Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Volunteering for the World Cup at Whistler

My employer, Oracle, has a great program called "Oracle Volunteers" to encourage employees to volunteer time in their communities. With this inspiration in mind, my wife and I decided to volunteer to work for the Whistler Weasel Workers (named after the most technical and steep piece of the men's downhill course known as "The Weasel") and the Whistler Alpine Volunteers to help put on the Telus World Cup and the Pontiac GMC Canadian Championship.

While I was too late to get the paper work in to Oracle for this year to make our participation part of the official Oracle volunteer program (my own fault), Wendy and I were still inspired enough to go ahead and use some of our personal vacation to support the World Cup Alpine Events at Whistler this year. Wendy contributed 3 weeks of her time (working both events), while I participated for a week and a half (working the Telus World Cup) from Feb 6 to Feb 25.

Why volunteer for events like this? Well these events require huge amounts of resources, and in particular this year required approximately 900 volunteers to put on 2 championships: the Pontiac GMC Canadian Championship and the Telus World Cup Whistler on 2 separate race courses - one for men and one for women (a first for Whistler). It not only takes a lot of money, it takes a lot of dedicated volunteers who are enthusiastic about skiing and care deeply about Canada's Alpine sports. If it weren't for volunteers, Canada wouldn't be hosting world-class ski events or the Olympics. Many of the parents, such as Andree Janyk (mother of Britt Janyk), of Canadian athletes volunteer in these organizations to promote the sport and contribute to keeping costs down.

I was assigned to the training and warm-up crew, lead by Dave Oser, who instructed us on how to build a course suitable for athletes to practice and warm-up. We were a small crew of about 6 individuals: Maki, Petra, Susan, Susie-Q, Wendy (another Wendy, not my Wendy my spouse) and myself. We got to do just about everything it takes to build a race course and work with all of the athletes in the competition. The picture to the right shows many of our crew and our neighboring crew on the Dave Murray run.

On my first day, Friday Feb 15, mother nature gave us our first big challenge - 25cm of snow! The picture to the right, shows my wife, Wendy directing the public in the middle of the storm. For those who do not know...snow is a big problem. In order to build a competitive course, we want to create hard, icey track surface. Snow acts as an insulating blanket, softening the track. Great for us normal skiers, not so great for the athletes!

As course-crew, our biggest job was installing many kilometers of safety nets to protect the racers and the public. Some of these nets (a-nets - shown in the background left) where like big vertical trampolines that allow racers to bounce of the net to avoid major rocks or trees at high-speed. Rumor has it that famed us skier Bode Miller has actually skied off one - leaving melted net on the bottom of his skis! The other type of netting is known as B-nets (shown in the foreground), is often applied 2 to 4 layers deep and is designed to break away and ensnare fallen racers in the net bringing them to a safe stop.

Our crew was also lucky enough to be called in to do special jobs on the men's course such as installing start platforms (Men's Super G start shown left), installing air-bags to protect camera and photographers, and even installing the pins (flags) for the second round of the Men's GS race!

On one day part of my crew stayed late into the night on the mountain top working with other teams with fire hoses spray huge volumes of water into the snow to build a foundation for the race course. As one veteran described the situation: "our job is to create 2 of the world's tallest skating rinks - the racers want a fast course and they want it to last throughout the race!" Ahh - so this is why we have to use so much water!

A couple days later we got up at 4AM to upload at 4:45 in the morning to "slip" the race course to scrape off any fresh accumulation of snow in the night. "Slipping" a race course means skiing sideways at down the race course to scrape or brush away accumulation of snow and debris. The morning I did this, 75 people slid down the course together with just headlamps to guide their way. Let's just say this not something I normally get to do!

While "slipping" a race course in total darkness was certainly exciting. I have to say my personal highlight of the week occurred the morning after working with the fire hoses. On the previous night we had waited while temperature dropped and the snow cats used their tracks to literally destroy the course, churning up the snow, and opening the surface up to receive water. We walked through the rough surface of the snow in teams carrying 4 fire hoses down the Dave Murray course slowly spraying water into the snow. When we were done, the snow-cats returned to churn the snow again and the process was repeated with another shift of volunteers past midnight. When we returned the next morning, the snow-cats had closed the surface over by using their groomers. What a cool sensation to see how much harder the snow was compared to the surrounding untreated areas. This hard, wet work, actually does make a difference!

What impressed me the most, was the sense of community around the mountain. Even the FIS race officials were extremely helpful and complementary to our efforts. I was quite surprised when these senior international officials took the time to introduce themselves, even to first-time workers such as myself helped us do the best job possible. In particular, I have to say I am awestruck by Owen Carney (shown left), Alpine Chairman for the Weasel Workers. Owen had a unique leadership ability to get us all motivated doing some of the most grueling tasks and feel good about it. Owen also had the canny ability to sense problems arising on the courses and was often there in person to ensure corrections were made to keep our efforts on track. On the men's track side, John Benbow, Ron Hunter, and Bob Miller were the generals that co-ordinated the dozens of teams on the mountain and kept us busy. These guys, all very successful business people in their own business lives, proved to be some of the most amazing leaders I have come across. Keeping hundreds of people working together smoothly in such an intense effort is an impressive leadership accomplishment! Even on some of our most hectic days, these guys were willing to listen, provide practical direction, and even crack a joke or two to keep spirits up!

In the end, the event was highly successful. One of the FIS race officials was quoted as saying this is the first time he's seen a venue ready for the Olympics 2 years ahead of schedule! Not only did I come away learning a lot about the sport of skiing, but I also found myself learning a lot about management and what it takes to pull off such a huge logistical event. This was one of the hardest work weeks I have ever had. And, I have to say with hard work, comes an incredible sense of achievement! My complements to the Whistler Alpine Volunteers, the Weasel Workers, the Sled Dogs, and all the other volunteer organizations around North America and the world that came together to pull this off!

I would also like to thank the members of the Canadian Alpine Ski Team and other international teams who took time out to thank our crew personally for our efforts. I know it is impossible to thank everyone directly, so hopefully this blog post helps to pass on your thanks - it was well appreciated by the volunteers!

For more pictures (taken by myself and Wendy), check out the following links:
- Telus World Cup
- Pontiac GMC Canadian Nationals

Other pictures:
- Whistler Alpine Volunteers Photos

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