Alpine Men Get First Look At 2022 Olympic Downhill Course
by Peggy Shinn
Bryce Bennett skies during a men's downhill training session ahead of the Winter Olympic Games Beijing 2022 on Feb. 3, 2022 in Yanqing, China.
BEIJING — The downhill course at the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 looks like a fire-breathing dragon — steep and technical at the top with cliff-walled chute at the end that looks like the course’s tongue.
But in their first look at the course, the three American downhillers loved it.
“It’s really fun to ski,” said Ryan Cochran-Siegle, who finished the first men’s training run in seventh place (excluding skiers who missed gates).
“I was pretty comfortable all the way down, to be honest,” added Bryce Bennett, who clocked the sixth fastest training run just ahead of Cochran-Siegle. Bennett won his first world cup downhill earlier this season and grew up skiing on the legendary steeps of Palisades Tahoe (formerly called Squaw Valley, host of the 1960 Olympic Winter Games).
And Bennett noted, “There’s a lot more speed left.”
The Downhill Course
The downhill at the Yanqing National Alpine Skiing Centre has left most who see it in person “blown away.” Pictures and video tend to flatten out the venue.
Designed by 1976 Olympic gold medalist Bernhard Russi, who has designed every Olympic downhill course except one in the past 34 years, the men’s downhill course starts at the summit of a 7,149-foot peak in China’s Xiaohaituo Mountains northwest of Beijing. This morning, the view from the start stretched to the towers in downtown Beijing, over two hours away by car.
From the summit, the course swoops almost two miles, first down a ridge, then it plunges over the mountainside and into the cliff-lined ravine. By the finish, skiers have dropped almost three thousand feet and reached speeds close to 90 mph.
To the uninitiated, it looks intimidating. And because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world’s best alpine skiers had never skied the course until this morning.
Travis Ganong, 33, a veteran American downhiller, was the first of the American team to go. He ran sixth in the start order, and the skiers in front of him were missing gates in this, the first training run.
“I just got a feeling for it more or less,” said Ganong, who took it easy and ended up over two seconds off the leaders. “Normally, we race on the same tracks at the same venues, and every year, and we always go back to the same venues. You build your way up to the point where you feel comfortable racing. We have to do that now in three days.”
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Yanqing National Alpine Skiing Centre finish line area prior to the start of the Winter Olympic Games Beijing 2022 on Jan. 30, 2022 in Yanqing, China.
Bennett also watched the first men take on the course — with many of them missing gates — and he thought, “Hunh, this looks interesting.”
But he put it out of his mind and focused on the plan he devised during course inspection.
“It's uncomfortable,” Bennett admitted. “Like, you don't know what the terrain is going to do. You’ve never been on it. So you're kind of nervous in the start. But it's just like commit to it.”
Cochran-Siegle had similar nerves at the start. “But by the time I go by the first gate,” he noted, “it's just a matter of reacting and skiing the terrain that you see.”
The three Americans noted key sections of the course, such as the hard right footer near the top (by the super-G start), and the flatter sections where they need to carry speed.
“I'm blown away by so much of what they've been able to do here,” said Cochran-Siegle. “The mountain itself is really spectacular. There's definitely some in-your-face terrain and steeps, and they connected turny, off-camber terrain. Between the terrain and the snow prep, they did a fantastic job.”
As for that rock-walled chute, Ganong described it “like a beginner slope.”
“It's super slow,” he said, although slow is a relative word to a downhiller. “The speed is gone at that point, and it's just really enjoyable. You're skiing by these big rocks. It’s pretty cool. It's very unique.”
The men also liked the snow surface. Situated in a desert, Yanqing receives little natural snow each winter. So the alpine ski courses are covered with manmade snow from water in nearby reservoirs that’s piped 7.5 kilometers to the mountain’s base. Ganong likened the snow surface to that of the Beaver Creek downhill in Colorado — but more aggressive, “more grabby on the skis,” he explained.
“It's pretty fun to ski obviously, really enjoyable,” he added. “It's not ice.”
Most of the world cup downhill courses in Europe are as icy as hockey rinks.
Travis Ganong skies during a men's downhill training session ahead of the Winter Olympic Games Beijing 2022 on Feb. 3, 2022 in Yanqing, China.
The 2022 Beijing Olympic Downhill
The men’s downhill is scheduled to run on Sunday, Feb. 7, with two more training days until then. If weather permits. So far, the sun has shone on the 2022 Winter Games, with little wind at the Yanqing Alpine Skiing Centre.
The U.S. men have not won an Olympic downhill since Tommy Moe claimed gold at the 1994 Lillehammer Olympic Winter Games. Bode Miller was the last American male to stand on an Olympic downhill podium when he finished third at the 2010 Vancouver Games.
Ganong is at this second Olympic Games. At the 2014 Sochi Games, he finished fifth in the downhill, just a few tenths of a second off the podium. The next year (2015), he is scored the best U.S. finish in a world championship men’s downhill in a decade when he won a silver medal. But he missed the 2018 Olympic Games after crashing in the Bormio downhill in December 2017 and tearing the ACL in his right knee.
Like Bennett, Ganong also grew up skiing at Palisades Tahoe, and he’s back on form this season. In the final world cup downhill — on the legendary Streif in Kitzbuehel — he finished seventh.
Bennett and Cochran-Siegle, both age 29, are also Olympic veterans. Bennett was the top American finisher in the men’s downhill at the 2018 Games (16th), with Cochran-Siegle — who grew up at his family’s ski area in Vermont — taking 23rd in the PyeongChang downhill.
As for the nerves of skiing a challenging course that they have never seen before at an Olympic Games, Cochran-Siegle put it in perspective.
“We trained for this our whole lives, and it's about being prepared when we're in the start,” he said. “Also, not many people get to do this. So it's a rush.”
An award-winning freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn is in Beijing covering her seventh Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.