By Jake Bright
NASTAR capped off a banner 2016 season — adding six resorts, holding two regional championships, and hosting its 19th Nationals competition under new management by the U.S Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA).
The U.S. Ski Team partnership continues to be a big development for NASTAR. Announced in May 2015, it brought together two of the most well-known brands in alpine competition to raise the profile of ski and board racing in America. NASTAR is the largest known recreational ski and board competition program in the world. Anyone can run one of its 115 public racecourses and qualify for the program’s annual championship. USSA is the parent organization of the U.S. Ski Team and manages elite ski racing programs across America. Its star alpine athletes include Olympic gold medalists Mikaela Shiffrin and Ted Ligety.
“Under USSA, NASTAR is now in a position to promote ski and board racing from the entry level to the pinnacle of the sport,” said NASTAR Director Bill Madsen. He sees an opportunity to use NASTAR’s online scoring system — which allows racers to compare themselves to their peers and world class pacesetter — as a unifying benchmark for alpine competition. “From youth races to masters and high school racing we want to provide participants, ski clubs, and host resorts with a simple system to connect all ski and board racers,” said Madsen.
During the 2015-2016 season, the initial points of the NASTAR-USSA integration began. One of the more welcomed benefits of the partnership was even greater participation of USSA athletes. As a competition program, NASTAR has always been unique by allowing amateur alpine racers to compare themselves to elite athletes. U.S. Ski Team members customarily set the pace for its handicap system and big competitions. The new alliance will continue to bring even greater interaction between NASTAR’s amateur competitors and the U.S. Ski Team’s best alpine athletes.
This was evident during the November 2015 Pacesetting Trials at Copper Mountain, which established the par time for all NASTAR courses across the country. At Copper, past U.S. Ski Team athletes Daron Rahlves, Tommy Moe, A.J. Kitt, Casey Puckett, and Heidi Voelker duked it out against current members Ted Ligety and Tim Kelley.
NASTAR’s amateur athletes also jumped in the giant slalom and slalom race action. Eight-year-old Auden Pankonin from Hudson, Wisc., joined the trials after winning the U.S. Ski Team’s “What Makes a Champion” social media competition. He gained the chance to ski with one of his Olympic heroes, Ted Ligety. “I was really happy when I first met him,” said Pankonin. “We met up at the race course. He told me to keep practicing and to always have fun."
With NASTAR’s 2015-2016 par times set, racers started flying down racecourses across the country to see how close they could get to U.S. Ski Team Olympians. This included runs at several new participating resorts. NASTAR action was added at Big Sky in Montana, Jackson Hole in Wyoming, California’s Mammoth Mountain, Norway Mountain in Michigan, and West Mountain in New York. NASTAR also added a “passport” destination with this season’s inclusion of the race program at Australia’s Thredbo resort.
February and March brought NASTAR’s Eastern Mountain Championships at Okemo Mountain Vermont and Midwestern Champions at Welch Village, Minnesota. Former U.S. Ski Team Olympian A.J. Kitt set the pace for both events. The regional championships provide skiers and boarders with “a mini championship experience,” explained Bill Madsen, while offering “the opportunity to qualify for and determine placement at Nationals.”
This season’s National Championships took place at Steamboat from March 21-27. Nearly 1,000 competitors from ages 3 to 89 qualified from 107 resorts and competed across five different ability divisions. Racers learned new skills, made memories, earned medals, fostered friendships and formed new bonds to the picturesque backdrop of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains.
Because of the U.S. Ski Team’s new NASTAR management, Nationals racers this year were treated to instruction from the best ski racers in the world. Sochi Olympian and U.S. alpine champion Travis Ganong led several race clinics. Two-time Olympic gold medalist Ted Ligety made a guest appearance at Steamboat's Gondola square, lending his encouragement to racers for Day 2 of competition.
By Friday, March 25, division champions and podium slots had been determined and the awards ceremonies began. Dozens of competitors shared medal moments with their family members and friends. Even for those who did not make the podium, there were wins in free prizes, U.S. Ski Team autograph signings, and live entertainment.
The Race of Champions saw National title winners from each age, gender, division and discipline compete for overall Nature Valley NASTAR National Championship titles in a handicapped race.
Later on Saturday, the competition and camaraderie of NASTAR really came together in the Family Team Race and the Friends Team race. Groups of competitors raced under some creative squad names such as “Okemotion," “The Space Cowboys” and the “Maniacs” (led by Casey Puckett).
NASTAR Nationals at Steamboat concluded with the slalom Championships on a sunny Sunday. Even after a week of racing and festivities, a group of competitors still found plenty of energy to swap longer radius GS turns for stubby gates skied in rapid succession. There were many winners and podium takers.
What to expect for NASTAR next season? For one thing, anticipate greater inclusion of slalom at participating resorts. Slalom is a relatively recent addition in NASTAR’s 48-year history. The most technical of all alpine racing formats, it made its debut at Nationals in 2013. Though slalom courses are not yet set up at all NASTAR resorts, Director Bill Madsen confirmed availability would expand over the next several seasons. Madsen also noted the program will adopt new means to more accurately match ability assignments determined at NASTAR resorts to the divisions racers compete in at the National Championships. “We understand the handicap system is not perfect, but it works very well for classifying participants generally. NASTAR courses do vary from resort to resort so the best way to place participants in a division is to look at results from regional or national competitions,” he said.
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