Cooper Cornelius

Cooper Cornelius, a 2017 Glenwood Springs High School graduate, was one of 41 athletes nominated recently for the U.S. Ski Team. The alpine racer is pictured competing last season in Steamboat.

At summer’s onset, alpine ski racers are thinking ahead to the 2018-19 competition season, preparing soon to cast aside their flip-flops for ski boots. 

Cooper Cornelius, a 2017 graduate of Glenwood Springs High School was one of three locals nominated last week to the U.S. Ski Team’s alpine team, who are beginning to eschew traditional summer activities for the sport’s endless winter.

Cornelius, 18, trained seven years with Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club after building upon his Sunlight Winter Sports Club foundation with then coach John Bresnitz, he said recently. During the 2017-18 competition season, Cornelius trained with Ski and Snowboard Club Vail.

“Aspen played a huge role in my development,” Cornelius said, adding that from each club he learned best practices that led to Thursday’s announcement he was now a C nominated team member. The final team will be confirmed in fall. Also announced as a member of the alpine C team was Galena Wardle, an AVSC product and Basalt resident. This is Wardle’s fourth year on the national team.

Named to the alpine A team was Alice McKennis of New Castle, a two-time Olympian and 2018 downhill World Cup Finals bronze medalist. She is currently recovering from a left leg injury suffered recently at a ski camp while slipping a racecourse. On Monday, McKennis posted on social media that she was “starting to put some weight on my leg. Yahoo.”

The U.S. Ski Team each year “nominates” athletes based on “objective criteria based on international rankings and head-to-head competition,” according to a statement included with the list of 41 nominated athletes led by Mikaela Shiffrin and Lindsey Vonn, both of Vail. 

Both earned medals in the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, and are among the most decorated World Cup and Olympic champions in history. Vonn is closing in on Ingemar Stenmark’s all-time record for World Cup wins, which is 86, and was set on Aspen Mountain.

Vonn, with 82 career World Cup victories, most-ever for a woman, has twice asked for permission to compete against the men in the downhill discipline and has twice been refused by skiing’s governing body, FIS.

Cracks in the pipeline

But where the U.S. has seen sheer dominance in the performances of Shiffrin and Vonn, the development pipeline behind their stars, which until recent years has included Ted Ligety on the men’s side, has slowed to a trickle. 

That’s an area where the U.S. Ski Team has much room for improvement, said Tiger Shaw, the organization’s president and CEO. Shaw said last week that the team has taken a year-long look at how six other nations develop junior alpine racers into winners on the World Cup and Europa Cup circuits.

“We need to be better if we want to win more races and medals,” Shaw said.

“The fact is, we can prove that we’re not exceptionally good at that development level to the Europa Cup. That’s a big jump and we’re not great at it,” Shaw reiterated.

Reasons for the Americans’ lack of success after the transition may be traced to a number of factors, such as cultural differences, distractions like college and that U.S. skiers remain in Europe for the bulk of the competition season and rarely have the luxury of sleeping in their own beds.

Shaw pointed to how the program for developing athletes in France and Italy was superior to how the U.S. brings up alpine skiers during a critical time. That has led to reassignments of coaches, including moving the 10-year head coach of the men’s team, Sasha Rearick, to run the development program. 

The U.S. team will be more mindful in the future on how how it takes athletes out of their home environment and puts them into a full-time team environment, he said. Rearick will work closely with the home clubs to accomplish this task, according to Shaw.

Straight to the C Team

Cooper Cornelius, who by virtue of strong results during 2017-18, highlighted by a fourth place in super-G at Panorama, Canada, has been able to skip the U.S. development team and move right into the C Team, where he has a solid chance at skiing in some World Cup races.

Last season, Cornelius made more than 55 race starts, “which is quite a bit,” he said. “This year I’ll be focusing on the bigger races. Last year it was more about scoring points.” 

The fewer points one has - which are determined through race results and weighted with factors including the race day’s field - the better.

During 2017-18, Cornelius was able to drop his points from the 30’s to the 20s and teens. “It’s a bigger jump than people realize,” he said. “That’s what ultimately helped me make the criteria and to be named” to the C team.

Tiger Shaw said the team has improved the way it funds developing athletes like Cornelius through resources including money from the U.S. Olympic Committee and foundations like the one established by Bob Beattie, one of a trio of men who founded the World Cup tour more than 50 years.ago. Beattie was a longtime resident of Woody Creek who died earlier this year.

There is also a fundraiser dedicated to the alpine B Team “that might bleed over to the C Team,” said Shaw, who is a two-time Olympian himself.

“Our goal is that no alpine kid have a cost anywhere near 20 grand,” he added.

Cornelius said his head coach for the season will be Pete Anderson, who worked last year on the speed team with Johno McBride a former head alpine coach at AVSC who in the course of a storied career coached Bode Miller during his prime.

Cornelius’ schedule for the season, which starts soon in New Zealand, will depend on how well he is skiing, but last year included a camp at the southernmost tip of Argentina, an indoor training facility in Germany, skiing on an Austrian glacier followed by a return to Colorado to train at Copper Mountain. By the time Cornelius arrived in Panorama just a few weeks later, he was ready for his fast super-G finish that kicked off his memorable season.

Follow Madeleine on Twitter, @Madski99