Your left arm's coming around again....Get it out to the side!" yells my coach as I dive-bomb gate six. I try to get my left hand into position and focus on the task at hand-keeping a tight line in the gates-but what I really want to do is plow into Coach Chris McNeil at full steam.
We're only two hours into Day 1 of our three-day camp, and I'm supremely frustrated. I'm no racer, but people usually compliment my skiing. Not Billy Kidd's head coach. He's out to break me. At least, that's how it feels.
My time flashes on the Nastar scoreboard-20.01 seconds, good enough for silver. Next on the blue course: fellow camper Steven Wigrizer, 42, a medical lawyer from Pennsylvania. His arms are in position, but he's sitting back, skidding his turns. His time: 24.87 seconds, which, as he mutters, doesn't even earn him a bronze. He's not happy to be beaten by me, a 34-year-old woman, let alone his 14-year-old-son, Mike, who finishes his first run in just under 21 seconds.
Coach Chris videotapes our last two runs and leads us to a video tent near the race course. Steven and I both groan. Chris chuckles and says, "Seeing what you do wrong helps you correct it." So we look. And sure enough, rather than driving forward, my left hand wraps across my chest, making it hard for me to hold an edge in a turn to the right. The rest of my positioning, however, looks "OK," according to Chris, though I "could use a bit more angulation at the waist." Sensing our growing grumpiness, Chris suggests we break for lunch 20 minutes early. Neither Steven nor I mask our enthusiasm. "Let's go," we chime simultaneously.
When we get to the slopeside Ptarmigan Inn, the other six campers have beaten us to the buffet. With the exception of Dallas skier Celesta Segerstrom, 50, Steven and I are the only skiers over the age of 15. The kids sit at one table with their coach Tom DeGroff, who has coached Olympians and NCAA champions. We join Celesta and her coach, Tom "T.C." Cannon, whose résumé includes coach of the 1982 U.S. Europa Cup Team. Our coach, Chris, is a Steamboat native. Raised on alpine racing and ski jumping, he won the National Junior Championships in ski jumping in 1972 and went on to compete for the U.S. team for nine years, making the Olympic team twice. Since then, he's coached the Canadian Ski Jumping Team and the 1984 Canadian Olympic Team. Despite their impressive backgrounds, all the coaches are down-to-earth.
The afternoon is spent freeskiing. The bumps prove to be Steven's forte. Groomed steeps at high-speed are mine. In fact, Chris seems somewhat stunned at how much better we ski when in our elements. We end the day with three more Nastar runs, working to ingrain proper form. When we return to the meeting room for a tech session, Billy Kidd joins us to review the videotape. Kidd was one of the first two U.S. male skiers to win an Olympic medal in alpine skiing (silver in 1964) and the first U.S. male skier to win the World Championships combined (1970).
Legend or not, Kidd talks with us as if we're fellow racers, offering suggestions and encouragement. Before we split for the day, he tells us that one of the most important lessons we can learn is to visualize proper technique wherever we may be. "Tonight, set up a slalom course in your room and practice driving through the turn with the inside hand, shoulder, hip and foot. Remember to keep your feet apart and the outside hand out for balance," Billy says. Then he demonstrates, using chairs as gates. The kids chuckle at this little dryland exercise. But before going to bed that night, I do exactly as Billy recommends.
Day 2 breaks to bluebird skies. We split our time among the Nastar course, the bumps and the steeps. Intermittently, we find a groomed run to do drills that get our upper bodies into proper position. First Chris has us drag our uphill pole behind us, to create more upper-body/lower-body separation, more angulation. In another exercise, we hold our pooles by the basket and grips, like a tightrope walker holds a bar for balance, and keep the right hand back even while making a turn to the left. This helps us feel what it's like to keep our upper bodies square to the hill. In another, we keep that same position, lifting the tail of our uphill ski as we turn. We quickly find out that if you don't keep your body square to the hill, you can't lift the tail of the ski.
By going from gates to bumps and back to the gates, we're able to feel what's correct and what isn't. In bumps, it's quickly evident if your upper body isn't square to the hill. If it isn't, it's hard to plant the pole down the hill. My left-arm habit has me planting it across the hill, toward the tip of my ski, making it hard for me to initiate a turn.
As we grow more willing to listen, Chris becomes more patient, and things start to gel. Now we're actually happy when he pulls out the video camera. While the drills feel exaggerated, film reveals that they make our turns look rounder, less skidded.
Day 3 is race day. And silly as it may seem, we're all nervous. Warm-up is at 9 a.m., and race time is at 10-while the course is still hard. For speed, you know. This time Billy joins us on the hill to watch us race; he and the coaches are all prep and pep. They inspect the course with us (to define lines), help us focus and then turn us loose. Everyone jockeys for position; nervous, maybe, but shy we're not. A true gentleman, Steven pushes me ahead of him. My first run feels slow. As I ski past the finish line, my time flashes: 19.04 (gold). Steven takes the same course: He logs a 22.27 (bronze). Then comes Michael with a time of 19.90.
A look of determination crosses Steven's face. (By this point, a friendly three-way competition has grown among us, and it's no longer us against Nastar pacesetter Picabo Street.) We want to beat each other. We get four runs. By the fourth, Steven's shaved almost two seconds off his time for a personal best of 20.87; that earns him a silver, and at season's end ranks him 118 of the 266 men nationwide in his age group. Michael's best time of 19.77 (gold) puts him 16 out of 28, so in a way they've tied. As for me, by run 4 I'm going for broke, and only narrowly avert a run-in with the safety netting at the end of the course. The effort earns me a time of 18.51 (gold). Not the fastest of the week, but good enough to rank me fourth in a national field of 51. Best of all, I've smoked Steven-and Mike.
Whether you're an aspiring racer, mogul competitor or cruiser who has reached a plateau, the Billy Kidd Center For Performance Skiing has the flexibility and format to improve your skiing. Two- and three-day camps are available starting in mid-December. All camps run 8:45 a.m.-4:30 p.m., guarantee a maximum of six people per class, and cost $199 per day, including lunch, video analysis, an awards ceremony, a personal evaluation and an edited video that documents your improvement. Discounts are offered to Steamboat season pass holders and repeat campers. Call 800-299-5017, or log on to www.steamboat.com/bkclinics.