The 2015 World Ski Championships have had some historic firsts. The first World Champs to be held in the U.S. this century. The oldest women's winner (Tina Maze, 31, downhill). And then the oldest World Champs winner, period (Hannes Reichelt, 34 downhill). The first skier to win the same discipline in three straight World Championships, plus the first home-soil world title since 1989 (Ted Ligety, giant slalom).
But there's another first here, one being touted a whole lot less often at press conferences and by those who love the sport: the 2015 World Championships mark the first time in anyone's memory that a top-level ski race had its own cheerleaders.
Sure, both the Sochi and Turin Olympics had women waving pom-poms, but they stuck more to the indoor events, like ice hockey games. No dances in snow boots, in other words. No routines on the slippery stuff, let alone in blowing winds and blinding snow at low-oxygen altitudes.
Leave it to 'Murika to show them how it's done. When organizers chose an "Americana" theme to give the 2015 World Championships a different flavor from the 1999 event, which was more "cowboy," the pom-poms were the natural next step.
"We've been talking about, 'What's Americana to us?' And it's cheerleaders," says Martha Brassel, an organizer who works both with the Vail Valley Foundation and the Vail International Dance Festival. "Who doesn't love beautiful, all-American women representing our country?"
Enter the women of the 2015 World Championships cheerleading squad. Hailing from across Colorado, they have names like Dee, Ashlee, Phearri, Rockshana and Pi. In their bios, they list personal mottos including "Live, laugh, love!" and "Work hard, play hard!" (The latter explained as, "It's like 'YOLO', but with a brain and accountability.") Their volunteered special talents including being able to touch tongue to nose, and makeup artistry. They carry flashing silver pom-poms and wear full-length, star-spangled Spandex suits. When I interviewed head choreographer Kris Ashley, a bubbly former Knicks dancer, my mind kept wandering back to how, even at the end of a 16-hour workday, she still had perfectly bouncy curls.
But don't let the immaculate hair fool you. The dancers, who both Ashley and Brassel refer to affectionately as "the girls," would Zumba (or hip-hop, or tap, or jazz-dance) you or me under the table. In other words, they might not be the athletes anyone came here to see, but they are undeniably athletes. Especially given the unique challenges of performing at 9,000 feet.
"Nothing about this, I would say, is typical for a dance team," Ashley, still in her giant-slalom-suit-inspired Spandex uniform, tells me one night after an awards-ceremony performance. "The elevation is a huge challenge, for sure…Just to breathe, to get through a minute and a half routine, is one thing in Denver. It's another thing when you get up to Beaver Creek. And then it's a whoooole other thing when you put it in the snow, because you're using all of your stabilization muscles.
"And your voice," she adds. "In 20 seconds, you can be out of breath just cheering, and trying to get the crowd to cheer."
Between runs, the women dance out near the finish line. In slippery snow that has been making people who are just trying to put one foot in front of the other, yours truly included, stumble all week. Yesterday, they even pulled it off in the midst of a blizzard. "Extreme cheerleading!" a spectator joked.
Another difference, Ashley notes, is how at a typical sports event the cheerleaders know roughly when they're going to be on. And they're "on" only intermittently. Not here, when any break in the action, scheduled or not, can be performance time.
"When I was dancing for the NBA," she says, "we danced set times. We had routines for quarter breaks, halftimes. This is more of, 'We've got 30 seconds, what can you guys do?'
And they're being moved around, too. "It's not a set spot for us. We're not set down on the sidelines at the basketball court; we're not set at the 50-yard line at the football field. We're up in the grandstands. We're over in the VIP area. We're in Après Avon. We're at the International Tent in Beaver Creek village. We perform at Solaris plaza before the awards ceremonies."
Which brings us to the endurance aspect of World Championships cheerleading: the squad is doing their thing pretty much all day. Each race isn't just the top 10 or 15 skiers that have a chance to win. It also includes all of the athletes much further back, the ones starting their careers, or those from nations less than well-known for their ski culture (hi Mexico, hi Cyprus!), for many of whom just being here is an incredible honor—even if they finish DFL. (The "D" and the "L" are for "dead" and "last"—you can fill in the blanks.) Then there's the awards ceremony, plus promotional events back in town, plus...you get the picture.
(Meanwhile, we're all marveling at the stamina of ski racers who finish their runs, realize years of preparations, and make or break entire careers all in 90 seconds or so. I bet the cheerleaders go home at the end of day, set their alarms for their 4 a.m. wakeup call and secretly snicker at what "stamina" means in ski racing. Actually, nah: they seem way too nice for that.)
So no one can dispute that the cheerleaders work hard. But do they belong at a ski race, with its traditionally European culture and typically less, erm, sparkly sideshows? When I observed to one longtime American fan that the sport had never had cheerleaders, she said, "I know. That's what I liked about it!"
At first, I agreed. The whole Americana package felt a little cringeworthy. It wasn't just the cheerleaders. It was the T-shirt guns, the costumed mascots, the way the announcer got the crowd to do the "Y.M.C.A." and the wave in between the racers' runs. It seemed frivolous. Disconnected from ski racing's roots. Cheesy. Unnecessary. Why couldn't we keep the focus on the skiers—and, in homer terms, our very strong U.S. Ski Team—rather than on the flash?
But at the end of the two weeks, I had changed my mind. Just a little bit, anyway. "Hey, you have to make it a show, right?" a European press colleague offered. Because there were a lot of people to entertain: by the end of the two weeks, 200,000 people had climbed up to the competition venues or stood at Solaris plaza for medals ceremonies; the television and internet broadcasts received hundreds of millions of views. And while it's embarrassing, in some ways, that the image we're projecting worldwide is a little corny, I'm not sure if that matters as much as the potential difference it made here at home. Ski racing just isn't as big of a sport in the U.S. as it is in Europe. So even if I wonder what our European friends think of all the sparkle and cheer, perhaps there's a chance it makes the sport more accessible to some football-watching, non-ski-racing sports fans. Or, far more importantly, to little kids, for whom some pom-poms and a furry mascot might be much easier to connect with than the intricacies of a slalom course. That part can come later.
Freelance journalist Amanda Ruggeri, a former ski racer, writes for publications including the BBC, The Globe and Mail, and The New York Times. After nearly five years of living (and skiing) in Italy, she now lives in Brooklyn, where she has learned that when it snows, her new neighbors do not share her enthusiasm.
Images courtesy the Vail Valley Foundation.