Israeli skier Gitit Buchler Israeli skier Gitit Buchler Israeli skier Gitit Buchler skis to a 77th place finish at the 2015 FIS World Alpine Ski Championships in Beaver Creek, Colo., Thursday, February 12. (Photo: Fabrice Coffrini /AFP/Getty Images)

Learning to ski where the snow doesn't fall (much)

How do skiers from warmer countries hone their sport? Lots of traveling, patience and dogged determination.

VAIL-BEAVER CREEK, Colo. — Sixty-nine countries were represented at the FIS World Alpine Ski Championships earlier this month. Some of its competitors are well known in the ski racing world, attending these and other big events with an entourage of coaches, doctors, trainers, ski technicians and personal assistants. 

But the majority of the field consists of up-and-coming racers doing it mostly on their own, many of whom are from Brazil, Lithuania, Belgium and Israel – countries without a traditional ski culture – as well as Mexico, which doesn't have snow.

For those skiers, both the perspective and their expectations are somewhat different from that of Lindsey Vonn, Marcel Hirscher, Tina Maze, Felix Neureuter and the other big names in the event.

Just to reach the start of the race courses, the athletes had to ski the Raptor, a new speed track designed especially for the event by Bernard Russi. It was a slippery slope – literally. On the Peregrine pitch, control was not an option. Racers, coaches and technicians had to release their edges and ride the slide. And skiers from small countries, like Israel’s Ronnie Kiek and Gitit Buchler, were doing this while carrying their skis over their shoulder. (While the ski stars may own 100 pairs of skis, most of the competitors from non-skiing nations have just two: one for training and one for racing.)

Kiek started skiing when she was 6 at Israel’s Mount Hermon. “I heard about the Israeli ski team, and I was always a very competitive and sporty person," she told From The Grapevine. "When I realized that ski racing was what I wanted to do, I knew I’d have to go abroad.” She lives outside Tel Aviv, but trains in Austria with French coach Aleksandar Vitanov.

Skiers Ronnie Kiek and Gitit Buchler with French coach Aleksandar VitanovSkiers Ronnie Kiek and Gitit Buchler with French coach Aleksandar Vitanov after inspecting the women's giant slalom course at the 2015 FIS World Alpine Ski Championships in Vail-Beaver Creek, Colo. (Photo: Jenn Virskus)

“When I was 10 years old, in the newspaper it was written that there was a selection at our mountain. So my father said, ‘Go try, what do you have to lose?’” recalled Buchler. “I went, and two weeks later they said I was in.” She now trains in Italy with coach Nicola Paulon of Kronplatz Racing Team. The team is made up of top skiers from a variety of small nations, including Maya Harrisson of Brazil and Ieva Januškevičiūtė of Lithuania.

“When I turned 15, I had to decide if I wanted to train for FIS races, or if I wanted to quit. I decided that I loved to ski so much and I wanted to take it seriously, and I wanted to go forward, and this is my passion,” Buchler said.

The women’s giant slalom course was a never-ending series of rhythm and terrain changes. The course went from steep to flat, tight technical turns into long sweeping turns. A long flat where the racers would be in their tuck led into the Golden Eagle jump: The skiers had to memorize where they needed to go, because from their tuck, all they saw was a vast horizon of mountains and sky.

Inspection time at the World Championships was a serious time, but after committing the course to memory, the racers took a moment to soak up the atmosphere. Just about every coach and athlete who came down – the big stars included – could be seeing pulling out their phones to take a selfie with their friends. This kind of camaraderie is important in skiing, and it’s important to remember that an event like this is supposed to be fun.

“Every time we are in the start, we all want to win,” said Maria Belen Simari Birkner from Argentina. “This has been really hard for me. And then I realized how much fun I have skiing and how much I love the sport, so that’s the most important thing for me now.”

Buchler, starting bib number 100, finished 77th in Thursday’s GS, an improvement on her result from the 2013 event in Schladming, Austria. “I gave it my all, and that’s what ski racing is about. I tried my best. It happens. Next time I’ll finish,” said Kiek. Both Buchler and Kiek say their goal is to qualify for the 2018 Olympics in South Korea.

Seven gates from the finish of the giant slalom, Lithuania’s Ieva Januskeviciute caught an edge and was thrown out of the course, though “In the most difficult parts of the course, I was quite good. I didn’t expect to go out where I did,” she said.

Sarah Schleper, the former U.S. Ski Team slalom star and a Vail resident who now races for Mexico, finished 50th in the giant slalom, and did not finish the slalom. In her last World Championships as a U.S. skier, Schleper finished 21st.

“I hope to progress the Mexican team and start to train the younger athletes,” said Schleper. 

Itamar Biran, the only male athlete from Israel and the youngest competitor in Vail, said the World Championships were a big step up from anything he’d ever done. He found the level of the giant slalom qualification race to be a lot lower and said the course wasn’t difficult. “I’ve never done a race this long at this altitude, so at the end I was practically dead," he said.

Israeli skier Itamar BirinItamar Biran inspects the men's giant slalom qualification course in Vail, Colo., Thursday, Feb. 12. (Photo: Courtesy of Itamar Birin)

Biran scored two of the best results of his young career in the qualification rounds at Vail, and finished 62nd in the giant slalom final, which was won by American Ted Ligety. On Sunday, heavy snowfall and a particularly difficult course saw 43 skiers fail to finish the first run, including Biran.

Warren Cummings Smith, a American-Estonian who attends Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, finished the first run of Sunday’s slalom in 44th position. “It was a crazy set, it was very far across the hill and also the snow is very slippery, even compared to what the best guys are used to, and you can see that from the best guys struggling on their way down as well.”

For all of the skiers from large and small nations alike, there are still a lot more races to come this season. “I’ll continue to compete in FIS races this season. It was my first slalom race of the season, so it was not so easy,” said Buchler. “In the start, I thought, I need to give my best. There is nothing to lose.”

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