With a rainbow of college ski team jackets packing around a pair of fire pits and spilling into an adjacent cornhole setup, there wasn’t much room to move Monday night at the base of Snow King Mountain.
The hundreds of athletes weren’t there to ski, at least not yet. They were there for a welcome to Jackson Hole, their home this week as they vie for United States Collegiate Ski and Snowboard Association national championships.
This is the 41st edition of the national championships, and its first time taking root in Jackson. The bidding process to land nationals began around 18 months ago, Jackson Hole Ski and Snowboard Club Director Brian Krill said, with the intention of having Jackson become the event’s western home for years to come.
For some athletes milling around, nationals presents an opportunity for a championship. For others it’s a chance to relish some of the best skiing in the country.
“We’ll see what happens,” Villanova alpine skier Jake Grabowski said, sitting with teammate Andrew McCawley. “We’ve raced pretty well this year, we’ve all competed on this level in previous years. It’s like, ‘come out and have fun,’ it doesn’t really matter.”
“We’re out here to enjoy the skiing rather than race really hard,” McCawley said. “We’re going to take full advantage of our three days.”
While this week serves as the first trip to Jackson for the Villanova pair and many others, for Tufts University’s Olivia Wentzell it’s a return to something familiar after leaving the West for her college in Boston.
Wentzell grew up in Sun Valley, Idaho, and spent a lot of time skiing in Jackson Hole as a kid. So while she doesn’t have to get acquainted with her surroundings like her teammates do, she is competing in the national championships for the first time.
She’ll be racing in giant slalom and slalom, but a point of emphasis for Tufts is the team competition. The USCSA is the only ski and snowboard league in which colleges and universities meet in postseason competition as teams.
“Our team back home is a huge club team, we’ve got like 90 people on our team,” she said. “This is the first time that the team has qualified for it, so that was really exciting.”
Meanwhile, Air Force Academy Nordic skier Mitch Hollman returns to nationals for the fourth straight year. His trip to Jackson carries a bit of extra weight — he’s looking to defend his 2018 combined individual championship.
“I’m hoping to repeat, but it’s going to be pretty tough,” he said. “I guess there’s some pretty good freshmen coming in, so we’ll see.”
Hollman said he’s just recently returned from the World University Games in Russia, leaving him somewhat jet-lagged and tired as his final USCSA competition is about to begin.
“I got crushed by some Russians who were really good,” he said. “But it was a fun experience. It’s good to be back in the states.”
With nationals rotating between western and eastern host cities, his championship a year ago came in Lake Placid, New York. After cruising the Trail Creek Nordic Center trails on Monday morning, he said the layout is somewhat comparable.
What’s not comparable, though, is the elevation.
With the Air Force Academy being in Colorado, Hollman’s training conditions are more similar to the altitude in Jackson than in Lake Placid. And that bodes well for him, and maybe not so well for his competitors from the East.
“This is like what I train at,” he said. “I guess it will be an advantage for us.”
Keep up with the USCSA national championships all week in the Jackson Hole Daily.