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With The FIS World Cup Season On The Horizon, How Did U.S. Alpine Skiers Adjust Their Summer Training During The Pandemic

By Peggy Shinn | Sept. 10, 2020, 12:55 p.m. (ET)

Ryan Cochran-Siegle competes at the Audi FIS World Cup on March 7, 2020 in Kvitjell, Norway.

 

With the start of the FIS Alpine World Cup a little more than a month away, U.S. skiers are starting to make their way to Europe.

The Soelden World Cup giant slalom races on October 17-18 are both the start of the 2020/2021 ski season and the culmination of a crazy summer of training during a crazy year of COVID-19. The usual overseas summer training camps were canceled—at least for American skiers. Instead, they sought out U.S. snow this summer. 

While training was not ideal, particularly for the speed skiers who need long stretches of hard snow for downhill and super-G training, much good came from the adapted training plan. 

As Ryan Cochran-Siegle put it, “When we first got back on snow in May, we had such a better appreciation for our sport and our ability to go out and do what we love.”

We talked with Cochran-Siegle—the top-ranked U.S. male skier on the alpine world cup last season—and Nina O’Brien—who consistently scored World Cup points in slalom, giant slalom, and the parallel events—to find out how they adapted to summer training in a time of COVID and how they’ll get to Europe for the world cup—when the rest of us are shut out from the continent.


On-Snow Training
During a typical spring, U.S. alpine skiers would finish FIS World Cup Finals (if they qualified), then fly home for U.S. nationals and other spring races. From there, they would disperse—to college or late-season ski camps in Europe and the U.S. Then in August, many would fly to the southern hemisphere for more on-snow training.

COVID-19 canceled training as usual.

Instead, U.S. alpine skiers found snow at home—at Mt. Bachelor near Bend, Oregon, in May; Copper Mountain in Colorado in June; and in July and August, most of the U.S. Ski Team trained at Mt. Hood in Oregon.

“I didn’t even know Copper Mountain had snow in June,” quipped O’Brien. “But it was actually pretty good. That was our first taste of getting back on snow.”

“It was obviously not the amount of speed training that we normally get,” added Cochran-Siegle, known as “RCS” and the only U.S. skier besides Mikaela Shiffrin to rank in the top 25 in multiple disciplines last season. “But technically, I feel like building that foundation is what you try to do during the summer, and we were able to accomplish that as best as possible.”

The adapted training plan had other benefits.


Improved Strength Training
With many gyms closed, Cochran-Siegle worked out at his family’s ski area in Richmond, Vermont. Cochran-Siegle and his ski-racing family set up a squat rack and weights in a field above the base lodge.

"We call it the Field of Excellence,” he quipped. It’s a serious, yet tongue-and-cheek take on  the U.S. Ski Team’s Center of Excellence (COE), its training facility in Park City, Utah.

With the adapted on-snow plan and the fact that she could attend college classes remotely, O’Brien spent 10 weeks in Park City training at the actual COE in a special outdoor training set-up.

“Typically, I’d be working out alone [at Dartmouth], but this year, I was able to work-out with our trainer,” she said. “It was really fun.


College
During the spring and summer, skiers often chip away at their college educations. For the past four years, O’Brien has left nationals and immediately headed to Dartmouth College, where she’s an economics major. She often arrived on campus a week or two late, then played catch-up. 

This year, she started the spring quarter right on time, and she attended summer quarter too. Remote learning meant she could train at Copper, Mt. Hood, and live in Park City without missing classes. 

An engineering major at the University of Vermont, Cochran-Siegle also squeezed in a couple of classes—statics and thermodynamics (not the types of classes that are easy to take while traveling around the world). 

Nina O'Brien competes at the Audi FIS Ski World Cup on Nov. 30, 2019 in Killington, Vt.

 

Time To Bond
During a summer of racial protests and pandemic lockdowns, the chaos made many athletes pensive about their role and their platform. Subsequent conversations helped open communication between teammates, not just about skiing but about larger issues.

“When you are an athlete participating in a sport, there’s so much privilege, your life isn’t normal,” said Cochran-Siegle. “When you take a step back and realize just how fortunate we are, having those conversations and looking at our own positions in this world, and how we can have a positive impact for everyone, that made our team environment a lot tighter. We had really interesting conversations about trying to combat inequality and racial injustice.”


Home Sweet Home
Another silver lining of the pandemic: skiers, who typically live out of duffle bags for much of the year enjoyed extended stays at home.

For O’Brien, that meant more time with her mom.

“These days, when I’m not traveling for skiing, I’m typically away at school,” she said. “This was the first time I’ve ever really spent a long period of time at home in Denver. I enjoyed having a routine, and we just had a good time together.”

For Cochran-Siegle, it was the first time since 2012 that he spent much of the summer at home in Vermont—mountain biking, particularly the new trails at Cochran’s, road and gravel riding, and spending time with family and his girlfriend.

“It was a pretty low-key summer,” he said. But low-key is good for someone who races almost every weekend from November through March.


Travel to Europe
O’Brien is heading to Europe this week, Cochran-Siegle in three weeks. It should bring some normalcy to the summer. But getting to Europe will be anything but normal.

While countries in the European Union have re-opened their borders to “acceptable” third-nation countries with low rates of COVID-19 infection—Canada among them—the U.S. is not on the list yet. To help curb the pandemic, non-essential travel for U.S. citizens to European countries is still restricted.

Exemptions apply though—and vary from country to country.

One such exemption can apply to professional athletes—because their business must be performed in the countries hosting athletic competitions, like FIS World Cups. For example, Austria is hosting the Soelden World Cup, and a world cup isn’t a world cup without a full international field.

“You make a case that you are a professional athlete who needs to come into that country for a reason,” explained U.S. Ski & Snowboard CEO Tiger Shaw. “Then the border patrol should let you in. If you meet those requirements and have documentation that’s compelling, then you can fly to Europe as an American.”

For proof, U.S. Ski Team athletes and necessary personnel will have a signed letter from Shaw, plus their FIS and U.S. Ski & Snowboard licenses.

Once granted entry, U.S. skiers must then comply with each country’s quarantine requirements. Austria, for example, requires individuals to present a medical certificate (from an M.D.) indicating a negative PCR COVID test. The test must be less than 72 hours old—a tight turnaround given the overnight flight from the U.S. to Europe. And a photo of the certificate on a smart phone does not apply.

Even with negative COVID-19 tests, individuals must then quarantine in Austria for 10 days and show proof of a quarantine arrangement to border patrol. Without both the test and the quarantine proof, individuals will be denied entry—in capital letters.

Once U.S. skiers have served their quarantines, they can travel throughout Europe’s Schengen zone, where the COVID border restrictions were dropped earlier this year.

But the FIS World Cup tour has its own COVID-19 protocols. Skiers and their teams must present negative COVID tests carried out within the previous 3-4 days (72-96 hours) at each venue before they are allowed access. 

So far, only the North American world cup races have been canceled due to the pandemic—Killington, Beaver Creek, and Lake Louise. The rest of the 2020/2021 FIS World Cup calendar still stands, with most races held in Central Europe (although a women’s 2022 Olympic test event is slated for China in late February).

The 2021 World Alpine Championships in Cortina, Italy, are scheduled for February.

While there is hope that the world cup will happen without a hitch, there is also uncertainty. Asked if it was difficult to focus on results amid this uncertainty, O’Brien was philosophical. 

“With all the craziness, the only thing I can focus on is doing my best at whatever job I’m doing right now, whether it’s working out, school, training, or racing,” she said. “I’m not going to stress about getting over to Europe.”

Peggy Shinn

An award-winning freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.

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