Former and current athletes describe what it's like to compete at Deer Valley

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March 20, 1999 was the start of 25 years of Deer Valley Resort being known as the place where the world’s best skiers come together and compete.

The original event, held just three years before the 2002 Olympics, was a moguls national championship event, and the resort did the same the next day for dual moguls, and for men’s and women’s slalom four days later. Travis Cabral, then a high school sophomore, came away with the win on the men’s side, while Ann Battelle, a four-time Olympian who would finish seventh in 2002, won the women’s title.

“In its competitive debut, the venue won praise from athletes and ski team,” a story from The Salt Lake Tribune’s March 21, 1999 edition read.

“In what was the first of many elite-level Olympic warm-up events on Deer Valley’s Champion course, with spectators lining the corral fence and American flags flapping in the weekend wind, competitors gave the course a general thumbs up,” wrote The Park Record.

Deer Valley would become more than just a venue for the 2002 Olympics and the occasional national championship. Since 1999, it has become an iconic freestyle skiing venue and a bucket-list item for countless skiers. Between 20 World Cups and three world championships, it is one of the premier skiing venues in the world.

‘9,999 more dollars than I’d ever won’

A month before Deer Valley welcomed the world for the Olympics, it was where moguls skier Shannon Bahrke Happe clinched her spot for the Games.

Happe participated in an event called the Gold Cup, where a $10,000 prize and an automatic spot in the Olympics were on the line. Happe won the women’s title, giving her a significant confidence builder heading into the Games and a fatter wallet.

“(That) was 9,999 more dollars than I’d ever won, and you were the first person to know and you had a spot nobody could take away from you to the 2002 Olympics,” she recalled. “To this day, that is probably the best memory that I have of skiing because it made my parents so proud. I remember looking over at my dad, and my dad was crying. He said, ‘Oh my gosh, my baby’s going to the Olympics. You did it. That’s so crazy.’”

A month later, she was back on the Champion run competing for the United States at the Olympics. Skiing at the Olympics was a completely different atmosphere. Happe ended up winning a silver medal at Deer Valley.

“I’ll never forget watching all of these people streaming into our venue and being like, ‘Wait, they’re all coming to watch us?’” she said. “We’re not an NFL team or a packed stadium into a basketball arena, this is moguls skiing. And it was just so special to be able to have the world’s biggest event someplace that was so significant to me and share that with my country and the city of Salt Lake and Park City and my family and coaches.”

Happe continued to excel at Deer Valley years after the Olympic torch had been extinguished. She added a bronze medal when the resort hosted the 2003 world championships. Happe also won a World Cup event in 2007 and had a third-place finish in 2010.

Even after a career competing on slopes around the world, there’s just something about Deer Valley that sets it apart for Happe.

“I think what people don’t understand is how much we can hear the crowd from the top,” she said. “If your dad has a certain whistle or can yell really loud, you can hear all that. So that energy and the passion that the spectators make at the bottom, that carries right up the moguls course. It really ignites that fire for all of us. It’s just, like, you get so pumped and you just have that adrenaline coursing through your veins and you see your competitor on the other side. It’s the coolest ever.”

The famous ‘Hurricane’ trick

At the 2002 Olympics, aerials skier Jeret “Speedy” Peterson had a message inscribed on the palms of his gloves. When he put his hands together, it spelled out, “Hi, Emily.”

The recipient of the message was fellow aerials skier Emily Cook, who was in attendance but couldn’t compete after breaking both of her feet shortly after making the Olympic team. Peterson took her place.

Peterson took his own life in 2011, but the two were very close.

“He was definitely one of my very best friends in the world,” Cook said.

Cook was also there when Peterson set the world record with a score of 268.7 at Deer Valley in 2007. Peterson landed his famous “Hurricane” trick, which was a quintuple-twisting triple backflip, on one of his jumps despite heavy snow.

“It was classic Speedy form – it was not the kind of weather that anyone would do a jump like that in,” Cook said. “I remember being in the finish area because the women were done that night – we had already competed that night. I remember him landing the jump and just coming through, like, fists clenched, mouth wide open, just so stoked that he had finally landed the Hurricane. Our coach came flying down the hill and gave him a huge hug.”

Jeret “Speedy” Peterson flies through the air on one of his jumps at the 2002 Olympics.

Park Record file photo

That record is likely to stand for a long time. Peterson’s score was with a two-jump format, which isn’t used anymore.

“That record will never be broken back then I believe,” Cook said. “The format’s totally different now, so that’s his record forever now.”

Hurricane Alley, the tow rope used to access the aerials venue, is named after Peterson. The Speedy Foundation is a non-profit named after him that aims to prevent suicide and end the stigma surrounding mental health. Cook previously served on the board.

“It’s always been really important to us that his legacy be carried on here,” Cook said. “He was a very special person, for sure.”

Cook also had her own success stories at Deer Valley, where she scored third-place finishes in 2001 and 2009. Even though she didn’t end up competing at the Olympics that year, she’ll also never forget when she qualified for the 2002 Games here.

“Putting on that vest and just knowing that I was a part of Team USA was just an overwhelming feeling,” Cook said. “There were fireworks, and it was amazing. It was so cool. … That feeling and that memory of qualifying for my first Olympic Games right here at Deer Valley will never leave me.”

‘It felt like I was at a rock concert’

Like Happe, aerial skier Joe Pack is likely most known for winning a silver medal at Deer Valley at the 2002 Olympics.

Pack, who said he moved to Park City in 1992, said the energy at the Olympics felt “unbelievable.”

“It felt like I was at a rock concert, and I was on stage,” Pack said. “It was cool. I land that jump going down to the bottom – you could feel the cheers going through your body. It was really intense, pretty special.”

“Second run to go at the Olympics, throw your hands up and get the crowd going,” he added. “Once I landed, it was definitely way more than I expected. It was loud, it was exhilarating. It was a cool, cool moment to be able to put a jump down in a competition like that.”

Joe Pack lands a jump at the 2002 Olympics.

Park Record file photo

Counting the Olympics, Pack landed on the podium five times between 2000 and 2006 at Deer Valley. He felt like he had a home-field advantage whenever he competed there, and it showed. It was also a welcoming place for the athletes during Pack’s career.

“There was a couple other spots around the world that were decent, but from an athlete’s standpoint, you’ve obviously got the Utah snow and all the resources and the facilities of Deer Valley,” Pack said. “The accommodations for the athletes were fantastic, plus it was my hometown, so the U.S. Team, we always threw a very hospitable event for the other nations. I know all the other nations loved coming to Deer Valley, and Utah in particular.”

On the technical side, Pack said he liked Deer Valley’s jump site the most. He recalled how White Owl had a smooth transition into the jump instead of a quick one like other places during his career, allowing him to go as big as possible.

“Smooth transition flat and then the jump started, so you could really go big and not have to worry about your balance and stuff,” Pack said. “You could really lock in and take your jumps big because the in-run was just so smooth and transitions were always really good. You could go as big as you like.”

‘A life-changing moment for me’

American moguls skier Hannah Kearney was a 15-year-old high school sophomore in 2002 studying for an algebra midterm when she got an important call. It was from the U.S. Ski Team, asking her if she wanted to be a forerunner, a skier who tests the course before the competition to make sure the track is safe and everything is working properly. For a teenager who hadn’t seen a World Cup before, let alone the Olympics, Kearney couldn’t say no.

“To forerun that course and sharing the venue and be on the venue with the best athletes in the world was certainly a life-changing moment for me,” she said. “So much so that I realized after watching it that I needed to learn a new trick if I was going to take this sport seriously. At that point in time, it was before backflips were allowed, so it was a 360. Went home, had February vacation, learned one and then a month after the 2002 Olympics, I qualified for the U.S. Ski Team by doing well in a competition with this new trick.”

Kearney became a dominant force in the sport soon after, finishing her career with 46 World Cup wins, 71 World Cup podiums, three world titles, an Olympic gold medal in 2010 and four overall World Cup titles.

Between 2004 and 2015, Kearney landed on the podium 17 times at Deer Valley, including seven World Cup wins. Of the countless positive memories she has of competing at Deer Valley, helping the U.S. sweep the podium in 2013 is at the forefront.

“We swept the podium, and that was very fun,” Kearney said. “Not something that happens every day, and as much as it’s an individual sport, it is a very pleasant experience to share the podium with the teammates who have been pushing you, who have trained with you, who are basically your family. In front of an American audience, always makes the U.S. Ski Team look good when we can perform when we’re here.”

A year later, she won again at Deer Valley in what was her 100th World Cup start.

“That just felt special because that’s a big number,” she said. “My dad was there, and I think I won. That one towards the end of my career was a great day.”

Under the lights

Ask any skier at this week’s World Cup what makes competing at Deer Valley so special, and they’ll tell you in four words: skiing under the lights.

“The crowd that comes out at night rivals and, in some cases, tops the Olympic Games as far as spectators,” Kearney said. “Because it’s on American soil, or snow in this case, that makes all the difference of just hearing the crowd cheer for you. It’s one of the few times in our niche sport that you feel like a professional athlete, and it’s one of the coolest feelings.”

But there’s a catch.

“If you don’t make it out of the qualification round, you don’t get that privilege,” Kearney said.

For moguls skiers, the atmosphere plus the difficulty of skiing Champion make it an experience that is set apart compared to other World Cup stops.

“The atmosphere at Deer Valley is unlike any other place,” Happe said. “Competing under the lights is just magical, and the course is one of the most difficult on tour. All of us, we’re competitive. We want to win on the toughest. You know, all of those things kind of come together and make Deer Valley something that you can’t ever replicate.”

There’s also significant buy-in from the community, as the event needs plenty of volunteers to make it happen in the first place.

“I went up to the hill today, and I said hi to a number of volunteers who have literally been there since my first World Cup podium in 2001,” Cook said. “That is a legacy, that is so cool to have the same people up there supporting us every year.”

It’s not just the skiers of old who regale about the prestige and honor of skiing at Deer Valley. Park City moguls skier Nick Page’s first World Cup start at Deer Valley was in 2020, the last “normal” World Cup stop at Deer Valley, and he shared his thoughts on it.

“What we do between the start line and the finish line might be the same, but everything is louder,” Page said. “The people screaming, the thoughts in our head, everything elevates. Which, the stakes are high, that pressure is there and it’s big, but that pressure is also a privilege. Because you’re in that position for a reason. To be able to step into that gate knowing you can capitalize on it is really fun.”

This week is Park City moguls skier Cole McDonald’s second experience skiing at Deer Valley, and it’s his first opportunity to ski under the lights after last year’s competitions were held during the day. Growing up in the area, he knows all too well what the event is like. During Wednesday’s press conference, he recalled how he’s heard people call it, “the Super Bowl of skiing.”

“I think it’s pretty comparable to how an X Games would be for slope skiers, and it’s definitely one of the biggest events of the year,” he said. “Winning a title here, just getting on the podium there is definitely, I think, just as valuable as winning the Olympics, if not more, to me.”

The actual Super Bowl may be another week away, but even after 25 years, no sporting event in Park City is comparable to a night of World Cup skiing at Deer Valley.

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