Thousands of people were in Killington this weekend to see the fastest women skiers on the planet do something they haven’t done in almost 40 years: compete in a World Cup event in Vermont.
France’s Tessa Worley finished first in the giant slalom on Saturday, and Mikaela Shiffrin topped the podium in the slalom race on Sunday, her 22nd World Cup victory.
But Killington may be the biggest winner, having proven it can host such a high-profile skiing event so early in the season.
It was a risk hosting the Audi FIS World Cup women’s race in late November. After all, when Killington announced the plan just over a year ago, it was heading into what would be one of the region’s worst ski seasons on record.
And you don’t want to mess up an event that will be televised in 60 countries.
But cue the cowbells, because Mother Nature and Killington’s ramped up snowmaking came through, as did the fans.
Estimates put the crowd at more than 16,000 on Saturday, and slightly fewer than that on Sunday.
Jamie Fitzgerald of Bedford, New Hampshire, brought his 15-year-old daughter, Whitney. “To see this level of racing up close, it’s just really hard to appreciate on TV how skilled, how strong, and how fast these racers are,” said Fitzgerald.
“The amount of work that went into this,” he said, pointing to the course, the grandstand, the crowds and the many volunteers, “it’s incredible.”
Skiers described Killington’s Superstar run as steep and challenging, and they had to grapple with weekend conditions that included fog, flurries, drizzle and what several racers described as less-than-ideal snow.
Switzerland's Lara Gut, the favorite in the giant slalom, and number two in the overall World Cup ranking going into Saturday’s race, skied off the course and didn’t finish.
The 25-year-old admitted conditions were tough and that she made costly technical mistakes.
“It’s made me even more focused on Lake Louise [the next World Cup race venue] and skiing faster across the finish there," she said.
But while she was disappointed with her performance at Killington, she said she loved skiing in front of such a big and supportive crowd.
“I think it’s cool,” Gut said. “Usually when we’re in U.S.A. there’s not so many people coming to watch the races. But here it’s amazing. So many people, I was surprised.
“So yeah, I feel like people are happy to have us here so that’s cool,” she said after her race.
It was a sentiment echoed by many of the racers.
Tom Kelly, a spokesman with the United States Ski and Snowboard Association, said, “This is a crowd probably bigger than any other women’s World Cup around right now ... New England can be really proud; Vermont can be really proud of putting on an amazing event here.”
Many in the crowd were cheering for U.S. superstar and Olympic gold medalist, Mikaela Shiffrin.
The 21-year-old had a disappointing finish in Saturday’s giant slalom, placing 5th. But she turned on the heat in the slalom race Sunday, bringing her winning streak in that event to ten in a row.
Speaking to reporters, the Burke Ski Academy graduate said this victory was especially sweet because so many family members were able to attend — including her grandmother, who had never seen her compete in a world cup race before.
"My Nana, the fact that she was able to watch this race, it's amazing," said Shiffrin. "I can't put it into words. If I'm proud of anything that I will ever do, the most proud I've been is to win a race in front of my Nana.
"And the best part is she doesn't care if I win or lose," added Shiffrin, smiling.
Shiffrin, who was born in Colorado, but spent much of her childhood in New Hampshire and later Vermont, said she was surprised to realize that it had been so long since a World Cup race had been held in the eastern U.S., and said it felt good to be racing back home.
Christine Feehan, a spokeswoman for the International Ski Federation’s Women’s World Cup, says the tour typically comes to North America early in the season, which makes it challenging for resorts to guarantee snow. The last time a World Cup race has been held in the eastern United States was at Waterville Valley, New Hampshire in 1991.
Aspen had been hosting the post-Thanksgiving race, but the Colorado ski area was chosen to host this year’s World Cup finals in March instead. Feehan says that created an opportunity that Killington took advantage of.
“I think we’re all very impressed with the snowmaking on the slope, considering that it was a warm November here,” said Feehan.
“Our men’s race in Lake Louise [Canada] was lost and we also lost our men’s race at Beaver Creek [Colorado] this year due to warm temperatures," Feehan added. "The fact that Killington was able to produce what they promised, I think, is really optimistic for this area.”
Tom Kelly of the United States Ski and Snowboard Association says since Killington hadn't hosted a World Cup event before, the resort tried some new ideas — and other resorts are taking note.
“Providing free access as well as selling tickets for the grandstand,” Kelly says, “that just hasn’t been done at other World Cups in America."
He said the resort also marketed the event more broadly across New England and the eastern U.S., which he said seems to have paid off, adding, "That's how a first-time host becomes a regular venue."
Resort officials wouldn’t say how much money they spent on snowmaking and other costs to host the World Cup. Killington president Mike Solimano would only describe the amount as considerable.
The return, he said, will be long-term but significant, considering the amount of national and international exposure the resort will get, especially at the start of the season.
Elise Young, of Connecticut, was standing in the crowd cheering with her husband. She said they typically ski at Stratton and she remembers attending the World Cup event that was held there back in 1978.
She says it’s about time the event came back to Vermont.
"We need people to know that the eastern skiing is really good and people like skiing in the east and that there are a lot of us that ski in the east," said Young. "Not everyone goes west all the time."
Asked whether Killington is ready to commit to hosting future World Cup races, Solimano said that's a discussion for this week.