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Ron Judd, an Olympics junkie and Seattle Times columnist who has covered Olympic sports since 1997, will use this space to serve up news and opinion on the Summer and Winter Games -- also inviting you to chime in on Planet Earth's biggest get-together.

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May 9, 2008 12:39 PM

Spring, schming: U.S. team making tracks at Whistler venue

Posted by Ron Judd

What do American cross-country skiers do in their off-season?

Cross-country ski, at least in the first part of it. We caught up with U.S. skier Torin Koos of Leavenworth, a likely 2010 Olympian, on the phone this week from Whistler Olympic Park, where he and teammates are training in a two-week camp.

The special training session is designed, of course, to give them a feel for the XC courses they'll compete on during the 2010 Games. Because the venue, in the Callaghan Valley south of Whistler, is brand new, that's a major competitive factor.

"We are up here with one goal in mind," says U.S. head developmental coach Matt Whitcomb. "And that is to get to know these trails like we designed them ourselves."

It's the second trip to Whistler Olympic Park for Koos, 27, who competed there during the Canadian Nationals in March. His early take on the place:

"It's cool, man. Whistler is a sweet place," he says. "The Coast Range mountains are awesome, big mountains. And it (the venue) is in real wilderness. You can see bears crossing the trails every once in a while."

Koos and his teammates had only good things to say about the courses, laid out by former skier John Aalberg, who also helped design the cross-country venue at Soldier Hollow, Utah for the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Games.

"Everybody is very enthusiastic about the layout of the courses," Koos says. "They're really skiable. You would think that'd be something you need in a cross-country ski course. But sometimes they just throw in ridiculous steep hills that are too steep to ski. Like, Nagano was known for that.

"This has a really good flow to it. You can tell a skier laid it out. It's going to take really good skiing to win here, not just running up hills, where it's a matter of who has the best engine. It's going to be who's the best skier."

Whitcomb echoed those sentiments.

"They are not as hard as the courses in Canmore, Alberta, but they ski very well," he says. "The layout that John Aalberg created is inventive and flows like a windy river that somehow flows over hill and dale."

As evidenced by the fact that they're still able to ski there in May, snow cover won't be a problem at the Whistler Nordic venue, which also serves as the 2010 home base for ski jumping, Nordic combined, and biathlon. But weather is likely to play a greater-than-usual role.

Because of its relative low elevation and proximity to saltwater, snow conditions can be very mixed in the Callaghan Valley. Example: A 50-kilometer test race conducted last week began in a blizzard, carried on with icey conditions through a break in precipitation, and ended in warm, slushy snow.

That can be an equipment nightmare for cross-country skiers, whose skis are treated with high-tech waxes to grip and glide properly. The choice of wax is based on snow conditions at the start of a race. There's no way to adjust once you're on course. So a bad wax decision can spell doom.

"I've heard there's a 100-percent chance of having a major rain experience during that time in February," Koos said. "There's lots of precipitation, but it's both snow and rain. Weather can move in and out in a moment's notice."

When temperatures are ranging from just below to just above freezing, that can cause ski-wax technicians to pull their hair out, Koos said.

"They're definitely going to earn their keep."

But U.S. skiers, who have improved on the World Cup circuit in recent years, but have not earned an Olympic medal since Bill Koch's silver in 1976, welcome the challenge. Their aim is to make the Whistler course feel like home territory.

"It's going to take a complete skier to be really good here," Koos says. "That's one of the reasons we want to spend so much time here. It's not like hopping on a running track, where the course is always the same."

If they can get permission, the U.S. squad might even host its Cross-Country Nationals at Whistler next spring, Koos says.

In the short term? He's got another competition in mind: The Ski to Sea Race, Memorial Day weekend in Bellingham. Koos will be on the Barron Heating team, known for luring its share of ringers. And he's not even doing the cross-country leg. Koos will make the notorious climb up to the top of Pan Dome to ski the alpine leg.

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Blogroll and links The official International Olympic Committtee site, with news releases, a searchable Olympic medals database and other archival information. Olympic news site from one of the Games' primary sponsors.
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Chicago Tribune Olympic sports writer Philip Hersh's blog U.S. Olympic Committee's athlete web site. Ed and Sheila Hula's Olympic News Service (subscription). News service with audio, video and text coverage of Olympic sports, during and between Olympics. Free, but charges for live video feed subscriptions. Beijing Organizing Committee Web site. Vancouver Organizing Committee's 2010 Winter Games site. London 2012 Summer Games site. Sochi, Russia's 2014 Winter Games site. Candidate city Chicago's summer 2016 bid committee site.
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