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Not just anyone can—or should—hit 80 mph on skis. As U.S. Ski Team downhiller Laurenne Ross says, “you never even get to go that fast in a car. There are some states where the max speed limit is 75. Going 80 mph on skis just feels like you’re breaking the law.” And at many ski hills, bombing a run at such speeds is just plain irresponsible—even if you can capably maintain control, passing skiers at highway-driving speed could be grounds for getting your ticket clipped.
But at Copper Mountain, there are exceptions for the pros. Ski racers from around the world flock to Colorado every winter to train at the mountain’s Speed Center, and it turns out it takes a lot of fine-tuning to be the fastest racer down the mountain. After all, we’re talking about competitions that are often won or lost by mere hundredths of a second. Here are the 10 ingredients—according to five U.S. Ski Team racers—that are necessary for maxing out the speedometer on the downhill.
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1) Honing the tuck. No surprise, right? In reality, the tuck takes more than simply trying to curve one’s body into a human cannonball. “You want to have parallel shins,” Ross says. “How wide your stance is depends on the terrain, the grade of the slope. The wider the feet can be, the more you can get your stomach down between your knees.”
2) Fixing your visual field at the top of your eyeballs. With the low stance of the tuck comes the need to set one’s stare directly upwards. If you can imagine the zombie-like look on Jack Nicholson’s face when he’s frozen in ice at the end of The Shining, this is the look speed skiers are going for. “When I keep my head as low as I can, I’m looking out of the tops of my eyes,” Jared Goldberg says. “It makes your vision go blurry after a while. It’s kind of the opposite of reading. If you’ve got Steve Nyman’s eyebrows, it’s even harder.”
3) Concentrating on one body part at a time. Ski veteran Steven Nyman (the one with the bushy brows) believes that winning a race can come down to forcing small habits he’s found to be fast over his lengthy career. “I’m driving my shoulders into the turn, creating a pinch in the hip at the same time,” Nyman says. “Exiting turns, mentally, I’m thinking about throwing my mass at the next turn. I have a systematic approach and write a log with two or three focuses every day.”
4) Keeping the elbows in. Outstretched arms are not fast, although they become necessary to stay upright on a few of the World Cup’s notoriously rugged, jostling courses. “It’s so easy to apply those things in training at Copper Mountain, but when you’re rattling down a hill like Kitzbuhel (the gnarly downhill venue in Austria) it’s so much harder,” Thomas Biesemeyer says.
5) Wearing a race suit that hugs your curves. We’re not talking about a Batman getup here (a cape would create all kinds of wind drag). As it turns out, even a wrinkle in a sleeve might account for a couple precious hundredths of a second on the racetrack. “Having a suit that fits correctly is big,” Goldberg says. “You’re trying to get the closest fit you can possibly get.”
6) Relinquishing control to your skis. You’ll often hear ski racers talk about “letting the skis run,” which is kinda like riding a horse with free rein. “One of the biggest ingredients to being fast is the ability to release your ski. You don’t have to come off a pitch this way, but if you start a turn on a flat ski, moving through the turn and generating speed is important,” Ross says.
“I am always trying to have a flat ski,” Goldberg agrees. “Less edge angle is faster.”
7) Talking to yourself. From the lag time in the start house to every second of a downhill race (which typically clock in at under 2 minutes), most racers are guided by a mental monologue. It doesn’t have to be a full-on inner drill sergeant, but it’s usually a directive of some form or other.
“It’s these small mental cues that generate speed,” Biesemeyer says. “When we’re talking about adjustments within a second, for me specifically, the small cues are things like, ‘front of the boot. Arms in.’ These are little things that make a big difference with the elements of speed.”
8) Eating powerfully. This varies from racer to racer. Mikaela Shiffrin swears by the power of pasta while Lindsey Vonn generally avoids carbs. U.S. downhiller Bryce Bennett finds that a dose of sugar right before launching out of the start gate is helpful. “It’s tough for us with diet,” Bennett says. “We’re on the road all the time, we’re in different countries, so if you’re stuck to a certain, super specific diet, it’s not going to work out for you. Usually before downhill races, I like a lot of sugar. It helps me focus. It’s usually in liquid form—a soda or an energy drink.”
9) Eliminating doubt. Nothing drags you down like doubt.
“I look at ski racing as a puzzle,” Bennett says. “There’s a bunch of pieces to the puzzle—tactics on course, technical ability, equipment. Within all of those pieces are sub pieces. You’re making sure you understand every single one of those pieces and what they entail. You inspect in the morning and the race starts at 12:30 p.m. That’s how many hours of your day sitting? It’s a lot of time to start thinking. If you have any doubt, like a tiny bit of doubt that you didn’t take care of any of those pieces, you’re going to have a little doubt in the start and you’re not going to perform at your highest ability.”
10) Loving speed. Last but certainly not least, “If you don’t love speed,” Ross says, “I don’t know what you’re doing in this sport. I’ve always loved going fast from the moment I put skis on. I was never really a big turner. My heart has always been in speed, flying through the air…feeling like you’re doing something illegal.”