Photo: René-Pierre Normandeau/Tremblant

Avantage Sur Le Terrain

by Cara Williams, photography by Peter Craik and René-Pierre Normandeau/Tremblant

Mont Tremblant’s first FIS World Cup in 40 years drew spectacular crowds, marking a triumphant return to alpine ski racing glory. 

It was March 1983 when Mont Tremblant, Quebec, hosted its inaugural, and until recently, its only FIS World Cup ski race. Inglewood Ontario’s Laurie Graham won the event, making her the first Canadian to ever win a World Cup downhill at home. Graham would go down in history as one of Canada’s best-ever downhill racers, and an unstoppable force on the World Cup for nearly a decade. 

Today, with its breathtaking slopes and a history deeply intertwined with ski racing, Tremblant proudly stands as a symbol of Canada’s passion for the sport. Earlier this season, the Laurentians ski resort, located 130 kilometres northwest of Montreal, made history again by hosting its first World Cup event in four decades. Featuring two women’s giant slalom races, the event marked a significant shift, with Tremblant replacing Lake Louise, AB, as the sole Canadian stop on the World Cup circuit. Notably, what sets this event apart from other races on the calendar is that the race finish is right in the heart of the pedestrian village. 

The races showcased the biggest stars of alpine skiing, including American Mikaela Shiffrin, Swiss Lara Gut-Behrami, Slovakian Petra Vlhova and Italian Federica Brignone. While spectators were captivated by their presence, many eyes were fixed on Canadian Valérie Grenier, of St. Isidore, Ontario. Following her World Cup win last January in Kranjska Gora, Slovenia, Valérie shared that racing “at home in Tremblant” was a dream come true. “The crowd is going to be so good,” she said ahead of the event. “It’s going to be so bumping because [the race] is right in the village.” 

The races took place on Dec. 2-3, 2023—the weekend following the popular Killington World Cup in Vermont. The two resorts are just under five hours apart, giving North American ski racing fans the opportunity to travel from one World Cup event to the next, much like the Europeans do. And with close proximity to dozens of eastern Canadian race clubs, the region already has a large and enthusiastic fan base. 

Canada’s Britt Richardson gets ready to push out of the start gate.
Photo: René-Pierre Normandeau/Tremblant

Valérie Grenier signs autographs for ski racing fans.
Photo: René-Pierre Normandeau/Tremblant

Like many Ontarians, I couldn’t resist the chance to see elite athletes compete against Mont Tremblant’s stunning backdrop. My husband and I took the kids out of school and embarked on an eight-hour drive to the Laurentian mountains. We enjoyed prime viewing, positioned near the action as athletes exited the venue right in front of us. It offered a fantastic view of the finish area and displays, creating a party-like vibe filled with incredible energy from the announcers, crowd, coaches and racers. 

Laurent Praz, Head Coach of the Canadian Women’s Alpine, publicly emphasized the significance of athletes competing in front of large crowds to foster the sport’s growth in the country. Last spring, the Canadian team had the opportunity to train on the Flying Mile race venue—a valuable advantage as the athletes were able to ski the terrain and study the critical parts of the hill. 

Sarah Bennett of Stoneham, QC, has skied at Mont Tremblant every year since she was 12. The 22-year-old says she’s never seen a competition set up quite like it in her young career. “To compare it to something, I would say it’s kind of like Monaco for F1 racing. People are going to be in their condos just watching the race even if they didn’t even have to buy tickets.” 

Canada’s Cassidy Gray comes over the final knoll.
Photo: René-Pierre Normandeau/Tremblant

Valérie Grenier with a 6th place finsh, December 3, 2023.
Photo: René-Pierre Normandeau/Tremblant

She wasn’t wrong. By all accounts, the new location made a strong first impression. I heard rumours of one Escarpment family who left their home at 2 am, driving through the night to ensure they arrived in time for Saturday’s first run. In total, the races drew in more than 15,000 spectators, marking it as the second-largest attendance for a women’s World Cup event, trailing only behind Killington, VT, which can see crowds up to 40,000 over the course of the three-day event.

Canadian Ski Hall of Famer, and Georgian Peaks member Edi Podivinsky travelled with his wife Kim and several friends to Tremblant for the event. With a remarkable 13-year tenure on the Canadian Alpine Ski Team, Edi won a World Cup downhill in Saalbach, Austria—he’s also a three-time Olympian, clinching a bronze medal at the 1994 Olympic Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway. “It’s so important for the kids that are around the sport to have some reference for what they are aspiring to,” said Edi. “I remember going to a World Cup race in Lake Louise—I remember some of the World Cup races that we used to have in Canada, like Whistler. It absolutely puts you on the path to seeing what’s possible, seeing how much fun it is and seeing what a celebration and festive event it is. And I think it draws more people to the sport.”

Throughout the weekend I encountered several other familiar faces, including Hayden Copp from Craigleith Ski Club, who was proudly wearing his Ontario Development Ski Team jacket in the grandstands. “Its super cool that Mont Tremblant is hosting a World Cup,” said Copp. “I’ve raced here before at U16 Nationals so to see athletes on the World Cup, elite skiers here, it’s just super cool.” 

Over 60 athletes from around the globe raced down the Flying Mile race venue—in addition to Grenier and Bennett, Cassidy Gray of Panorama, BC, and Britt Richardson of Canmore, AB, rounded out the Canadian national team competitors, while Justine Clément of Stoneham, QC, and Justine Lamontagne of Mont Sainte-Anne, QC, both got their first World Cup starts of their careers. For these women, participating in a World Cup event on their home turf was a new experience, drawing a level of attention they weren’t entirely accustomed to.

“The energy is really great, also a little bit chaotic,” said Bennett. “The media is super interested, everyone wants to see us, families coming so everyone’s trying to have a little bit of our time.” Richardson added, “There’s definitely a lot more eyes of us instead of a typical race over in Europe where people don’t normally realize we exist.”

The huge anticipated crowd that gathered in Tremblant for both Saturday and Sunday races provided the energy every World Cup host hopes for. Michaela Shiffrin, who earned a record-extending 90th World Cup win the weekend before in Killington, was impressed by how supportive the Tremblant fans were to athletes of all countries throughout the weekend. “I would say that it’s a really fair crowd, cheering for everybody coming down on the green light,” she said. “When you can hear the crowd from the start, you’re like, ‘well, there’s people down there and they’re really excited.’ It’s amazing to have these races here on this side of the world. Everybody is really excited to be here and it gives a little bit of a fresh vibe into the World Cup circuit.” 

Retired Canadian skier Kelly VanderBeek, hailing from Kitchener and currently working for the CBC, also found the event’s significance noteworthy. She noted, “The youth that are here have absolutely invigorated the athletes. A new stop on the circuit is really fun—it’s a fun vibe, a fresh vibe. And there is such a dedicated community here.” 

The Flying Mile run features a long flat with built-up terrain and rollers; any mistake entering or on the flat was severely punished with lost time. After the first fifteen women skied their first runs, the time spread was significant (+2.61) between the 13 finishers. By the time the first 30 had skied the time differential had grown to (+4.18) for the 28 finishers. 

Although she encountered some difficultly on the course, Valérie Grenier was the fastest Canadian with an eighth-place finish on Saturday. “I had trouble skiing how I wanted to, so I’m a little disappointed,” she said. “But the crowd was amazing, I could hear them from the very start.” She would go onto improve her performance on Sunday, finishing sixth.  

Britt Richardson achieved a career-best 15th place in the first race. “To have a personal best right here in Canada was just insane,” she said. “It was just like a dream come true to have your best day right in Canada and have my friends and family here.” 

Cassidy Gray, secured 24th place in both races, marking her first time placing within the top 30 on the World Cup stage since March 2021. Justine Clément and Justine Lamontagne fell a little short, missing the top 30 cuts for the next rounds. Unfortunately, Sarah Bennett didn’t finish either of her first runs. 

Italian skier Federica Brignone emerged as the standout winner of the weekend, claiming back-to-back gold medals ahead of Petra Vlhova, who secured second place on Saturday. On Sunday, Lara Gut-Behrami clinched second place, while Mikaela Shiffrin secured third position in both races. 

With her win, the 33-year-old Italian broke a 24-year-old record as the most senior women’s World Cup giant slalom winner, surpassing Austria’s Anita Wachter, who was 32 when she won a World Cup giant slalom in December 1999. “I’m the oldest, right?” Brignone laughed. “I’d never won in Canada, I’d never made the podium in Canada. It’s a new course, a new place, there’s a lot of people. I’ve won a lot in my career; every additional victory is something special. The atmosphere is really amazing.” 

On their first attempt in 40 years, Tremblant delivered a dramatic and extremely well-executed World Cup race. “We talk a lot about producing events that excite Canadians and this is exactly what that looks like,” said Therese Brisson, President and CEO of Alpine Canada. “An event that grows the sport and fanbase—an event that delivers an amazing experience for athletes and fans. It leaves an amazing legacy in terms of volunteers, equipment, and revenue that can be reinvested back in the sport development. Of course, the home team advantage doesn’t hurt either.” 

Federica Brignone, center, celebrates her win at the women’s FIS Worlf Cup giant slalom Dec. 2, 2023. Petra Vlhova, left, and Mikaela Shiffrin, right, placed second and third, respectively. Photo: René-Pierre Normandeau/Tremblant

Undoubtedly Tremblant’s greatest asset is their committed volunteers who help organize and run events like the World Cup. I ran into one such person in the finish area and noticed the Blue Mountain Resort logo on his ski pants—originally from Wasaga Beach, Steve Dunphy spent more than 27 years at Blue Mountain Ski School before moving to Mont Tremblant last season. Steve was tasked with assisting the television camera crews throughout the weekend. 

Volunteering for the Tremblant World Cup offered an opportunity to contribute to an unforgettable experience. With 300 volunteers, being part of this event meant more than just giving time; it meant creating priceless memories at the heart of the action. Volunteers enjoyed exclusive benefits, including a ski valet service for storing skis between shifts, and provided meals so the staff could stay energized. Volunteers also had prime seats for the Saturday night medal ceremony and bib draw, experiencing the magic of the event up close. Additionally, volunteers were invited to an epic closing party with fellow volunteers and organizing committee members—and from what I hear, it was the perfect way to celebrate their essential contribution. 

In the inaugural year of a three-year pledge, the event was estimated to have created an annual economic impact of $14.3 million, directing $12 million into Quebec’s economy and contributing $4.5 million in wages for Quebec residents. Alpine Canada revealed plans for two more giant slalom races scheduled for Dec. 6-8, 2024. While Tremblant is listed on the FIS long-term calendar for the 2025-26 season, confirmation for this remains pending until next year. “Who wouldn’t be happy about this?” said Brisson. “Yeah, we’d love to make this a permanent venue for years and years to come.” E