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Behind The Scenes: Swatch Skiers Cup

A look at the future of ski competition
posted: 09/11/2012

The Swatch Skiers Cup was born from the brains of two of Europe’s best skiers. Sverre Liliequist and Kaj Zackrisson wanted to create something new. Modeled after the Ryder Cup, athletes would represent their country. They’d compete as teams, members battling each other to earn a single point for their multi-national squads. There would be three judges. The winners decided by the most points at the end of the competition.

They took their concept to Nicolas Hale-Woods, founder of the Freeride World Tour, and a veteran of organizing big, complex events. Nicolas liked the idea, and, with the backing of Swatch, a new concept was born: The Swatch Skiers Cup that debuted in Valle Nevado in 2011. Now in its second year, the contest features 16 athletes from 9 countries.

The competitor list is a compendium of the best skiers on the planet. Representing Team Europe this year is founder and team captain Liliequist along with Sweden’s Jacob Wester, and talented newcomers Mathieu Imbert (France) and Tom Leitner (Germany).  For Team Americas, Cody Townsend is the captain, overseeing a packed roster that includes KC Deane, Canada’s Riley Leboe, American Chris Benchetler and Chile’s best known talent, Chopo Diaz, and, of course, American Oakley Allen-White.

“The concept is great,” says Australia’s Ben Murphy, who joins USA’s Mark Abma and France’s Julian Regnier as one of the three judges for the event. “It’s so different from other competitions. It brings team camaraderie to the sport, and it makes it really simple. You either win [your heat] or you don’t. It comes down to the team captains. They pick the athletes.”

“The format induces progression into the sport,” says event organizer Nicolas Hale-Woods. “The riders feel a responsibility for doing well for their team.”

“I have heard from Sverre Liliequist that the athletes try to do stuff that they would never do, just by being inspired by the format,” notes Hale-Woods.  “That mentality nurtures the progression of the sport.”

“I don’t think it will replace the classic big-mountain events,” adds Hale-Woods of the match-play style points system utilized by the Swatch Skiers Cup. “But hopefully it will become a classic, with riders fighting to be on the teams. I think it is a specialty event, bringing new ideas and influences into skiing.”

After one week here in Chile, that certainly seems to be the case. By now, you’ve heard the results, but let’s recap the action. Day one of the competition saw Team Europe take an early lead in round one of the big mountain event, only to see Team Americas come charging back that afternoon to tie the event at 8 points per team. The rebound was due not only to some impressive skiing, but also to the fact that team captain, Cody Townsend, went first among all competitors.

“It wasn’t originally part of my strategy,” said Townsend of running first on the big-mountain venue, located near Valle Nevado, in the Yorba Loco valley. “I wanted to set an example for the team by going first.” But, according to Townsend, once he was at the bottom, he was able to analyze the lines, the competition, and the judging and scoring, allowing him to come up with a strategy for the second heat.

That strategy fueled a Team Americas comeback that put the pressure on Team Europe going into the Backcountry Slopestyle leg of the event.

However, before the slopestyle event kicked off, there was the small matter of surfing. One amazing aspect of this week-long competition, is that the organizers have built enough time into the competition to allow for weather delays and to let the athletes have the opportunity to get to know each other and enjoy their surroundings. It’s a relaxed approach that brings out the best in the athletes. This year the competition days were spread apart enough to allow a trip to legendary Chilean surf spot Pichilemu.

The accommodations, in the eco/surf lodge of Punta de Lobos, allowed for a fantastic atmosphere, where one could discuss design and architecture with Germany’s Tom Leitner (who has a keen interest in style), drink too much red wine with Mark Abma and, when the waves started to pump the next morning, get a primer on athletic ability from Sweden’s Jacob Wester, who looks as comfortable on a surfboard as he does on skis.

But as relaxed as this interlude was, there was still the matter of the Swatch Skiers Cup to be decided.

The big day arrived on Friday, Sept. 7, at Valle Nevado. The slopestyle course started inside the ski area, then turned skier’s left, with a large kicker sending the athletes out of bounds and into the steep, cliffy valley below the resort. It was here where a variety of kickers were constructed on top of cliffs allowing for multiple line choices.

But Mother Nature wasn’t having it. Chile, usually so snow-reliable was having a thin year. And that, combined with freeze-thaw conditions created a punchy, dangerous crust in the landing zones. In addition, rapidly warming daytime temperatures contributed to a high avalanche risk on the eastern facing slope that was being used for the venue.

The athletes, of course, were concerned, but also good to go if conditions permitted. However, Hale-Woods gathered the team captains to talk alternatives. The result was a decision to abandon the venue and take three athletes from each team back to the heli-access big-mountain venue.

The decision seemed to favor Team Europe. After all, Marcus Eder, the young Italian, had already put on an impressive display in the first round of competition, combining creative and technical line choices with park tricks and a switch landing on his second run.

But the atmosphere in Team Europe’s huddle was subdued compared to the vibe in Team Americas, as the captains discussed athlete selection with the riders. Perhaps Townsend and crew had nothing to loose. After all, they’d fought back to earn a tie on that very same face, and the big-mountain terrain seemed to suit their momentum.

Regardless, with the event moving back to the face, Team Americas capitalized. Europe’s Patty Graham’s miscue left the door open for Team Americas’ KC Deane who made no mistakes and stomped a huge backflip for the victory.

We caught up to Team Americas on yet another sun drenched Chilean deck at Valle Nevado. Cody Townsend was drinking beers out of the Swatch Skiers Cup trophy, a massively heavy ski boot. Deane was laughing. Abma, last year’s team captain turned this year’s event judge had his shirt off and was smiling in the sun. “I am stoked,” said Deane. “I was really happy to clinch a point for my team in the first round, and to win the event in the last run was amazing. But it was a team effort.”

Townsend was equally happy, crediting all his athletes with stepping up when it counted. But competition is only part of the story when it comes to the Swatch Skiers Cup.  The contest, with its side trips to go surfing, group dinners and relaxed atmosphere is an incubator. Here, with only one point on the line for each athlete in their head-to-head heats, skiers can push themselves, knowing that even a fall won’t put their team out of it. In this regard, the Swatch Skiers Cup provides fertile ground for innovation inside the matrix of competition. It’s unique and, perhaps, a glimpse into what the future will (and should) become.

Given that, the news that event organizers have decided to host a European edition of The Cup in Zermatt, Switzerland from February 9-16, 2013, is a welcome development for the sport: a sign that this important competition format will grow and play an integral part in the progression of the sport. We, as spectators and as skiers, can only wait, watch and be excited. The future is here, and it looks good. Very good.

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