Ski Faster and Enjoy the Comradery.
True story. As a kid growing up in New Jersey in the 1960s, I was absolutely enamored with ski racing. It was no passing fancy, but a full-on infatuation.
The options to watch world-class racers was pretty much limited to the Olympics, and occasional World Cup events on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. But that didn’t stop me dreaming of one day becoming the next Jean-Claude Killy, after I watched the French superstar sweep all three gold medals in the 1968 Winter Games in Grenoble.
My brothers and I would create slalom courses with kitchen chairs on Mom’s linoleum floor, kick off our shoes, and then “race” through the gates in stocking feet. Our enthusiasm got an added jolt with the World Pro Ski Tour (with Killy and the likes of Hank Kashiwa, Billy Kidd, and the late, great Spider Sabich)
Of course, New Jersey was never a hotbed for ski-racing hopefuls (especially in the 1960s and ’70s), Donna Weinbrecht notwithstanding. Eventually my dream gave way to a budding hockey addiction. But I never gave up the thrill of running the gates. Every time my family headed to the slopes of New England or the Eastern Townships of Quebec, I’d be on the lookout for the hill’s NASTAR course. Once we found it, my siblings and I would duke it out until we got kicked off the course (or ran out of money).
After my clan to moved to New Hampshire in 1974, I quickly learned that ski racing was an integral part of the sport. Contemporaries of mine, like Massachusetts resident Pia (Tofanelli) Anctil, were racing shortly after they got on the boards. Anctil’s folks actually snuck her into a race at Nashoba Valley Ski Area, fibbing about her age.
“Nashoba was my playground,” she said. “I loved the freedom of skiing, the speed, the competition, beating the boys, going as fast as I could possible go.
“The initial attraction expanded when I made the New Hampshire State ski team,” said Anctil. “From there, I went to the University of Utah on a ski scholarship. Now it’s skiing every weekend with the family. We ski with three generations of skiers, from 13 to 81 years old.”
But there’s a big, big difference between simply skiing, and ski racing. And if you want to push yourself, and take your skiing to the next level, there’s no better way to do it than running gates, said Lisa Densmore Ballard, author of “Ski Faster! Guide to Racing and High Performance Skiing.”
“Ski racing has long been my passion and my profession,” said Densmore Ballard, who has four world masters championships and almost 100 national masters titles to her credit. “It gets me outside in the winter with a smile on my face. And there’s nothing more fun than ski racing. How else can you have an entire ski trail to yourself for a run, so you can go as fast as you dare?”
Connecting with your inner Lindsey Vonn or Ted Ligety is easier than you think, and there are no age barriers. The Northeast is home to one of the great all-ages program, the New England Masters Skiing’s Sise Cup, held at more than 20 resorts across the region. There are similar competitions throughout North America. But local, mid-week race series are the real bread-and-butter of masters racing.
More than three decades ago, Anctil was working at Nashoba Valley, a smaller hill about 30 miles west of Boston, as the area’s “director of fun” when she noticed that parents were taking a particular interest in the instruction their junior racers were getting. Anctil encouraged those parents to try a few runs on the slalom course, and discovered that they loved it. Soon afterward, she developed the Adult Team Racing program (ATR), a Monday-night It was fun for me to see adults that were average skiers participate and improve their skiing tremendously over the winter racing league that is still going strong more than 30 years later.
“It was fun for me to see adults who were average skiers participate and improve their skiing tremendously over the winter,” she said.
Ken Nowokunski has been competing in the ATR at Nashoba Valley since the league’s inception. It’s the same ski area where Nowokunski made his first turns, at age 4.
“I love skiing, so I gave racing a try and fell in love with the rush of hitting gates,” said Nowokunski, 55. “Racing really pushes you to challenge yourself, to beat your fastest time, and in doing so improves your skiing ability.”
That’s perhaps the biggest “on hill” benefit of racing. The more you race, the better overall skier you become. That’s because the course dictates where you have to turn, said Densmore Ballard.
Obviously, there are dozens (in not hundreds) of details regarding racing, ranging from technique to tactics and proper gear choice to mental preparation. However, there are some basics to keep in mind as you push off from the start house, said Densmore Ballard:
* Keep your weight on the outside, or downhill, ski.
* Look ahead, at least two gates down the course.
* Keep your hands forward.
Much like any skill, repetition is key. That’s why local race programs, like Nashoba Valley’s ATR, or the Margarita Cup at Snow King in Jackson, Wyoming, are so advantageous. Nashoba employs a handicap point system for each four-person team, and a dual-slalom format where competitors are matched based on previous results.
“First, you have to have a passion for skiing, and being very competitive helps,” said Nowokunski. “The people that race ATR definitely share that common bond.”
Roney Hilliard “Hilly” Ebling, a 65-year-old racer from Massachusetts, agreed.
“Ski racing is attractive to naturally competitive people – outgoing, confident, hard-working, fun-loving people who want to be active outside,” said Ebling. “I never hear any complaints that it’s too cold to ski. ATR is basically ‘beer league’ – folks who love to ski and socialize over cocktails afterwards.”
That social component can’t be ignored. Simply put, there’s more to local ski racing than the competition.
“Initially, as a veteran racer, you’re competitive and want to take the victory,” said Massachusetts’s Cheryl Mitrano, a mother of three. “After competing with one another over the period of six weeks, a friendship develops and after years in the program it’s all about seeing one another year to year and sharing the joy of a common passion.”
That sense of belonging is unmistakable, say racers. Even though the majority of her book “Ski Faster!” focuses on the actual act of flying down the course, Densmore Ballard readily admits that the sport’s greatest rewards are often found after the last race is run.
“Time after time, the number one reason that masters racers state for doing it is the camaraderie, not just the shared experiences on the hill, but also afterward,” said Densmore Ballard. “The same joie de vivre that gets people in the starting gate, carries into all aspects of ski racing. Most events include après-ski gatherings, scheduled and informal, friends and family. I’ve been to races that have three generations from one family competing.
“Part of the enjoyment is also the time with friends, riding the lifts together, skiing together, having dinners together,” she said. “The actual race runs are what get us to the mountain, but it’s the social parts that keeps us coming back for more.”
Mitrano met her husband Mark while competing in the ATR. Massachusetts’s Monica Healey, a 50-year-old mother of five who was once a member of the Boston College ski team, races together with her husband Tom.
“In many ways, Nashoba is an epic combination of an uber competitive environment on hill – mostly created by the mystique of a few former all-star collegiate racers – balanced by a high-energy, light-hearted, supportive and very social group of people who all share a passion for the sport itself and have essentially aged out of ways to participate,” said Healey. “I especially love that this ‘beer league’ is a true ‘team’ sport.”
Photo: Snow King Mountain