BEAVER CREEK, Colorado (Reuters) - New Zealand boasts some of the most spectacular alpine scenery in the world but a relatively short skiing season has made it "tough" for racers from that country to make an impact at the top level.
Best known for its often dominant All Black rugby union team, the Land of the Long White Cloud is fiercely proud of its athletes who have made a habit of punching well above their weight but role models in alpine skiing are few and far between.
Only five World Cup races have been won by New Zealanders, all of them clinched by women in the slalom, and the country's sole medal at the Winter Olympics was the slalom silver earned by Annelise Coberger at the 1992 Albertville Games.
"It is tough for us," New Zealand's giant slalom champion Willis Feasey told Reuters at Beaver Creek where he is competing in his first alpine ski world championships.
"We have some of the best skiing in the world, it's just that the seasons there are so short that you have to hit it right.
"For training especially, you need a lot of mileage and we don't really get that so much in New Zealand. But what we do get is some of the best skiing facilities anywhere."
Forced to look elsewhere out of season, Feasey spends up to six months each year training and competing overseas.
"I am based in Austria, in Leogang, for the season but we also come over to Copper Mountain here in Colorado for November and December when the rest of the countries don't have as much snow," he said.
"Back in New Zealand, the ski fields are open from June 6, at the earliest, and then they close by the start of October. That's at best. If you want gates in the ground, it gets even shorter."
Despite all the challenges facing New Zealanders trying to break into ski racing at the elite level, Feasey is trying to be as optimistic as possible.
"It is difficult for us but I think it's doable," he said.
Given the shortage of alpine ski role models in New Zealand, Feasey has turned to European racers for his own inspiration.
"I've always looked up to Didier Cuche because he is a similar sort of build to me," Feasey said of the veteran Swiss skier who was Super-G world champion at Val-d'Isere in 2009. "He was so humble and just an amazing skier.
"And I've seen Annelise Coberger's silver medal from the Winter Olympics, that was very cool," he grinned.
Honored as the 'breakthrough' racer of the year at the 2014 Snow Sports NZ Annual Awards, Feasey has loved every minute of the world championships at Beaver Creek, though he was a little apprehensive when he first saw the daunting Birds of Prey piste.
"My first taste of it was in training and that was pretty tough," he smiled.
"It was really a kind of an awakening, and it was good that I managed to step it up for the race days. The Birds of Prey is definitely the hardest downhill I've ever done."
Feasey did not finish the opening men's event at Beaver Creek, the Super-G, but went on to place a creditable 40th in the blue riband downhill and 37th in the super combined.
"I was really hoping to get a top-35 finish so I was almost there but not quite," he said of his expectations coming into the world championships. "And I'm always happy to make it down!"
Editing by Frank Pingue