Equidistant from Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and San Francisco lies Mammoth Lakes. Three hundred miles from each of these major cities, this tiny town has only 8,234 full-time residents, but probably has more Olympians than any other ZIP code outside of Colorado Springs, Colorado—home of the Olympic Training Center.
Six skiers and snowboarders who hang their helmets in the 93546 will be in Sochi, Russia, for the Winter Games. American representatives include Kelly Clark and Greg Bretz in halfpipe snowboarding, John Teller and Trevor Jacob in skier cross and snowboard cross, respectively, and Stacey Cook in alpine skiing. Kaya Turski is the sole Mammoth-based slopestyle skier representing Canada.
But what is it about this tiny, remote town that makes it a magnet for such talent?
The godfather of American freeskiing, Glen Plake, believes Mammoth Mountain’s terrain, as well as its racecourses and award-winning terrain parks (11 parks and three halfpipes), attract a lot of world-class athletes. (The resort hosted the final three of five qualifying events for the U.S. Olympic Snowboarding Team last month.) Although Plake travels year-round, his signature mohawk is a common sight on Mammoth’s slopes because he claims the town as his North American ski base.
Plake says that Mammoth’s long seasons, which usually begin in early November and can go until July 4, are a strong draw, but he believes the caliber of the 400 inches of snow the area averages annually—despite the unusually dry season Mammoth is currently experiencing—is paramount.
“The quality of the snow is always wonderful, at beginning of the season and at the end of the season,” says Plake, who has visited ski areas big and small as a pro skier and as host of RSN’s “Reel Thrills.” “Mammoth has the greatest consistent snow I’ve found.”
Mammoth also has a reputation for building special training areas just for elite athletes.
When word got out in 2009 that Shaun White’s sponsors had built a private halfpipe (complete with foam pit) in the Colorado backcountry of Silverton so that the most dominant men’s rider in the world could work on new tricks in solitude, Mammoth’s Unbound Terrain Parks director at the time, Oren Tanzer, and his crew built a similar setup for some of White’s competitors.
This commitment continues. Earlier this season, Trevor Jacob—then just a snowboard cross Olympic hopeful—approached current Unbound manager TJ Dawoud with a problem. Relatively new to the discipline, Jacob wanted to work on a few skills specific to the event, a multi-racer format where competitors descend shoulder to shoulder through banked corners and over jumps, fighting to be the first to reach the finish line.
This was a huge challenge for Dawoud because of the drought California was experiencing. Mammoth was undergoing its worst year since 1976 and snow was in short supply, so Dawoud borrowed snow from the halfpipe that was being shaped and created a training area for Jacob as well as for John Teller, who would go on to secure his spot as the U.S.’s sole Olympian in skier cross.
The extra training worked well for Jacob, who surprised the field when he won a World Cup snowboard cross event in Vallnord-Arcalís, Andorra, which placed him on his first U.S. Olympic Team. Ditto for Teller, who took first in Val Thorens, France, making him the only American to podium in skier cross this World Cup season.
The resort also caters to the needs of international riders. For some athletes, being able to bounce back post-injury requires a lot of training in a short amount of time. Rehabbing from a knee surgery, decorated Canadian slopestyle skier Kaya Turski began this season at square one.
“She was starting from scratch for the season and getting her feet under her—building her confidence. So she was looking for safe, low-impact jumps,” explains Dawoud. In order to allow Turski to session specific features, Unbound provided her with a snowmobile and a driver.
“Instead of riding the chairlift, where she’d get 10 runs an hour, she got 20 runs an hour,” Dawoud says.
Turski’s intense training paid off last month in Aspen, where she won her fifth X Games gold medal in Women’s Ski Slopestyle.
Mammoth athletes—Olympians and otherwise—also have access to a slopeside training center that’s supported by the nonprofit Mammoth Mountain Community Foundation. Additionally, the ski area offers varying levels of training for local and visiting athletes, including a small, elite program where members are on snow for more than four hours day, five days a week, and also participate in dryland training in the gym as well as trampoline work. Greg Bretz came through this program, and Sochi will be the second Olympic Games for the 23-year-old. Thirteen-year-old Chloe Kim—who recently won a silver medal at X Games Aspen in the halfpipe, making her the youngest ever to podium in a wintertime X Games event—is a current member. (She’d be going to Sochi if she were old enough; Olympians must be at least 15 years old.)
Couple the resort’s dedication to competitive excellence with a community who couldn’t be prouder of its athletes and you might have the makings of a magic formula. This week, as the snow is finally falling in the Eastern Sierra, you can almost feel the Olympic buzz in the air. Some supporters have responded to the email from Mammoth Mountain asking for donations to help offset the travel and training expenses of the five American athletes. Others have slapped “Teller 2014 Sochi” stickers on any flat surface they can find.
Is it enough to bring home gold? Only the courses at Rosa Khutor can tell. Check out NBC’s viewing schedule to watch Mammoth’s best in action.
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