A Lake Placid racer's notes from the White Circus
by Phil Johnson
He’s just 21. He is from a prominent Lake Placid family. And instead of taking classes in the local school, he grew up spending winter mornings on the trails at Whiteface Mountain.
But youth, pedigree and opportunity go just so far. Talent and desire are what get you to the top. Today in the world of alpine skiing, Andrew Weibrecht is the real deal. He was an international champion as a young teenager. Last year, as a member of the U.S. Ski Team, he won the overall individual championship in the North American Race series. This winter he is ready to take on the World Cup circuit, the major leagues of international ski competition. Already the most accomplished alpine skier from the Adirondacks since Hank Kashiwa, from Old Forge, who skied in the 1972 Winter Olympics, Weibrecht may have a legitimate shot not only at making the U.S. Olympic team in 2010 but contending for a medal in the marquee downhill ski events at the Vancouver-based games.
It is not an easy route. In 2002 Weibrecht was among 19 skiers picked for the U.S. Ski Team development team; he is one of only five still racing at the international level. In addition to ability on snow, a competitive racer must contend with weather vagaries, frequent travel, dietary challenges, fatigue, time management and the threat of injuries. Alpine skiing is a speed sport, and the margin between the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat is rarely more than a fraction of a second. But the rewards for success in the big leagues are generous. Through prize money, sponsor incentives and endorsements, a top World Cup competitor can earn millions in a good year. Weibrecht now makes enough to keep skiing. To get an idea of what it’s like to compete at this level, I asked him to keep a log last season.
Chile, September: Twenty hours travel time from Lake Placid. My first time training with World Cup racers. It is remarkable how fatigued you get just living at 13,000 feet, let alone high-intensity training at that altitude day after day. The plus side was I proved to myself that I could ski at the same level as the others.
Weibrecht is the next-to-youngest of five children. Sister Kim is an attorney in New Hampshire. Kathryn is a medical resident in Massachusetts, older brother Jonathan works in finance in New York City, and younger brother Ethan will race for the University of New Hampshire this year. His parents, Ed and Lisa Weibrecht, own the Mirror Lake Inn, in Lake Placid. Ed has been affiliated with the ski school at Whiteface Mountain since the early 1970s and is a longtime member of the New York State Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA) board of directors. Lisa is a former women’s U.S. national champion in luge.
Keystone, Colorado, early November: Self confidence is very important. While I had trained well leading up to the first races of the season, I had no prior ranking so I had to start way back in the pack. I was able to move up to seventh after the first run against racers who were World Cup regulars. I proved to myself that my training the previous summer was as beneficial as I had hoped.
“Andrew was fearless as a youngster,” recalls Jim Johnston, of Wilmington, who coached Weibrecht from age seven to 12. “He was always very strong and amazingly flexible, due at least in part to karate training. Since he was home-schooled, he could be at the mountain every day in winter. Andrew was given the opportunity to achieve, and he made the most of it. What helped was having older brother Jonathan [who was also a competitive skier] on the mountain too. Andrew could spend the day chasing after him.”
Vail, Colorado, late November: The World Cup and the Birds of Prey downhill course. My first training run was the scariest experience of my life. My skis didn’t want to turn at 60 miles an hour. I almost put myself into the safety fencing several times. As a result, however, I was much more prepared for the race the next day. But I missed the last gate on the downhill and was disqualified. Even though I didn’t finish, I was really psyched at being able to race on the big stage.
At five foot, seven inches, Weibrecht is similar in size to the top skiers of a generation ago. Today’s World Cup stars, like American Bode Miller and Austrian Hermann Maier, are much taller and heavier. But modest size may not be a disadvantage. Weibrecht, a muscular 185 pounds, is often compared to recently retired U.S. all-events racer Daron Rahlves, who won a world championship, several World Cup events and multiple U.S. championships in 10 years on the ski team.
Panorama, British Columbia, early December: My first NorAm victory. I won both the Super G event and the Super Combined. There wasn’t much time for celebration. We had a race the next day. I finished second in that one.
“Because Andrew developed his skiing at Whiteface, which is a gnarly mountain, he has excellent technique and knows how to control speed,” says Thomas Erhard, former U.S. Ski Team coach who now heads the New York Ski Education Foundation alpine program based at Whiteface. “Most of the other accomplished skiers at his level grew up at more open, flat areas where the emphasis was on seeking speed, not controlling it.”
Lake Placid, Christmas: I had a couple of days off and getting home was a nice, much-needed break from nonstop training and racing. There wasn’t much snow so I didn’t ski much. That gave me time to rest for the next big block of skiing coming up in Europe.
After three months of constant travel and two months more of the same around the corner, a few days away from competition would seem about right to relax. But did he? Not for a minute, says his dad. “He is in the gym two to four hours a day training. Even when we play a family game of poker at home, it is competition. Andrew is brutal. He just wants to win.”
Europe, early January: This is a hard trip because I always have trouble with the time changes. I slept only one hour before my first race in Austria. Somehow I was able to get by on adrenaline and I ended up second. Snow conditions in Europe were not good. Races were cancelled and we had trouble finding places to train. There was a highlight: At LaPlagne, France, I won the second run of a Giant Slalom competition, beating many World Cup racers.
“Andrew is a hard worker and a determined kid,” says Forest Carey, a former U.S. Ski Team coach now working for Bode Miller, who is competing this year independently of the team. “But skiing is a grind for American competitors in Europe all winter. Andrew will find a way to get to the top level as long as he keeps the sport fun.”
Kitzbühel, Austria, late January: Every racer looks forward to Kitzbühel. Many consider this the top event of the year. Because of how I had been skiing up to this point in the season, the coaches granted me a start in the Super G event here. I was excited beyond anything I had felt before. But snow conditions in Europe remained poor and the race was cancelled. I was very disappointed. Because conditions were so bad, I decided to go home for a few days.
With the exception of several days at Christmas, Weibrecht had been training, competing, traveling and waiting every day since September. Now, with some time before his next events, he was home for a break. “I trained every day for six days straight,” he recalls, admitting that his break left him exhausted. The final NorAms were held at Apex, in British Columbia, and at Big Mountain, Montana, and the weather was not good. “The competition came down to the last day,” he wrote. “The top four of us in the final downhill finished within 1/10 of a second. In the end I won the overall combined total, finished second in the Super G and third in the downhill.” During the season, he competed in five ski disciplines and compiled the highest point total ever on the NorAm circuit, automatically earning him starts in the World Cup series this winter.
Road warrior, late February/early March: From our last races in northern Montana, we drove five hours to Spokane; flew to Chicago; then to Munich (all coach—life in the big time!); then drove to our training base in northern Italy; then to races in Austria, then Slovenia; then back to Munich to fly to Norway for a World Cup event. All this in two weeks. My sleep schedule was a mess, often no more than a few minutes a night.
By now, Weibrecht had faced all the top competitors in the world. A young American’s first trip around the “White Circus,” as the World Cup is called, can be daunting. European racers are far bigger stars at home than American racers are in the U.S. “I respect the top competitors,” Weibrecht says. “But I see them as cartoon characters. If I can make fun of them in my own mind, they are no longer intimidating.”
Back to Alaska, mid March: The U.S. Alpine championships came at the end of two months, nonstop on the road. I was worn out from traveling and the long trip from Europe to Alaska was the final straw. My results showed it. Sixth place in the Super G was my best finish. The highlights of the competition for me were a snowmobile tour I took on a glacier and a king crab dinner in Anchorage.
On the men’s team, Weibrecht is the only one enrolled in college. He is a sophomore at Dartmouth College, majoring in engineering. “It is important to me to be in college,” he says. “If things don’t go my way in skiing, I have an option.”
Dartmouth, late March: From Alaska back to Lake Placid, where I spend the night, pick up my bike and drive to Hanover. I have already missed a week of classes in the spring term. I spend the next two weeks in the library trying to do my schoolwork while doing a 180 with my life. My much-needed vacation will have to wait until June.
Phil McNichol, the alpine director for the U.S. Ski Team, watches over the competition group and has a major say in who makes the U.S. Olympic team in 2010. “What he will need to do to reach the highest level is to adapt to the difficult lifestyle of international racing and keep working hard, even at times when the payout is hard to see,” he says. “He’s capable.”
Lake Placid, early June: I’m psyched to start over again. My goal this winter is to be in the top 30 in the world in one discipline. I think moving up to this next level will be really exciting. It’s cool to find myself and realize that I am becoming an individual and no matter what the coaching, it is the athletes that actually make things happen.
By mid-June Weibrecht was back on the road, this time to the glaciers in Oregon. Before the leaves began to turn in Lake Placid, he had also traveled for pre-season training in Chile, again, and in New Zealand. The first World Cup race is in early November.