David Chodounsky reacts after his run in the alpine team event at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 on Feb. 24, 2018 in PyeongChang, South Korea.
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — The alpine team event debuted at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 on Saturday and while Team USA did not walk away with a medal, the six U.S. competitors had a blast competing as a team. And so did the boisterous crowd.
The team included two NCAA champions, a three-time Olympian and a reigning downhill junior world champion. And only one of them had ever finished on a world cup podium.
Due to bad luck, David Chodounsky, Nolan Kasper, Megan McJames and Tricia Mangan did not advance beyond the first-round 1/8 final against Great Britain. Chodounsky lost his pole at the start and could lay down the run that he wanted.
“It would have been nice to do better,” said Chodounsky after his run. “This is one of my favorite events, for sure. I feel like I’m pretty good at it, just a little bit of bad luck today.”
Without a pole, Chodounsky could not cross-block the paneled gates and instead had to ski “old school,” or around the gates rather than pushing them out of the way.
“But we had a fast team,” he added. “We were training together yesterday. We don’t get to train this very often so it was a lot of fun yesterday just working together, seeing how fast we could get out of the start.”
Instead, Switzerland — which was led by slalom silver medalist and combined bronze medalist Wendy Holdener — won the first Olympic gold medal in the team event. They defeated heavily-favored Austria 3-1 in the big final. Since the team event debuted at world championships in 2005, Austria has won it three times.
In the small final, Norway beat reigning world champion France for the bronze medal. Tied 2-2, Norway’s top skiers were 0.12 seconds faster than the French.
U.S. Ski Team stars Mikaela Shiffrin and Ted Ligety sat out the alpine team event. The U.S. team included the following six skiers (four for the event, plus two reserve):
Chodounsky — the NCAA slalom champion in 2004 — is a world cup veteran who finished fifth in a dual slalom in 2013 (referred to as a city event because they are often run on manufactured ski slopes in the middle of major cities). The 33-year-old alpine skier competed in the PyeongChang Olympic slalom last week, finishing 18th.
Kasper, 28, earned a world cup podium finish in slalom in 2011 but has struggled with injuries since then. This is his first season back racing on the world cup, and he won a World Pro Tour event (run in a similar dual panel format) before coming to Korea.
For the women, McJames, 30, is the reigning giant slalom national champion and is competing in her third Olympic Games. She is the one skier on the alpine team event roster who is not officially on the U.S. Ski Team this year. For the past five years, she has continued to ski race thanks to donations from foundations like World Cup Dreams and T2, as well as myriad private donors and sponsors.
Mangan, 20, is the youngest on the alpine team squad. She came to PyeongChang with nine world cup races on her resume.
Alice Merryweather and Mark Engel were named as reserve athletes to the alpine team event squad. Engel is also an NCAA champion — in giant slalom for the University of Utah in 2014. Merryweather won the downhill title at the world junior championships last March, and was entered in her third event at her first Olympic Games.
Of the six, four are Dartmouth College alums or current students. Chodounsky graduated in 2008 with a dual degree in engineering and geology. While recovering from his injuries, Kasper finished his economics degree at Dartmouth in 2014. Mangan is a sophomore, while Merryweather enters as a freshman this spring quarter.
How The Alpine Team Event Works
The alpine team event is a dual-panel race, where competitors ski head-to-head. The gates resemble two-pole giant slalom panels, but are set about 10 meters apart, making it ski more like a slalom. But as Chodounsky pointed out, it’s neither a slalom nor a giant slalom race. It’s its own animal.
Each team enters six skiers, with four — two women and two men — competing head to head against a skier of the same gender in each round. Whichever team has the most winners moves on to the next round.
In the case of a 2-2 tie, the team with the lowest combined time of the best woman’s run and best man’s run determine the winner. If a tie still remains, the team with the lowest combined time of the second-best woman’s run and second-best man’s run wins the heat.
The format features 1/8 finals, quarterfinals and semifinals, then a big final to determine gold and silver medalists and a small final to determine the bronze-medal-winning team.
The Americans tied the Brits 2-2 in their 1/8 final. But McJames’ time of 21.54 added with Kasper’s time of 20.36 fell 0.19 of a second shy of Britain’s fastest men’s skier, Dave Ryding, and fastest woman Alex Tilley.
The Reception Of The Alpine Team Event
Despite not advancing deeper into the event, all four American skiers who raced in the 1/8 final were happy that the team event made its Olympic debut.
The capacity crowd was into it too, cheering for their favorite teams, blowing air horns and waving flags and banners.
“It’s head to head, side by side, so you can see exactly what’s going on, who’s fast, who’s not,” said Chodounsky. “I think that’s attractive to a lot of people who don’t really understand skiing. They see somebody go down a course, and they’re like, ‘Yeah, that looked pretty good, I guess.’ They don’t understand why something’s fast or not. Here you can see it. I think that’s pretty cool.”
Mangan said that she skis faster when competing next to someone and was happy to hear the crowd roar after she finished, even though she lost her pairing by 0.06 seconds.
“This is why we ski race, so our fans can come and take part in it and experience it,” she said. “It just makes everything so much more exciting.”
In the days leading to the alpine team event, McJames enjoyed training with the men, and she was proud to compete in the event’s Olympic debut.
Although several of the world’s top skiers competed for their countries in the team event — such as the 2018 Olympic slalom gold medalists Andre Myhrer and Frida Hansdotter, both from Sweden — others, such as world cup leaders Marcel Hirscher and Shiffrin, declined to participate.
Chodounsky seemed disappointed that Shiffrin did not choose to take part in the event but understood her need to rest for the final world cup races.
Some skiers hoped that the excitement of the event in PyeongChang would draw more of the world’s top competitors to it in 2022 — similar to golf, where many of the world’s top golfers said they would be eager to try for the 2020 Games after hearing about the fun of the 2016 Rio Games.
“We’ve been doing [team events] at world championships and World Cup Finals for as long as I’ve been racing world cup,” Kasper said. “Now that it’s in the Olympics, maybe some people will start taking it a little more seriously.”
“I don’t think there’s anything different needed to attract more guys,” added Chodounsky. “I feel like an Olympic medal is pretty attractive.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games, PyeongChang is her fifth. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.