There are 69 countries represented here in Vail-Beaver Creek, Colorado, for the FIS World Alpine Ski Championships. Some of them are well-known in the ski racing world, and attend these and other big ski racing events with an entourage of coaches, doctors, trainers, ski technicians, and even personal assistants. But the majority of the field is made up of up-and-coming racers doing it mostly on their own, and many of them are from small nations like Lithuania, Latvia, Georgia, Israel, Brazil (at least in the ski racing world), and even Haiti and Mexico, countries that don’t even have snow.
Ieva looking over the famous Golden Eagle jump

For those skiers, both the perspective and their expectations are somewhat different from those of Lindsey Vonn, Marcel Hirscher, Tina Maze, Felix Neureuter, and the other big names in the event.

I have been reunited this week with my Lithuanian ski racers, Ieva Januškevičiūtė and Rokas Zaveckas. I live in California now, but Colorado was my stomping ground for most of my 20s. There was no way I was going to miss “my kids” racing in “my mountains”.

I have a media credential this week and was on course for inspection with Ieva this morning. Though she was up late last night preparing her skis, we were awake before 6:00 AM and out the door by 6:30.

The sun still hadn’t risen when we got to the top of the second chairlift where we would then ski down to the start of the women’s GS course. To reach the course, we had to ski the Raptor, which is the new speed track designed by Bernard Russi especially for this event. I usually ski on powder skis these days, but I knew I needed some sharp edges to make it down the Raptor. Wearing the stiff slalom-like skis I used to coach Ieva and Rokas in, I set out down the Raptor, skis sideways the whole way. Just before we got to the start, we had to pass the Peregrine pitch. Control was not an option. To get down that, you had to just release your edges and ride the slide. Mind you, Ieva was doing this while carrying her skis on her shoulder. (While the ski stars may have 100 pairs of skis, most of the competitors from small nations have just two: one for training and one for racing.)

Maya Harrison (BRA), coach Stefano Lombardi, Nino Tisiklauri (GEO), Ieva, Gitit Buchler (ISR), coach Nicola Paulon just before the finish of the women's GS
Maya Harrison (BRA), coach Stefano Lombardi, Nino Tisiklauri (GEO), Ieva, Gitit Buchler (ISR), coach Nicola Paulon just before the finish of the women's GS

When it was our turn for inspection, the racers lined up in the start. The first 10 gates were set in a rhythmic pattern down a rolling slope. After that, came what seemed to be a never-ending series of rhythm and terrain changes. The course went from steep to flat, tight technical turns into long sweeping turns. A long flat where the racers would be in their tuck led into the Golden Eagle jump: The skiers had to memorize where they needed to go, because from their tuck, all they saw was a vast horizon of mountains and sky.

Ieva handled inspection like a pro, taking her time, talking with her coach Nicola Paulon of Kronplatz Racing Team in Italy, and pausing to close her eyes, her hands mimicking the rhythms of the course as she memorized every turn, the terrain, the condition of the snow.

The inspection time was a serious time, but after committing the course to memory, all the racers took a moment just before the finish to soak up the atmosphere. Just about every coach and athlete that came down—the big stars included—could be seen pulling out their phones to take a selfie with their friends. This kind of camaraderie is important in skiing, and it’s important to remember that an event like this is supposed to be fun.

Ieva with coach Nicola Paulon inspecting the top portion of the course
Ieva with coach Nicola Paulon inspecting the top portion of the course

“Every time we are in the start, we all want to win,” said Maria Belen Simari Birkner from Argentina. “This has been really hard for me. And then I realized how much fun I have skiing and how much I love the sport, so that’s the most important thing for me now.”

After inspection, Ieva went with her teammates from Kronplatz Racing Team Nino Tsiklauri of Georgia and Maya Harrison of Brazil for a couple of training runs and a warm-up in the athletes’ tent before heading up to their start.

It was a wonderful day for ski racing: +5 degrees, blue skies, and firm but grippy snow. Racer number 58 Sarah Schleper, the former U.S. Ski Team slalom star and a Vail resident who now races for Mexico, told me in the finish: “The course is in perfect shape, this is the best race snow on the planet. I think there’s still a chance for [all the girls still on the start] to get in there!”

Ieva stopping to memorize the course at the bottom of the second to last pitch
Ieva stopping to memorize the course at the bottom of the second to last pitch

Ieva was relaxed, happy, and feeling positive in the start. She said it’s the best she’s ever felt. “Today I was feeling so calm. Just like it’s supposed to be. You just have to do your job and perform as best as you can, without any pressure,” said Ieva.

She skied the top part of the course with confidence, and tackled all of the difficult transitions, increasing her speed as she continued down the course. Seven gates from the the finish, she caught an edge and was thrown out of the course. “In the most difficult parts of the course I was quite good. I didn’t expect to go out on the last banana,” Ieva said. (A “banana” means a place where two gates are set parallel to each other, making a long sweeping turn similar to a banana.)

In previous big events, Ieva has felt the pressure to finish the race. But now, she says just finishing isn’t good enough. “If you say, ‘All I have to do is finish,’ then that’s not ski racing. You have to give your best every time.” Sometimes you don’t make it and that’s okay. “It’s really a pity I went out though, it really is. I don’t even care about the time, I was feeling great.”

Jennifer Virškus with Ieva Januškevičiūtė in the finish
Jennifer Virškus with Ieva Januškevičiūtė in the finish

For other skiers, even a finish that might seem to be a failure is actually a success. Agnese Aboltina of Latvia finished 87, some 9 seconds behind leader Anna Fenninger of Austria. “Of course you always can do better, but I’m pretty happy with my run. [At the 2013 World Champs in Schladming] I lost 18 seconds [to the leader], and now I was only 9 seconds behind, so I think I improved a little bit,” she said.

“I hope to progress the Mexican team and start to train the younger athletes,” said Schlper. But skiing for Mexico is so much more complicated than when she used to ski for the U.S. “I have to arrange everything. Normally we have the coaches at the meeting telling us what to do, now on top of that I have to get the credentials, organize the uniforms, and so much more.”

For Ieva, like all of her competitors from large and small nations alike, there are still a lot more races to come this season. “The only thing that I expect from the World Champs is that the experience is going to help me with the other lower level races that we do. All I do here I try to bring it out to the next race to get the result, to get my FIS points better.”

Every one of the girls at the start today has worked very hard to get there. Most of us don’t have the legs to make it through even 10 gates, let alone 58. I was proud of Ieva today for attacking that course with courage, but also for accepting her defeat with a smile, and the drive to keep on going, just as far as she can.

Ieva’s next race will be in the World Championship slalom on Saturday.

Rokas Zaveckas successfully qualified yesterday in the men's giant slalom qualification race, and will start bib number 88 in the final today.

Brazilian, Lithuanian and Georgian skiers in the start before inspection
Brazilian, Lithuanian and Georgian skiers in the start before inspection
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