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Gates of Glory

Gates of Glory

Can a lifelong skidder take a crash course in carving, then crush the competition on the masters racing circuit? Of course not. But the suits are cute.
By Tracy Ross
posted: 02/12/2014
Masters ski racers at Mt. Hood
Masters Racers
Photo by: Christopher D Thompson

The most ravishing beauty at the Summer Fun Nationals ski race is a 43-year-old looker named Kat, who used to skate in the Ice Capades. 

In a close second behind Kat are Jill and Jane, best friends since youth, both resplendent in hot-pink speed suits.

It’s early on a July morning at Oregon’s Mt. Hood, and these beauties—plus dozens of others—mingle near the start of their first GS run. I’m here too, but I don’t have a pretty racing suit. Instead, I wear a men’s size small black and navy Bode Miller model, on loan from Spyder. Back at home, my husband assured me that everyone would love it and that it would make me look “lethal” on the racecourse. While it is true that I am receiving sideways glances both from young U.S. Ski Team hopefuls and older, more regal masters, I covet Jill’s suit. I’m doing just that when a race official in purple boots points to my bib and says I’m due in the start gate. I’m all decked out: Head GS skis, Julia Mancuso goggles, padded gloves, and spine protector. And I’m going to ski the crap out of my GS run. 

Except. Of course. A problem. I’m totally new to racing.

 At 42, I am the third youngest skier at the Summer Fun Nationals. I’ve been skiing since I was six, and I worked for a time as an editor at Skiing Magazine. Between my own skiing jaunts and work trips, I’ve schralped dozens of resorts, plus Iceland, Norway, Iran, and Alaska. These days, I’m a mother of three who still manages to eke out 50 days a season. All was perfect until I declared 2013 my Year of Self-Improvement. For reasons still not totally clear to me, after decades of blissful skiing, I decided to become a ski racer.

So far so fun, though due to said children, my training has been spotty. I’ve come to SFN because...how hard can it be to outski a grandma? What I don’t know is that these grandmas are queens of angulation, whereas I, despite years on snow, am only starting to understand the fundamental skill of carving turns rather than skidding them. To race, one must carve, and these ladies carve trenches. Still, in my hubris, I believe I can skid my turns faster. My coach for the past two days, Willy Scroggins, has tried to assure me that skidding is stupid and will win me neither points nor acceptance. If only I had the humility to be like Pam, a spunky 50-something sporting Patagonia baggies over silk-weight long underwear. In my darkly hued suit, I am sweating like a Thanksgiving turkey. But I pull into the start and place my poles in front of the wand.

I hold my breath as the race official starts the countdown. Suddenly I remember that the race crew has just salted the course. Salt makes ice; ice requires carving. I can’t ski ice to save my life, yet crowds of people are now watching the girl in the Bode getup. I hesitate, then push off, thinking of the two pieces of training I have learned in my crash course in racing:

“Please, please drive your shoulders down the fall line,” I say to myself. And “Jesus Mary Mother of God, try to use your edges.”

Here’s the reason I hate ice. I grew up in the West and have spent most of my days skiing soft snow and powder. I know my skis have edges, but I don’t carve. I skid. Chances are you skid too, unless you’re PSIA-certified. I’m not ashamed, because I can get down almost anything. But last winter, when I decided to race, I knew I’d have to fall in love with my edges.

Enter the Boulder, Colo., chapter of the Rocky Mountain Masters, which stacks its teams with freaky-fast rippers. Never mind that when I showed up for my first day of training at Eldora Resort, the oldest guy was pushing 80. Year after year the RMMs crush the masters competitions—even though off the snow several of them hobble.

My coaches for the day were Elliott Young and Mike Harding. We met at the base and got briefed on the day’s program. Then Young sent us up the Poma to the course. Despite never having skied gates before, I managed to rip through them. Or so I thought until I got to the bottom. There, Harding said, “That was OK. But you basically need to learn to ski all over again.”

Translation: Although I could ski gates, my form was atrocious. I skied like Frankenstein’s monster, over-rigid. I also skidded my turns (knew that), exacerbating my habit of rotating my torso across the fall line. To race, one must drive her inside shoulder downhill while arcing her hip-width skis on edge beneath her. I tried, failed, tried again—then watched a video of myself failing and wished to be crushed by a snowplow.

But the following Sunday I came back. This time I found a nicer coach: Broc Thompson, who’d recently won the slalom title at the Masters World Criterium in Mammoth, Calif. Thompson also sported a little hubris. One of his favorite sayings—when we weren’t discussing racing technique—was “Shane McConkey and I used to ski together.” In college, Thompson starred in a couple of ski movies. Now he manages the Eldora Masters program. After a few of runs, he too explained the flaws in my skiing.

But in a nicer way than Harding. Thompson said I slid too much, making it impossible to carve an entire turn. He talked about “understanding” the carve, using sidecut and my weight to bend the ski into an arc rather than skidding my tails this way and that to make turns. The Frankenstein thing came up, but in relation to how it “broke my tails loose” and made my skidding even worse. Racing is all
about balancing over the edges of one’s arcing skis. So we did drills to help me
“find my edges.”

Drill 1: Stand still, skis across the fall line, weight balanced on the uphill edges. Unweight the edges, sideslip down the hill, reweight the edges to stop.

Drill 2: With your skis in the same position, press your shins into the fronts of your boots and start traversing slowly across the slope. Pressure the uphill edges so that the sidecut engages and the skis bend into an arc. Ride the arc uphill, getting a feel for the carve at a manageable speed. Then, on gentle terrain, tip the skis on edge, putting extra weight on the outside ski until both skis are bent and arcing. Learn how to balance on the edges as the skis arc, resisting the urge to skid the tails around to steer, relying on sidecut and flex instead.

Drill 3: Ski gates, trying to skid as little as possible.

Slowly and throughout that day, I did what Thompson said, adjusting and readjusting. Still, I couldn’t manage to carve an entire turn. All those years of skidding, it turned out, made me incredibly lazy. This made me mad at pro skier Kristen Ulmer because she once complimented me by saying I skied like a dude. Now I think she was just being polite. Thompson has no such compulsion. Note to self: Attend one of Ulmer’s Ski to Live clinics and only pretend to meditate.

A better idea: Accept her praise but incorporate Thompson’s instruction. I kept doing my drills, waiting for the “crunch” in my side that Thompson said would indicate that I was driving my inside shoulder downhill while carving my skis beneath me. It was slow work trying to break so many bad habits. But then, one day, something amazing happened.

It came at the end of training, when the other skiers were pulling the course. Thompson had me hold each pole at hip level, palms facing outward, then keep both pole tips on the snow as I slowly turned down the mountain—a drill designed to force me to drive both shoulders down the hill. Two turns in, I felt the crunch in my side and my edges biting. At the top of the next run, I ditched that drill and practiced a fourth one: lifting the inside ski slightly while carving the outside ski. A few gates down, I had a strange, wonderful sensation.

It wasn’t as good as skiing powder—not close. But I edged into my turn while at the same time engaging the crunch. I weighted my outside ski while driving my shoulders downhill. It felt weird to adopt that form, but I stuck to it through several consecutive turns. For a fleeting moment, in which bliss overtook all other opinions I had about carving, I felt the tails of my Heads carve through the turn and then pop me into the next. It happened maybe twice down the entire run. But at the bottom, Thompson was nodding. Yes.

After that, I carved as much as possible. Soft snow, hard snow, it didn’t matter. More than once my husband said, “I have the morning off. You want to go touring?” And more than once I answered, “Nah, I think I’ll go carving.” Even to me, my new love of carving seemed a wonderful anomaly. I kept going to Thompson, kept improving. But what is a racer until she has raced? One test stood before me.

In late March, I located the biggest masters event of the summer, the Summer Fun Nationals at Mt. Hood, Ore. It’s preceded by Hood’s famous summer race camps, and on the SFN website, Willy Scroggins’s camp stood out. I’ve always had a knack for finding eccentric yet highly successful people. Scroggins e-mailed: “Our motto at Willy Camp is to teach each athlete to go ‘Willy’ fast and to have a ‘Willy’ good time while doing so.”

I was stoked to spend a week training with Scroggins. He starts his skiers on slalom to get their “sea legs back” and then alternates between slalom and GS. I’d have loved to do both, but I’d only trained GS. Scroggins wanted me to come for the whole week. When I announced that I wouldn’t, he seemed disappointed.

Worse, I got stuck at the Portland airport, waiting for my ride. After a couple glasses of wine, I texted my editor—clearly worried about the most important detail.

Me: “Kim! I made it to PDX. But can I please not wear the suit? I’m too fat! And I’m not a racer! People will laugh!”

Kim: “Tracy, honey. This is why you have to write this story. You’re so…you! It’s hilarious! Just think it over. Maybe you’ll warm up to the suit.”            

I knew that I wouldn’t warm up to the suit. But when my photographer arrived we headed to Hood. By 11 a.m. we found ourselves riding the Miracle Mile Lift, past jumbles of black lava rock, over gaggles of racer kids, and above the glinting, slushy Palmer Snowfield, which bristled with the colorful gates of two dozen training lanes. Weaving between rock piles, we found Scroggins, who has been coaching SFN racers for 14 years.

We said our hellos, and he told me to go skiing. As I pushed off, I could feel him watching. And judging.

But judging is what coaches do. And after I’d spun a lap, I went back, ready for instruction. Like Thompson, Scroggins told me my main fault was that I was not leveling my shoulders and keeping my torso square to the fall line, driving that inside shoulder down the hill. I was still rotating my upper body across the fall line to steer, rather than letting sidecut and edge pressure do the work of turning. Our time limited, we worked on drills similar to those I worked on at Eldora. This continued for one more day. Then it was time to race.

Five months after my vow to become a racer, dawn broke over the Mt. Hood racecourse. I’d decided to wear the damn suit, though I still felt chubby. And also underprepared. By now I’d trained just six or seven days with coaches and a few more on my own. But here I was, and we were on.

I pulled up next to the most ravishing skier at the race, Kat. Her long blond hair cascaded from her helmet. Her red and white speed suit screamed, “Foxy—and fast.” Her skis, the latest Atomics, glinted in the sunlight.

Kat gushed endlessly about every aspect of racing. Though she lived in Virginia, she raced regularly there, at Bryce Resort. She loved skiing, skating, kids, and Kit Kat candy bars, which she preferred to race for instead of medals. She was just what I needed to calm my pre-race jitters.

The course had an under gate—a gate taken on the same edges as the one before, with no change of direction—that Kat told me about as we inspected the course. On the ride back up, we talked about the start, which, she said, she used to hate. “I couldn’t stand all the waiting around, getting worked up,” she said. “But one day I stood in the start and saw a gatekeeper, standing in one spot, not getting to race. He looked really cold. I realized how lucky I was to be racing, and my nerves disappeared. You know what else? The start gate is now my favorite place. Until I go through that wand, my run is perfect. Then I carry the thought, ‘What if I have the run of my life? Wouldn’t that be cool?’ ”

At the top of the course, dozens of skiers milled around. I saw Jill and Jane, both applying face powder. “We need some action up here,” Jill said. “Pump up the jam.” She then hugged the youngest competitor, a girl in a white and fluorescent pink suit unzipped to reveal cleavage. I looked down at my own chest, flattened into a navy uniboob. That’s when the race organizer called my number.

Scroggins was there in his gold lamé helmet and bright pink goggles. Through his Fu Manchu goatee he said, “You’ll be fine if you remember what we worked on.” I forced a smile and entered the start. Concentrating on his wisdom, I stretched across the wand.

At the three count, I pushed off. I got my hands out in front of my body, the way Thompson and Scroggins had shown me. I heard Scroggins’s voice saying, “Keep your back to the gate even as you pass below it.” I did, and the gates flew at me. For at least one turn I had the distinct feeling of my body moving in two parts—angulation. Three quarters of the way down I also heard the words of another SFN matriarch, Deb MacKenzie, from Driggs, Idaho, who’d said, “Honey, here’s the only thing that matters in racing. When you get to the bottom, ask yourself two questions. Did you have an adrenaline rush? And do you feel like you want to race again? If both answers are yes, you’re totally getting it.” 

I carved a few more turns, feeling supercharged. Then, channeling Bode, I tucked to the finish. After catching my breath, I skied to the results board, where a guy was marking times. I saw my name—alone in my age group—and felt the thrill of victory. Then the guy noted my time, and I started comparing it to the others.

Sigh.

I’d finished fourth from last, 14 seconds behind Show Off My Bosoms. Nearly all of the racers—even those 20 years older—had outskied me. I felt the onset of a shame attack. But then I thought of Deb MacKenzie’s wisdom.

I clicked back into my Heads and found Kat, currently in second place. We rode the lift back to the top, and I lined up again outside the start shack. I was still nervous, but also excited. My face felt flushed, but from the thrill awaiting me. I was amped to race again. And that, like Deb MacKenzie said, meant that I was already winning. 

(Photos by Christopher D. Thompson)

reviews of Gates of Glory Write a comment
I've skied but a handful of NASTAR races, but always loved the feeling. I was most thrilled at the Sochi Womens & Mens Downhill, Giant Slalom and the Super G races. Not ever racing pro, I love this story and It is very inspiring to this 57 y.o. who's in good enough shape to have a go at it. Maybe if I ever find some time & some money, I will "Take a Crash Course"!
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