Updated: Dec 2, 2021
After spending 3 weeks in September with the women’s US downhill ski team I learned a lot about the world of skiing, the Olympics, and what it means to be part of a great team. The dedication this group of skiers has to their sport and the emotional bond that has formed as a result of hard work and shared experiences. This was amazing to see, and for a short period time, to be a part of.
Arriving in Saas-Fee Switzerland after an easy train and bus ride from Genève I was not sure what to expect. Being a physical therapist, I knew what I thought I would be getting into from the PT side of things, but I really had no idea of what it meant to come to the training grounds of the Olympic ski teams from around the world and many aspiring skiers.
My first shock was the sheer number of bags and skis that were unloaded from three different vans into the local electric carts that transported us to our hotel for the next three weeks. The skis… so many skis for three of the top women athletes. 80 pairs of skis in all for the start of the season. Different types for GS or slalom skiing, some from last season and some new skis from the ski company that needed testing prior to the upcoming Olympics in 2022.
After a quick introduction off we went, transferring boot bags, suitcases, training gear, skis, a roller bag with over 150 lbs of lifting weights, an Olympic lifting bar, ski tuning gear, boxes of bindings, replacement ski poles, bundles and bundles of gates for route setting. Once everything was unloaded and we had located our rooms it was off to dinner to discuss the plans for the coming ski camp.
The plan was to ski three days in a row, take one day off for recovery and repeat for the next three weeks. If you've ever been to Saas-Fee you know that this small mountain village thrives off of the mountains around it, especially the large glacier sitting at the top of the mountain. At the Mittelallin summit, a glacier sits, frozen year around, making it possible to train year around. Since it's still warm even in the Alps during the summer the skiing is limited from early morning until 12 noon, when the snow/ice gets too soft for skiing. Because of this our training days started with a 4:30 AM wake up, breakfast, then standing in the cue to the gondola by 5:30AM.
onConeams from around the world, teams from Slovenia, Russia, France, Italy, Spain… the list goes on, men and women all there for the same reason, to perfect their abilities in a sport where a 100th of a second can mean the difference between 1st and 2nd place, a podium and nothing. These teams are here for some of the best early season training. Knocking off the cobwebs after a summer spent on dry land, hours spent working on strength in the gym, or recovering from an injury sustained du
Once the doors open to start the boarding of the first gondola there is a rush to the front of the line. This rush is filled with each skier carrying three and sometimes four sets of skis, and a very large boot bag with the gear needed for the day. Soon enough we are packed in like emperor penguins, all shuffling and squishing into an ever-shrinking space, funneling into a walkway wide enough for two people walking shoulder to shoulder, then a turn style gate, zig zag through panels, and roped off lanes. Another gate manned by the lift operator who controls the flow into the first gondola loading zone. Slowly the gondola doors open and the press is on again, jostling to load into a small space with all our gear.
This sequence of loading and then unloading happened another two times, one for the second gondola and then a last time to take the vanicular. A train of sorts that is pulled along the tracks with a large cable, through a steep tunnel angling up to the top of the mountain, this is classic Swiss. Once at the top the process of donning ski suits, helmets, and ski boots commences. The rhythm of the ski season has started, and all about I can hear the happy chatter of sleep deprived skiers and coaches, talking about the year, skiing, and connecting with friends and colleagues from around the world.
On the ski hill a number of different T-bars transport skiers from the bottom of the slope up to the top to be repeated over and over again during training. Each team is designated a specific lane on the glacier, determined on the proceeding day. Every morning the coaches leave even earlier to take the same route to the top of the mountain. Where they set the ski course for the day. Once the course is in place the team spends the next 3-5 hours skiing laps down the same course. Working on technique and testing different skis, all the while trying to make the best time on the course for that day.
Coaches instructed their athletes to focus on different aspects of their skiing, turning out of the gate, power through the flats, keep the core strong, maintain power, glide, finesse, and tuck. I couldn’t understand all the different languages being spoken but the message was the same across all of the them. The ultimate goal was to find the perfect balance of power, strength, speed, and finesse while flying down the hill on a pair of razor-sharp skis. As the routine of the camp settled in, the rhythm of the mornings, gondola rides, and standing at the top of the Saas-Fee glacier I realized how much time these different teams spent together in pursuit of perfecting their sport.
Around the end of the first week I realized that these athletes spend all season, and parts of the summer skiing on the same mountains, training alongside each other, and racing the same races around the world. The countries are different, the language may be different but at the end of the day the athletes are doing the same thing. They become friends, they meet up and train together on and off the slopes. They stay in the same hotels, eat meals in the same areas. But when the rest of the world sees them at races and especially at the Olympics, we see a competition between countries, Us versus Them. We don’t see the comradery that develops over years and years of training on at these camps.
Sometimes teams from different countries will even share the same ski lane for the day. Coaches may use this as an opportunity to challenge their own athletes. Having another skier on the same lane is a great opportunity to demonstrate a technique or style that maybe is particularly difficult to explain, but easier to see in another racer. Coaches are constantly balancing the different elements of the sport. The physical, psychological, equipment, and the elements, to maximize each run during the training season so that come race day, their skiers are at their best.
In the end I was struck by a couple of things. One was how much gear, support, coaching staff, and money goes into an Olympic level sport like this. These high-level skiers can wear through a pair of skis in under three months! Not to mention the amount of personnel, boots, ski suits and other gear that is needed to keep them in top physical shape during hard days, weeks, and months of training and racing.
The second realization was how we as spectators of these sports don’t understand the amount of time and effort that goes into becoming an elite athlete. Each of the skiers I worked with had been skiing since they were very young. Starting out as fun with the family, then fun at ski camps, and soon enough it was a full-time job. Spending summers in training camps, working on strength and fitness. In the fall, winter, and spring spending the majority of the time away from family and friends training for races, racing, and training for the following race. This is a year around job that comes with great sacrifices.
I asked some of the team members when was the last time they had a chance to “free ski”, aka ski for fun, the answer was pretty much the same. They don’t really “free ski” as I would consider a fun day on the slopes. One reason is that when they get a day off its for recover and rest, not skiing. Skiing is a full-time job for them, skiing on an off day for fun is not worth the risk of injury or being too tired for the training on the following day. It wasn’t all fun and games from them. While everyone loved skiing, it was ski racing that they really loved, the speed on the hill.
It was particularly inspiring for me to witness the sheer dedication these athletes had for their sport. I look back on the things I have done in my life, and while I have put in effort into my education, my sports, and my life, I have not put in this much effort! There is so much more that I can personally do. To really dive into my own life and be the best that I can possibly be, to strive for that personal “podium or medal”. I learned so much from these amazing athletes, who have put aside so many other things to be great at their sport. It was a great privilege to work with each of them as their Physical therapist and as the on slope medical staff member. I am extremely excited for the winter Olympics this season and can’t wait to see how all the hard work and dedication will pay off.
Until next time,
I will see you on the trail or the slopes.