New England’s Fountain of Youth for Racers
All good things must come to an end, right? When legendary Olympian Lindsey Vonn finally called it quits on her World Cup racing career this month, few could blame her. The 34-year-old superstar had reached the pinnacle of her sport as the women’s all-time leader in World Cup victories with 82 wins, but her knees simply couldn’t take the constant pounding anymore. So on Feb. 1, Vonn said “enough.”
“It’s been an emotional two weeks making the hardest decision of my life, but I have accepted that I cannot continue ski racing,” Vonn wrote on Instagram. “I will compete at the World Championships in Downhill and [super-G] next week in Are, Sweden and they will be the final races of my career.
“My body is broken beyond repair and it isn’t letting me have the final season I dreamed of,” she wrote. “My body is screaming at me to STOP and it’s time for me to listen.”
Stacey Weston of Massachusetts can appreciate Vonn’s predicament. The 62-year-old scientist has “had two spinal fusion surgeries, 11 years apart, one successful hip replacement (in 2012), and a variety of other medical issues over the years that have curtailed my racing periodically.”
However, unlike Vonn, Weston has no plans to hang up her skis and race suits. She is defying the adage that “all good things must come to an end.” The lure of carving turns through the gates, as fast as possible, is simply too strong.
“You can’t just quit the sport – it gets in your blood and your soul,” said Weston. “It makes me happy.”
Of course, Weston isn’t racing the World Cup circuit. But the circuit she does race – the New England Masters Series (also known as the Sise Cup) – reflects the competitive core of the sport, attracting racers young and old, neophytes and veterans, men and women alike, to courses throughout the Northeast. And she’s got plenty of company, as the New England Division is the largest Masters racing circuit within its parent organization, US Ski and Snowboard, and in the country. David Strang is a perfect example.
“I began ski racing late in life, in 1980, at age 21,” said Strang, an emergency room physician from New Hampshire. “I got into it at the urging of my best friend in high school. I was attracted by the speed and the challenge of competition. It was also a sport that I had to work at to improve, as initially I wasn’t that good, and I enjoyed that challenge.
“I started racing Masters in 1990, after finishing my medical residency,” said Strang, now 60. “The year before that, in 1989, I was in Lake Louise for a ski vacation and happened to be there at the same time the World Cup women were there to race downhill. I met some of the athletes in the lodge and went over to watch the race. I remember thinking, ‘Damn, I really miss doing this.’ The next year, I was racing Masters.”
Strang, like Weston, has had his share of injuries and subsequent surgeries, including a hip resurfacing and a total knee replacement.
“Many of my friends have prosthetic joints too,” said Strang, before adding with a laugh, “I’ve joked we should start a Prosthetic Cup within Masters and have a handicap system like NASTAR, where you lower your time based on the number of joint repairs or replacements that you have.
“I’ve scheduled my surgeries around my race season in order to be back in the saddle the next season,” he said. “I was back on snow just four months after my knee replacement that I had this summer, so absolutely there is a real ‘pull’ of the sport.
“When you’ve becomes a ski racer, you’ve reached the epitome of the sport, the top of the ladder. You’ve typically refined your technique to such a degree that you can now race. But, if you want to stay on top, to keep winning, you’ve got to train and keep in shape.”
The draw that Strang and Weston have discovered is echoed by most Masters Racers, regardless of age or experience. Vermont’s Nadine Price, 63, said “I’ve been racing for about 23 years, with time off here and there to recover from various ski racing-related injuries. I wanted to ski race my whole life, from the first time I saw it on TV. I just didn’t know how to go about it.”
“My parents were lucky I didn’t know about ski academies,” said Price, a lawyer who has suffered several broken bones while racing. “I first tried Masters racing when a ski buddy of mine was racing and said ‘You really should try this.’ I was immediately hooked. Initially it was the adrenaline rush, going as fast I could with no one in the way.”
Others, like Matt Dodge, a 30-year-old financial planner from New Hampshire, have been racing from the time they stepped foot in elementary school.
“I’ve been ski racing since I was 7 years old,” said Dodge. “I started by skiing and racing with the Gunstock Ski Club on weekends as a kid. I then raced competitively in high school and college, even taking a year off before going to college to focus on the sport.
“As a kid, I loved the freedom of skiing all over the mountain,” he said. “It was the first place I could truly explore on my own. When I finished exploring the mountain, I then wanted to improve as a skier, and found the local racing club.”
The New England Masters Series, which is sponsored by Kulkea, allows racers like Dodge to keep chasing their racing muse even after their scholastic careers have ended. With slalom and giant slalom races in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts, the series also provides the added spice of a variety of host resorts and race hills. There are large areas, like Stratton in Vermont or Waterville Velley in New Hampshire, and smaller venues, like Shawnee Peak in Maine or Wachusett in Massachusetts.
“What I think is unique is the beauty and the diversity of the locations of where our sport takes place,” said Dodge. “The brisk cold can make you feel alive, and the beautiful views from the summits of the various mountains can inspire awe.
“I think it’s a unique feeling in sports to stand in the starting gate, knowing you’re about to engage in adrenaline-filled competition within mere seconds, and you look down the course to see the expansive snow in front of you,” he said. “You look further, and you see rolling hills in the distance.”
But there is more to racing than dazzling scenery and speed’s white-knuckle rush. To a person, Masters Racers rave about the special bond that forms among participants, a bond that goes beyond ability level and seamlessly crosses generations.
“Skiers are a fun group to hang out with,” said Noreen Knortz, 57, a university advisor from Connecticut who races with her husband and children. “I started racing masters when our children were out of college and we had time to get to some races together.
“The social aspect is what it is all about for me,” said Knortz. “Any day that we have our family of five racing together is a great day.”
Likewise, Mark George, a 64-year-old dentist from Vermont, said “my greatest accomplishment as a master’s ski racer was in having a daughter who continued her passion for ski racing beyond college and joined me in the master’s division a few years ago. To be able to race with her, and later on my son in-law as well, was and will forever be the most fun I have ever had in skiing.”
Strang refers to his racing compatriots at his “winter family.” And like any family, the competition can run hot, while the camaraderie provides an undeniable warmth.
“Ski racing teaches you humility and respect,” said Strang. “You may beat one of your friends one weekend and then get crushed by them the next. You have to learn how to both give and receive praise with equal sincerity and genuine respect.”
At the end of each competition, or during the awards ceremonies, you can expect to find dozens of competitors gathering at the base lodge (or even the occasional tailgate), sharing sandwiches, secrets, stories and, more often than not, smiles.
“One thing that has become very clear to me since I started racing Masters about five years ago is the diversity of experience each racer brings to the group,” said Dodge. “Some of us are former Division 1 college ski racers who have trained in this sport since a young age. Others found the sport late, and are just now exploring it in retirement.
“However, we all come into the race with unique goals and have the ability to reach them on any given day,” he said. “Although we all ski the same course, we are all running our individual race in some ways. It allows for any one of us to be a winner on any given day.”
Just like Lindsey Vonn.
For more information on New England Masters Series, visit nemasters.org.