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Deer Valley World Cup looms large for skiers even without throngs of fans

Freestyle circuit’s only U.S. stop serves as an Olympic qualifier for aerials; world championship teams will be announced after event.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) U.S. Freestyle Ski Team member Chris Lillis performs his aerial routine during practice Jan. 7, 2020 at the Utah Olympic Park. Lillis, the national champion, is looking forward to the FIS Freestyle World Cup at Deer Valley Resort on Feb. 2-6, 2021, even though it won't allow fans and won't be held under the lights.

The screams of 8,000 fans could have been mistaken for the howl of a strong wind at the top of Deer Valley Resort’s Champion moguls run. As Nick Page bounced toward the bottom, it became a deafening rumble. Cheers for the Park City skier by family, friends and complete strangers alike combined with cowbells and whistles, swelling more and more into a cacophony the closer he drew to the finish line.

All Page said he could hear, though, was the scritch-scritch of his skis sliding between the bumps and, when he went airborne on a jump, silence.

That’s what he can expect to hear at this year’s Freestyle International Ski World Cup event at Deer Valley, too. Only it’ll take less concentration.

The Park City resort will welcome many of the world’s best moguls and aerials skiers on Feb. 2-6, when it extends its 23-year streak of hosting elite-level freestyle competition with the only World Cup on United States soil this season. Not invited, however, are the thousands of fans who have made an annual tradition of tromping up the hill to watch the athletes fly, bounce and flip under the lights.

Because of COVID-19, this year’s competitions will be held during the day with no spectators and sparse media on site. Portions will be televised live on NBC Sports and the Olympic Channel.

Ashley Caldwell, a three-time Olympic aerialist and the national champion, likened it to playing a rock concert inside an empty stadium.

“We say every year Deer Valley’s the best and we feel like rock stars when we come down the landing hill,” Caldwell, 27, said. “To not have those people there and for it not to be a night event will change the atmosphere. But that doesn’t make it any less the best.”

After spending the past month traveling between Finland, Russia and Belarus, Caldwell said the contrast between accommodations at competitions there and those of the luxe Park City resort are stark. But there’s nothing cushy about the competition or the venue at Deer Valley.

“It is kind of one of those courses where you need everything,” said Page, who topped the American men with a 10th-place finish last year during his World Cup debut at the venue. “It’s definitely one of the hardest courses we’ll see all year. It’s the longest. The steepest. It’s always built really well, but it’s really challenging. And that’s what makes it really, really fun, because it kind of separates the field and the skiers that can really excel on that and then the skiers that kind of fall behind.

“So, being able to ski fast, clean and tight and then have some really big, show-stopping airs will kind of put it all together into the perfect run.”

Because he grew up skiing at Deer Valley, the 18-year-old benefits as much as any competitor from the support of the hometown crowd — even if he tunes it out during his runs. This year, though, he’ll likely benefit from his knowledge of the Champion course and its many faces throughout the day. Page said he expects the finals to be held in the afternoon, when the light goes flat and the contours of the bumps and landings disappear into the snow, making it especially tricky to ski.

That’s valuable information to have in his back pocket heading into the final event before U.S. Ski & Snowboard selects its world championship team. Page currently ranks eighth in the FIS World Cup standings, one spot below top American Brad Wilson. On the women’s side, the Americans have four athletes in the top 11. They are led by Jaelin Kauf and Hannah Soar, who took fifth and fourth, respectively, in moguls and third and second in dual moguls at Deer Valley last season.

Selections for the world championships, scheduled for March 8-11 in Almaty, Kazakhstan, will also be made in aerials. The U.S. women’s field is especially crowded with Winter Vinecki, Caldwell and Kaila Kuhn holding down Nos. 2-4, respectively, in the FIS World Cup rankings. Justin Schoenfeld, Chris Lillis and Eric Loughran are among the top 15 on the men’s side.

The coronavirus has put this year’s edition of the biennial championships in limbo, but the American jumpers have other reasons to go big this weekend. With the opening ceremony for the Beijing 2022 games exactly a year away, Deer Valley will serve as the first of several Olympic qualifiers.

Lillis, the men’s national champion, noted that winning at Deer Valley is almost akin to rubber stamping a trip to the Olympics. And yet, he’s more concerned with living up to the legacy of those who competed there before him. He hopes to inspire kids who might be watching at home on TV, just as he was in 2007 when Jeret “Speedy” Peterson won a World Cup there by performing his signature “Hurricane.”

“There’s just so much attached to that site personally for me as a jumper,” Lillis said, “that winning that event and kind of just taking it in our hometown, where we’re training, and on home soil — I’d say that’s the most important thing to me.”

Men’s and women’s moguls will be held Feb. 4. Dual moguls — which will probably not be held at Deer Valley again until 2023 because it is a non-Olympic sport — is slated for Feb. 5. Aerials competition will wrap up the event Feb. 6.

FIS FREESTYLE WORLD CUP AT DEER VALLEY

Feb. 2-6 at Deer Valley Resort

TV SCHEDULE

Feb. 4

2 p.m: Moguls, Olympic Channel

Feb. 5

12:30 p.m: Dual moguls, Olympic Channel

3:30 p.m.: Moguls, NBCSN

Feb. 6

2:30 p.m.: Aerials, Olympic Channel

Feb. 7

4 p.m.: Aerials, NBCSN

5 p.m.: Dual moguls, NBCSN

Feb. 21

11 a.m.: Moguls, NBC Sports

March 14

10 a.m.: Aerials, NBC Sports


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