Friday, January 23, 2009

weather day (again)

No racing today — high winds and moderately heavy snowfall last night and all day forced the organizers to cancel today's super-G/slalom super-combi. We got as far as inspecting the course, which looked great, before the decision was made. We will try to hold a super G race tomorrow, but the forecast doesn't look good, so it appears we may be done racing here in Sestriere. We are scheduled to drive to Marseille on Sunday and depart on Monday morning. We'll have perhaps an afternoon and an evening to sightsee in Marseille — leave any local restaurant recommendations in the comments section!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

4th in sestriere super combi

In a "super combi" race today I had the sixth-fastest downhill run and the third-fastest slalom run and finished in fourth place overall, equalling my previous best World Cup finish, from a super G in Korea three years ago. But first let me back up.

I made such a boneheaded mistake in yesterday's downhill. After a solid training run with only one section that could've stood major improvement, you'd think I would have made damn sure I knew what my plan was for that section of the course when it came time for the first race run that same afternoon. But the entrance to that section was still a question mark in my mind, and sure enough I blew it there, skiing too straight into a two-gate left-hand turn and finding myself unable to stay in the course at that speed. The result: Did Not Finish.

Today was the second consecutive beautiful, cold, bluebird day, and it was decided at the meetings last night that we would be running a "super combi" race today. The super combined is a relatively new race format that combines one run of either downhill or super G with a single run of slalom, all in one day. It favors the strong all-around skier. I'm not sure if I'm that, exactly, but I am strong in the two most extreme disciplines, downhill (the fastest) and slalom (the tightest). Consequently I had an inkling that I could do well today — always a dangerous thing. (If you don't believe me, see the cocky and ultimately fruitless predictions I made in my last post.)

From 8:30 to 9:00 this morning we were allotted more time to inspect the downhill course, although it was the same one we ran yesterday. I was able to pick out my line through the the section that gave me trouble yesterday: gates 20 and 21, the entrance to the section known as Acque Minerale, or "Mineral Water," for the way that it requires you to let your skis move fluidly back and forth down a steepish pitch. It basically worked out: I raced that section well, if perhaps a little conservatively. The course ran faster today than yesterday, thanks to a combination of colder temperatures, more firmly packed snow, and our increased confidence on the hill. It was a little bumpy in places, and while it never felt like too wild a ride, it was tough to be perfectly clean all the way down the piste. I ended up sixth in the downhill, a respectable finish and not a bad position to attack the slalom from.

During inspection we all noted that the course (set by a Slovakian coach) was a bit odd and arrhythmical — none of us liked the looks of it much. My approach was to ski the run at a solid 90 percent and make a clean run, and it paid off. My run felt solid, given what the course set.

In fact, when I crossed the finish line after my slalom run, I was in first place. In a two-run race like today, the second run start order reverses the top 15 finishers from the first run, so I was happy that I hadn't let any of those who I beat in the morning's downhill sneak past me in the slalom. But I knew that the fastest five guys were still on their way down and that I probably didn't have a great shot at a podium finish even though a few of them were not strong slalom skiers. So my heart raced as I watched what unfolded:

Harry Eder (AUT), in 5th place after the downhill, beats me, so I'm now in second place.
Shannon Dallas (AUS) beats us both and takes the lead, so I'm now in bronze-medal position. (He is the eventual super combi winner.)
Martin Braxenthaler (GER) makes a mistake on the final pitch, falls and missed gates, but gets up and finishes — a bit of a no-no; you can be fined for doing it in a World Cup. He gets a time, but is obviously disqualified, so I remain third.
Sean Rose (GBR), a better downhiller than he is a slalom skier, finishes with what was clearly a slower run than mine. The digital scoreboard reads, "Place: 4." I assume I am still in third.
Tyler Walker (USA), the leader after the downhill, falls in the same place as Martin, hikes, and finishes well out of contention.

My conclusion, and that of everyone around me, is that I've finished third and have won my first-ever World Cup medal. Right away everyone starts shaking my hand and congratulating me, and I'm beaming. The race is now over, and I can't wait for the coaches to come down so I can tell them about my accomplishment. I reflect on how long I've been racing World Cups — ten years, off and on — without a podium finish, and now the day finally seems to have come.

It's not for another ten or fifteen minutes, as I'm getting out of my monoski and getting ready to go home and change for the awards ceremony, that our head coach Ray's voice comes over another coach's radio: "Unofficial results: Burnett, 4th." I can't believe what I'm hearing. Did some inattentive gatekeeper forget to disqualify Braxenthaler? Was the electronic scoreboard wrong? Or was there some way I could have just miscalculated where I ended up?

Much later this afternoon, after the awards ceremony where the bronze medal is awarded to a surprised Sean Rose, I finally figure out the error in my thinking (and everyone else's, even Sean's). Have you figured it out?

By the way, this morning's run was scored as its own separate downhill race, besides serving as the first run of the super combi. The winner in my class was my teammate Tyler Walker, repeating his surprising feat from yesterday. I say surprising because Tyler has always been stronger in the technical events than in speed, and you may notice that I omitted him completely from my list of pre-race favorites. That was definitely a mistake; after these two days, Tyler is now the #1 ranked downhill sitting skier in the world.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

powder day in sestriere

I have a good feeling about tomorrow. As anticipated, we were unable to train or race today after an overnight storm dumped a foot of snow on the course, wiping out our second scheduled training day. But the weather cleared early this morning and looks like it will stay that way for another couple days — enough time to get in some racing, we hope. Tomorrow's revised schedule calls for us to run a single training run at 10 in the morning, followed by a race at noon. At the risk of tempting fate, I'll say that I think it'll happen more or less as scheduled. I'll even go so far as to predict that three of the following people will be on the podium tomorrow in the sitting men's class: Chris Devlin-Young (USA), Sean Rose (GBR), Yohann Taberlet (FRA), Shannon Dallas (AUS), Reini Sampl (AUT), Luca Maraffio (ITA)... and me.

After the training runs were called off this morning, a small group of us decided to go out powder skiing. Tyler, Brad and I had all brought fat freeskis with us, and we headed out with three of our coaches to explore all that Sestriere has to offer beyond the downhill course. It wouldn't be an understatement to describe the conditions as "truly epic." We had that rare combination of sunny blue skies and a foot of light, dry, utterly rippable Italian powder, and we ate it up. We skied for nearly five hours straight, stopping only once for cappuccino, clocking probably eight or nine runs of over 500 vertical meters each. The craziest part was that we had fresh tracks all day long. Europeans by and large just don't ski off-piste, leaving stash after untouched stash for pow-hungry Americans.

Most of the other teams, not traveling with fat skis, took the day off completely. But we were joined for a run by Emanuele "Meme" Pagnini, Italian monoskier, recent dad, and all-around nicest guy on the World Cup tour. Meme was skiing on a slalom ski, nice and fat at the tip and tail but way too narrow in the waist. I thought he'd have a tougher time than he did, following us down through the trees, clearings and creekbed crossings, but he only augured in a few times.

Monday, January 19, 2009

weather day

As expected, the snowy/windy weather is playing havoc with our schedule. Today's scheduled training runs were canceled because the snow on course was allegedly too soft to be safe (we Rocky Mountain skiers thought it was fine), although we did get to inspect the course twice. It's a good set on a really fun hill. Now we're just hoping the snow will subside so we can get some training runs and a race or two in. Two training runs are scheduled for tomorrow, at 11 and 1.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

sestriere (ITA), day 2

Another morning of freeskiing on the downhill piste today, followed by live alpine World Cup-watching on TV. It was mostly sunny again this morning, but windy and colder, and by the afternoon a front had rolled in. Now it's snowing pretty hard and the winds outside are high enough to force closure of many lifts.

There's a saying in ski racing: "If you want snow, hold a downhill." Almost without fail the maxim seems to hold: we roll into town for some speed races, maybe get a few days of training in, and then like clockwork the storm clouds roll in and dump meters of snow on top of the course, forcing delays and cancellations as the course crew and coaches frantically try to clear the race line of excess snow so that we can hold a safe, fair race. We're all really hoping the snow doesn't continue as long as it's been forecast to, that we can get in a training run or two over the next two days and then run our races as scheduled, Wednesday through Saturday.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

first day in sestriere (ITA)

We finished up the La Molina World Cups on Wednesday and Thursday with a pair of slaloms. That's been a good event for me lately, but I had no tangible success in Spain. I had a good first run on Wednesday before skiing over a gate on the second run and getting DQ'd. (I had problems later on in the run anyway, so I would've slipped back from 8th to 10th place.) My first run the next day was shaping up to be my best yet in La Molina, but I skied out in a hairpin toward the bottom of the main steep pitch. This same section claimed perhaps half a dozen others in the men's sitting class, and the total number of DNF's in the class was at least half the field, thanks to the combination of a challenging race hill and a challenging, arrhythmical set.

Ultimately, the tech races at La Molina were a somewhat frustrating experience for me, so being out on the 211 cm downhill skis here at Sestriere today was a welcome change. We went freeskiing today on the race hill, the same piste I notched a fifth-place finish on in the 2006 Torino Paralympic downhill. Believe it or not, this is my first downhill since that race three years ago. Not many downhills get scheduled on the disabled circuit in the first place — too much work to put one on and too much hillspace needed for too many days — and they are often cancelled due to adverse weather. (I missed the one downhill our team ran last year, at Soldier Mountain in Idaho, because I was out with a back injury.)

8:45 a.m. this morning and the sun hasn't yet broken over the jagged peaks, but the lifts are running and there's enough light to see what needs to be seen. The Italian and French and British tourists are still sleeping off the wine and grappa from last night, and the other disabled teams have elected to sleep in after the travel day.

We have the mountain to ourselves.

The downhill course is long, immensely long, ribboned by blue safety fencing on either side, all the way from the windswept and open starthouse, through some long flats, down the steep turns called "Acque Minerale," around the doglegs right and back to the left, all the way down the heart-racing final steep straightaway into the finish corral. The first run is cautious, taken in sections. We feel out edges and bases, remembering and relearning their relationship with the snow. Confidence builds, and speed comes so easily. A slight edgeset produces a clean long arc, and time slows, even as plastic and metal rush faster over frozen crystals. Steeper terrain means the arcs become tighter, the forces making themselves known on the internal organs, but the eyes and brain are steady, flat. Nothing is rushed, and the mountain becomes an ally. The undulations underfoot aren't something to resist but to interpret, be massaged by, conform with. Thousands of vertical meters are erased in a minute or two, sucked up into my stomach where they are like nourishment, like food.

It's great to be back out on a downhill ski again.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

la molina update

My monoski finally showed up at the hotel mid-morning yesterday — not in time for me to race in the first giant slalom, but at least I was able to take a few warm-up runs in the afternoon and get my bearings.

We had another GS race today, and I had a solid day. Despite a moderate mistake on the second run of a very steep and demanding course, I finished in the middle of the pack in 15th (the top American in my class, surprisingly). Our team has been struggling a bit so far, with our only podium finishes each day coming from Laurie and Stephani, our two ace female sitting skiers.

Tomorrow is the first of two slalom races. On such a steep hill I predict that the race (especially in the sitting classes) will be a bit of a survival-of-the-most-tenacious sort of a scenario, with no one skiing truly cleanly and the winner being the person who makes the best recoveries. Still, I'm excited to race slalom, because that's felt like the stronger of the two technical events for me lately.

Major bummer: my friend Kat Forestell, visually impaired racer from Canada, crashed today and tore her MCL and will be sidelined for at least the next six weeks.

If you're interested in watching any of the races, you can theoretically do that by visiting this website. I say theoretically because there seem to be some technical issues, at least with my setup (Mac running Firefox). Also, today (Tuesday)'s GS is for some reason labeled as Thursday. I was bib 58 today, although as of this writing they haven't posted everyone's run from today's race yet.

Today's results

Sunday, January 11, 2009


My monoski and skis still haven't arrived from Air France, and it's seeming less and less likely that I'll get to race tomorrow here in La Molina.

I'm trying to put this in perspective... I'm in a beautiful place in the Pyrenees with some great people. My bags have made it to Marseille, which means I will get them sometime in the next day or two and be able to race eventually. And the world will go on.

And still, the feeling of frustration at this point is pretty overwhelming. I know that paying $550 in excess baggage charges doesn't guarantee that my luggage will arrive on time, but it's hard not to feel swindled.

Friday, January 09, 2009

le sigh

So here we are, stuck in a crappy roadside hotel near Perpignan, at the eastern edge of the Pyrenees in southwestern France. Seven of us U.S. Adaptive Ski Team racers and six staff members (a nice ratio, that) flew from the States to Paris-Charles de Gaulle last night, and then hopped an hour-and-a-half Air France flight to Marseille. Our destination is La Molina, Spain, close to the borders with France and Andorra, where we'll race in the opening World Cups [PDF] of the 2009 season.

(Why fly to Provence and then drive four or five hours to La Molina when we could more easily fly into nearby Barcelona or Toulouse? Well, after these races are over we head by car to Sestriere, near Turin, Italy [where the alpine events for the 2006 Olympics and Paralympics were held], and Marseille is more or less equidistant between La Molina and Sestriere.)

After waiting around for all of our teammates to arrive — we didn't all make it onto our scheduled flight from Paris because Air France would only allow two wheelchair users per flight! — four of us found ourselves short a total of twelve checked bags, including all of our skis and my monoski (and Jonezy's clothing/gear bag). We spent a good two hours filling out forms and waiting around in the lost luggage office, only to be told that Air France didn't really know where our bags are or when we'd get them.

We made arrangements to have the bags re-routed to Toulouse and then delivered to our hotel, and took off for La Molina in our fleet of three rental vans (two for passengers, one for cargo). But over the past few days, Provence has experienced what one local said is its first snowfall in twenty years, and today it's been pouring rain. As a result, the highway driving conditions are decidedly sub-par. (Actually, isn't being below par a good thing? So "over-par," then.) We made it about two hours out of Marseille before the drivers (our coaches) wisely decided to stop for the night at a roadside hotel and continue the drive in the morning.

So I'll finish my delicious almond-pear tarte (God bless French convenience stores), and wrap up this post by publicly expressing to the cosmos and to Air France that I would really love to get my ski equipment sometime tomorrow so that I can get in one day of free skiing before the races begin at La Molina on Monday. Please? S'il vous plait? ¿Por favor?