The Purgatory Ski Team sped through another alpine season. With junior national championship events canceled because of the new coronavirus pandemic, though, the season came without the climactic finish many had trained and worked toward all year.
Still, PST had plenty to celebrate with a strong group of regional qualifiers and a Southern Series championship behind four skiers who claimed individual overall titles.
“The Purgatory alpine ski racing team has been building a program competitive with the nation’s best,” said coach and program director Tyler McKnight.
PST swept the boys and girls overall titles for under-14 racers with Gracey Henning claiming the girls title and Holden Bronson skiing to the title for the boys. It was the same story for the under-10 age group, as Oliver Nast won the boys competition and Amelia Pierantoni claimed the girls championship.
The under-12 regional championships were canceled to deny athletes Kassi Kuss and Koda Kiser a chance to compete on the big stage. After an entire season of racing, Kiser came up 0.1 seconds shy of a Southern Series overall title, but Kiser and teammate Ethan Deem both earned divisional all-star team honors and will be able to attend camps at Beaver Creek, Copper Mountain and the Olympic Training Center along with the top racers from the Rocky Mountain Alpine Division next season.
PST was eager for the Under-14 U.S. Ski & Snowboard Rocky/Central Junior Championships in Steamboat Springs with four athletes set to compete with Bronson and Hening joined by Ian Fehr and Finn Scarpella.
Hening was a favorite in her events and earned the No. 1 bib, but a training run crash in the super-G led to a concussion and kept her out of competition. But her eagerness to get back to the mountain and cheer on her fellow PST and Colorado athletes in the 18-state competition gave her the sportsmanship award for the entire event that featured the top-90 skiers in the region.
At regionals, Scarpella placed 20th in slalom and was in the top 35 in giant slalom. Bronson placed 46th in slalom and 48th in super-G, and Fehr was 44th in slalom and 48th in giant slalom.
“The level that these athletes are skiing at is very impressive,” McKnight said. “They skied really well and showed great resilience in battling challenging conditions. The RMD youth is some of the toughest competition in the world. It’s exciting to see the depth of talent we are putting out there.”
The under-10 squad from PST also was represented at the Rocky/Central Junior Championships in Telluride in early March, Nast claimed a seventh-place finish in slalom and was ninth in giant slalom for a banner performance, while Pierantoni took a pair of 10th-place results in slalom.
The development of the younger skiers from the under-8 age group and up has excited McKnight. PST serves athletes between the ages of 6-19, whether they ski once or five times a week.
“We want them to find their passion in snow sports and follow their hearts. Whether thats ski racing or another discipline, we give them the chance to try it out and build the fundamental tools to grow where they choose.“ said McKnight, who first stepped on skis at age 1 at Purgatory Resort before joining the alpine race team at age 5. “The U8 program is growing. The program has a maximum four-to-one athlete-to-coach ratio and allows the youngsters to really start learning fundamentals to skiing from very experienced coaching. The sooner the better.”
PST has made it a goal to provide high-end coaching and training in Durango so top athletes don’t feel the need to go to more expensive programs at Vail or Steamboat Springs. Helping keep costs down this year was the purchase of a new team van that has made travel easier on athletes and their families.
The team trains at Chapman Hill and Purgatory Resort, the two host venues for the Colorado High School Activities Association alpine state championship races in 2019.
Purgatory’s willingness to support the team training on the Deadspike run this season has helped the athletes train for more speed events, and it was also utilized by the Ski and Snowboard Vail team in January.
“There is no better run at Purgatory,” said Joe Holgate, who was the PST alpine coach from 1981-2001. “You can teach every aspect of ski racing on that hill. That is hard to say about any training venue in Colorado.”
In-town access to Chapman Hill has been invaluable for the alpine and freestyle teams from PST. McKnight called it one of the best racing surfaces to train on in the country, especially with lights making it possible to train after school in the winter months. McKnight is excited for some planned improvements that will make Chapman Hill even better for ski racers. Plans are to create more hill space to cater to skiers across a broader range of disciplines.
“The planned improvements at Chapman are going be fantastic. We’re going to see a lot more families missing bedtime more often and more adults wanting to join their kids in the evening.” said Chapman Hill groomer and PST alpine coach Tim Kuss. “After all, Chapman Hill is the soul of Durango skiing. This place was the seed that made Purgatory. It’s at the heart of what makes Durango a great place to live. All the best skiers to come out of Durango were trained at Chapman. You don’t get to be the best skier on the mountain by only riding around the big hill; its ski areas like Chapman and Howelson Hill in Steamboat Springs that make Olympians.”
McKnight said those improvements will be especially beneficial in PST developing its under-16 racers. Any steep runs PST can utilize will help athletes who need to train in speed events such as downhill and super-G.
“Our goal is to develop well-rounded individuals and give them the tools to reach their goals,” McKnight said. “Whether that’s in skiing NCAA and the U.S. Ski Team or being able to rip steep chutes anywhere in the world, we want to give them the opportunity to reach for that without having to move to places like Vail or Steamboat where the costs are exponentially higher than the program here in Durango. At every level, ski racing teaches you so much. Particularly, the skills to be courageous and independent. It’s just you and the snow. You have to believe in your skills, and push your limits if you’re going to end up on the top step of the podium.”