– Few people can tell you what it’s like to go 80 mph without moving. Reigning World Cup giant slalom champion and Olympic gold medalist Ted Ligety (Park City, UT) is one of those people, but he’s not talking.
“That’s highly classified information,” joked Ligety following a U.S. Ski Team session at the Calspan-University of Buffalo Research Center (CUBRC) Hypersonic Test Facilities. “Actually, it was really cool. You’re fully hunched over in this little tunnel in all your gear, including skis. Wind is ripping at you and you try to find a fast body position. Now it’s about remembering those positions for when you can get into them on snow.”
Ligety and Co. didn’t have to wait long as the men’s speed team flew directly from New York to their second camp in Chile in September. Also in on the tunnel sessions were Marco Sullivan (Squaw Valley, CA), Steven Nyman (Provo, UT), Scott Macartney (Crystal Mountain, WA) and Andrew Weibrecht (Lake Placid, NY).
Traditionally utilized by NASA, the Air Force, and the Army for testing re-entry vehicles and high-speed aircraft, CUBRC has supported wind tunnel testing for the U.S. Ski Team for more than 25 years. According to Speed Head Coach Chris Brigham, the man behind that relationship is CUBRC Head Scientist Dr. Michael S. Holden, who also hosted a welcome reception for the Team during their two-day session.
“There are stickers on the tunnel wall dating back to 1981. We’ve had men’s and women’s athletes testing in that tunnel since before some of our guys were even born,” Brigham said. “Dr. Mike is a huge fan of skiing and every one of our guys was able to take some knowledge from the tunnel to Chile. It will be cool to try this stuff out on snow.”
The relationship came about from a conversation Holden had during the 1980 Olympic Winter Games in Lake Placid, NY.
“I was talking to a development coach about skiing technique,” said Dr. Holden. I started talking about the tunnel and he asked if there was anyone who’d be crazy enough to fund a program to get our guys in the tunnel. My answer was ‘I knew just the guy’ and it went from there.”
Dr. Holden’s first athlete was Bill Johnson, who went on to become the first American to win an Olympic gold medal in downhill. In addition to dozens of U.S. Ski Team athletes, he has also worked with luge, skeleton and speed skating teams, including Olympic medal winner and speed skater, Bonnie Blair.
“The tests really went well, they’re such a great group of guys,” added Dr. Holden, who donated his time to assist the Team with testing. “A lot of time and money goes into putting this together and it’s well worth it. We went through various strategies with the guys for jumping, high tucks and low body positions. Every one did just great and I’m sure learned quite a bit.”
“I completely changed my tuck last time we were here,” said Macartney, a two-time tunnel veteran. “It’s perfect for dialing in equipment and quite a process, but worth it. You put on everything – back protection, speed suit, boots, helmet, goggles – all of it and then work on hand and body positions.”
The tunnel is reconfigured to allow athletes to get instantaneous feedback on minor adjustments, including the interchanging of equipment.
“We were passing Ligety different helmets during his tests, Mac and I were going through back braces – everyone was able to get instant results on what gear was fast,” said Nyman, who has three World Cup podiums to his credit, including a 2003 win at the Saslong classic downhill in Val Gardena, Italy and a pair of top 3’s at the treacherous Birds of Prey downhill in Beaver Creek, CO.
During the tests, Brigham took notes and pointers from Dr. Holden. Those notes were translated to the snow as the men take their tunnel technique to Portillo. Tucks will be on the schedule, but so will air as the Team works on body position over jumps.
The World Cup speed season opens Nov. 29 with a downhill in Lake Louise, Alberta before moving to Colorado Dec. 4-7 for the annual Birds of Prey race week in Beaver Creek. Beaver Creek is the only World Cup stop, aside from Finals to host four races. In addition to the famed downhill, men also will race super combined, super G and a giant slalom.
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