In just over two months, the world's top cross-country skiers will flock to Minneapolis for a World Cup event.
It's the first time Minneapolis has hosted a World Cup race — and the first one held anywhere in the U.S. since 2001. And to make sure the trails are in top shape, organizers are working now to stockpile snow. Lots and lots of snow.
“It’d be one thing if the event was like mid-February; you’d kind of know it wasn’t going to get that warm," said John Munger, executive director of the Loppet Foundation that's hosting the event. "But mid-March — it could get pretty warm, so we’re making a lot of snow to prepare for that.”
Munger spoke Sunday at the Trailhead facility in Theodore Wirth Park, where the World Cup races will be held March 17, capping four days of festivities and winter activities.
Some Minnesota skiers already have tickets and have been looking forward to the World Cup for more than a year. Others are just finding out that world-class athletes will be flying down trails at Wirth Park, just a few minutes from downtown Minneapolis.
“There’s a lot of great stuff happening in Minneapolis, and I think it’s about time that more of it is outdoor stuff," said Sheila Williams Ridge, who was out skiing Sunday with Sarina Long. Both were enjoying the time outdoors after being cooped up inside over the holidays.
Williams Ridge said she also likes events such as Hockey Day Minnesota.
“I think as much as we can do to get people outside during the winter and loving it, is amazing," she said.
Ray Aponte is another proponent of getting people outside and active. The former Minneapolis South High School principal has a special focus on getting kids of color outdoors during the winter, as the director of adventure programming for the Loppet Foundation.
His title is new, but Aponte has been a cross-country skier for years now.
“As you can see, there's really not that many Latino folks or African-American folks or East African folks out here," he said. "So I want to see more brown and black kids out here skiing. That’s my sole focus right now."
Aponte said he hopes that seeing elite skiers from around the world will show local kids that anything is possible. His dream is that in 15 years, a kid from north Minneapolis will be on the U.S. ski team.
Winona resident Kelly Skillicorn was on that team for five years back in the late 1980s and early '90s. She’s a school counselor now, but she and her husband, Brad, help out with high school and youth skiing programs. They were out on the Wirth Park trails Sunday and said they bought World Cup tickets as soon as they were available.
"I’m excited about seeing all the other athletes from all the other nations and actually seeing them in person and watching them race in real-live time, instead of seeing it on TV or on the internet," Kelly Skillicorn said.
The Skillicorns are planning to bring some youth skiers to watch the World Cup races.
Inspired by gold medal
Hosting a World Cup event is an idea that organizers had kicked around before, but the idea moved much closer to reality with the success of Minnesota skier Jessie Diggins and her American teammate Kikkan Randall at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.
“And when they won the gold medal, we all kind of said, 'OK, now’s the time.' But Jessie has been just so tremendous in helping open doors to corporate sponsors. Without her, I don’t know if you could really make it happen.”
The World Cup event was announced in September 2018. Since then, Loppet Foundation staff and volunteers have been working to turn the dream into reality.
The trails at Wirth Park draw skiers of all ages and abilities. But Munger said some changes were required to host World Cup athletes.
“These trails are challenging for you and I and for ordinary mortals, right? But they’re not nearly challenging enough for the world-class (athletes),” he said.
Instead of putting some distance between challenging hills, they’ll try to pack a lot of action into a short course for the World Cup sprint races.
“When you think of sprints in track, say it’s 100 meters, 200 meters, right? Well, these are 1,500 meters to 1,700 meters with really significant hills, so it will take three to four minutes for them to complete their ‘sprint.’ "
Among the work left to be done: organizers have to set up cabins where each team can wax their skis; make sure those cabins have power; get cables laid down along the course to accommodate 15 TV cameras; and make sure all of the athletes have lodging and transportation to and from the course.
Because there isn’t much parking on-site, transporting the athletes and the estimated 15,000 to 20,000 fans back and forth is Munger’s biggest concern. But he's confident that they have a good plan in place.
“We put on a lot of ski races; we’re putting one on this morning," he said. "And a ski race ... you know you have to have snow and you have to get people going the right direction, but otherwise we know how to do those things pretty well."