Spencer Wood poses for the camera on top of a mountain in Saas-Fee. (Photo courtesy of Spencer Wood)
At the U.S. Paralympics Alpine Skiing National Team fall training camp in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, Thomas Walsh typically starts his day before 6 a.m. He does some light activation, has breakfast, goes to the hill while it’s still dark, and waits for the gondola to arrive. He takes the 45-minute commute to the mountain and begins the daily training with the rest of the team.
“We get after it,” Walsh said from Saas-Fee during the Team USA Media Summit, held virtually in October. “We go over the hill, we start training and we do what we have to do that day.”
Andrew Kurka isn’t the early riser Walsh is. His morning routine is much quicker, and he waits until the lift gets to the top of the mountain before warming up.
“I don’t know what (Thomas) is doing waking up at 5:30,” Kurka quipped during the media summit. “He’s ridiculous.”
Each athlete may have a slightly different individual routine to start the day. But they all converge in the same place to accomplish one objective: two weeks of advanced training before the start of racing season and world cup competition.
The team has trained in Saas-Fee for the past five years as part of Stomping Grounds Projects, founded and directed by Charles Beckinsale, an Australian terrain park builder. Saas-Fee offers easy access to the Allalin Glacier, the only location in the Northern Hemisphere that offers pre-season competition-sized slopestyle jumps and parks. It’s an attractive site for skiers and snowboarders not only for its beauty, but the deep snowpack and consistent snowfall starting in September.
“It’s absolutely breathtaking,” said Jessica Smith, the USOPC associate director of sport operations for Para alpine and snowboard, who attended the October camp. “It has a quaint, European feel that ultimately is amazing.”
The gondola arrives early each morning and runs continuously throughout the day. Passengers take two trams that lead to a train which runs through the mountain and halfway up to the glacier.
“Because it’s a glacier, T bars are drilled into the mountainside versus chair lifts that get buried,” Smith explained. “They’ll be on the glacier, and when they’re done, they’ll head back to the top of that train station, hop on the train, take another tram back down to the base.”
Unlike snowboarders who train later in the day in softer snow, alpine skiers go out in the morning when the snow is more solid. Training regimens vary according to which block the coaches choose to focus on.
“Depending on whether they’re doing slalom, GS or super-G, normally they do a block of a couple days,” Smith said. “It’s (also) contingent upon the weather. They go up, inspect, start training and have a course of how many runs they want to execute of high quality.”
Once the day’s session is complete, the athletes head back to the hotel, which can only be accessed by electric car. After lunch, they spend the afternoon doing recovery, video analysis with the coaches, physio treatments, and personal downtime.
“It’s an action-packed day where the schedule transitions depending upon what discipline they’re training, because some are more taxing physically,” Smith explained. “Some days (they) do a four-day block because we want to be equivalent to what a race series would be like where it’s constantly go, go, go for those four days, then have a day off. Or, you’re focusing on a two-day with high quality, good content to build up those muscles.”
The trip isn’t all work and no play. Members of the team played volleyball near the hotel, which also boasts a mini golf course and mountain scooters which can be taken out. There’s also a cold soak pool in the mountain containing glacier water for athletes to sit in.
“When it comes down to outdoor activities, it is definitely well suited there for anything and everything,” Smith said. “With COVID, it was actually super conducive for fun outdoor activities everyone can take part in.”
When the camp wraps up, service technicians tune and wax up skis to prepare them for the trip home. In years past, athletes trained and left on the same day. To allow more time, they now have a day to get in some final training and packing up before leaving the next day.
“It’s a little bit less congestion than we would normally have to fire out right away,” Smith explained. “Their last day is normally training and the same routine as any other day.”
Besides the training, fall camp at Saas-Fee brings a level of excitement and anticipation that racing season is just around the corner. Connor Hogan summed up the two-week experience in a recent Instagram post: “Some fast skiing some beautiful views great weather and another saas-fee camp in the books. Let’s get this season started.”