are only a handful of speed skiers around the world, and the World Pro Speed Skiing Tour doesn't attract a lot of sponsorship dollars, but these men and women love their sport. This week they are at Snowmass.
They aren't going to threaten the world record of 151.5 mph, but they should reach a brisk 120-125 mph in the four-day event that concludes Thursday.
"Speed is one of the main elements of skiing that excites people, and people push it to different limits depending on their ability," Miller said. "We're just taking it to another level."
Miller co-owns an Aspen ski shop with Jeff Hamilton, who won the tour championship three times and once held the world record of 151 mph. Hamilton currently is second in the world behind France's Phillipe Billy, the world-record holder. The second-ranked American is Mark Rupprecht.
Speed skiing was a demonstration sport at the 1992 Albertville Olympics, sanctioned by the International Ski Federation, and the U.S. Ski Team sent a contingent that included Coloradans C.J. Mueller, Amy Guras, Dale Womack and Hamilton. Hamilton was the top American at Albertville, finishing third (140.55 mph).
Albertville was a natural, because the Val d'Isere region was home to one of the world's fastest tracks at Les Arcs. But in the aftermath of Albertville, the FIS got fidgety about the speeds racers were putting up. The FIS wanted to limit speeds, which was contrary to the essence of the sport: the quest for ever-faster speeds.
"They wouldn't give us full medal status," said Hamilton, 32. "They wanted to control our sport and limit our speed, and they controlled the IOC's decision about what ski sports would go in (the Olympics)."
Besides, Lillehammer and Nagano weren't interested. But Hamilton believes speed skiing might return to the Olympics after Salt Lake City.
"If Switzerland (Sion) gets the bid in 2006, we'll be part of the Olympics again, because it is such a pure form of ski racing," Hamilton said. "It's just raw and clean."
The sport has had logistical obstacles in this country, because there just aren't that many slopes with the proper pitch, length and runout to host major events. Silverton used to be a regular stop -- Franz Weber set the North American record (129) there in 1983 -- but the racers haven't been back for several years because it's a back country area without lifts, making it impractical. There are two Oregon tracks, at Mount Hood and Willamette Pass, but they're only good for 100 mph or so.
Then there's Snowmass. In the mid-'80s, the late Steve McKinney discovered a run on Sam's Knob where they were able to reach speeds of 115-117 mph. Last winter Snowmass began grooming the run for the public to use for special speed runs on Fridays. Now comes the Red Bull U.S. Speed Skiing Championships with $15,000 in prize money. ESPN2 will air a feature on the event in May.
"When people see this on television, they will get a better taste for it," Hamilton said. "It's very understandable. I think giant slalom and slalom are a turnoff sometimes, because (Americans think), `What are they doing?' and Americans aren't dominating the sport. In speed skiing, Americans dominate the sport."
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