It was beautiful but frigid atop Sugarloaf Mountain on an early December morning and the fir trees that marched down the slopes were white under a fresh frosting of snow. The conditions were picture-perfect for Colby Alpine skier Paul Ferri ’24 to take a practice slalom run.
Make that, lots of practice runs.
After Ferri cruised to a graceful stop at the foot of Competition Hill, where Alpine racers at Sugarloaf train and compete, he shared a quick word and smile with Colby’s Head Alpine Ski Coach Eric Harlow. Then he briskly skied over to the new, high-speed T-bar lift that brought him back up to the top of the run to try it again.
The new lift—which takes just two minutes and 15 seconds to bring skiers 380 feet up the mountain—is a major component of the Podium Project, a long-dreamed-of plan to build one of the country’s best ski and snowboard training venues at Sugarloaf.
Before the lift came online in November 2022, the College’s Alpine ski team members had to go all the way down the mountain, wait in the lift line, and then ride the scenic, but chilly, lift all the way to the top. All that took time, and over the course of a half-day training session, Ferri might have completed just five runs. Now, everything has changed—for the better.
“It’s a complete game changer,” said Ferri, an economics major from Killington, Vt. “I can take as many runs as I can possibly imagine and still be back for class. It’s a huge help. It just saves so much time.”
‘We’ve flipped the script’
In the world of ski racing, the time athletes spend on the snow is everything.
“The more you do anything, the better you get at it,” Harlow said.
But oftentimes the amount of time a skier can train is curtailed by outside factors, beginning with the hour-and-a-half commute to Sugarloaf from Colby and the extended chair-lift journey to get to the top of the training hill. For the nine women and 13 men on the Colby Alpine ski teams, those factors add up.
“You’re at the mercy of the mountain’s infrastructure,” the coach said. “With this T-bar, for at least one event, we’ve flipped the script. The coaches and athletes are in control. That’s rare.”
That’s exactly what the Podium Project was designed to do. Partners in the project include Colby, Sugarloaf, the University of Maine at Farmington, and Carrabassett Valley Academy, a private school that offers competitive ski and snowboard training for students in grades 7-12 and post-graduates.
Partners raised $1.6 million to improve training infrastructure at Sugarloaf by building the high-speed T-bar, widening Competition Hill to accommodate more training space, and adding state-of-the-art snowmaking equipment, something that’s especially important given the unpredictability of early-season snow conditions. They’ve also renamed it the Beth Kubik Training Venue, in honor of Beth Kubik ’90, an alpine skier and clinical psychologist who died in 2022.
Skiers, coaches, and others have been dreaming about making these improvements for a long time, according to Kirk Dwyer, the Alpine program director at Carrabassett Valley Academy.
“The idea’s been out there since the 1970s,” he said. “People wanted to have this kind of environment, which I characterize as a hotbed, where everyone’s in close proximity. You get a lot of repetition, you can have quality, and you can get a lot accomplished in a short period of time.”
Fixing the gap
Dwyer, a Maine native who had spent decades coaching skiers in Vermont and Colorado, moved home a few years ago to finish up his coaching career and helped move the project forward.
“Sugarloaf is arguably the best ski-racing mountain in the East, but the real gap was the lack of ability to get a lot of repetition,” he said.
He longed to fix the gap and called Harlow to see if other area coaches might share his idea to improve the training infrastructure.
Now, lots of student ski athletes are benefiting from having much more time on the snow. On that chilly morning, the Colby contingent was joined by skiers from Carrabassett Valley Academy and the University of Maine at Farmington. They all zipped to the top of Competition Hill and then waited their turn to slalom down, their runs timed by machinery and watched by their coaches. In the distance, rows of wild, white-frosted mountain peaks rippled towards the horizon.
“You can get more training done here than you can virtually anywhere else in the United States,” Dwyer said. “Every day I’m out here, I’m happy. It’s exciting to see this activity. This is the realization of the vision that we all had.
‘The stars are aligning’
Mike Wisecup, vice president and Harold Alfond Director of Athletics, said that the College is proud to be a partner in the Podium Project.
There’s a strong tradition of Alpine skiing at Colby, where athletes compete at the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I level. In the last three seasons, the College’s team ranked in the top 15 nationally. The 2023-2024 Alpine season is about to begin, with upcoming races scheduled with the University of Vermont, Harvard University, and Dartmouth College, among others. Skiers will race at Sugarloaf in mid-January.
“It has already significantly increased the quality and quantity of training our student athletes have at Sugarloaf,” Wisecup said. “I know the future is brighter for our Alpine ski team now.”
That sounds good to Colby skiers like Ferri and Patrick Coughlin ’25, an economics major from East Burke, Vt., who was also training on Competition Hill.
“I’m really excited for the year. I think we have a great team,” Coughlin said.
To him, the infrastructure improvements are essential and are making it easier to balance being a student and an athlete.
“The decision to either come up to the hill or stay back and make sure you’re ready for class, get on top of your schoolwork, can be a tough decision,” he said. “Having the T-bar, and knowing that if you come up here you’re going to get a lot of runs in and it’s going to be worthwhile, is making a big difference.”
For Harlow, too, the improvements are part of a positive trend for the Alpine skiing program at the College. He is working toward a goal that is as ambitious as it is simple: to build a program where student athletes achieve U.S. Ski Team criteria.
“I want to build a great program with great kids and help them get faster,” he said. “The stars are starting to align for us. The T-bar, and being able to build a program that allows us to train a lot, slalom a lot, that helps. The athletes make it really special. High character, humble, really hard working. And every year, we get a little bit better.”