Late every October, Granite Chief, a ski shop back home in Squaw Valley, Calif., stages something called Junior Race Night. For one spectacular evening, all the junior gear is discounted.
Company reps show up to talk to kids about equipment, parents talk shop about tuning, everyone gorges on Halloween candy and, at the end of the night, the place looks as if it were struck by a tornado. Though the concept started as a way to generate early-season cash flow, "Christmas in October" far exceeded the bounds of a retail event to become the official ski season kick-off.
Watching the mayhem, with kids marching around in whatever piece of new gear they can get their hands on, impatient for the first flake of snow, it always feels like a hopeful occasion¿a snapshot of the camaraderie and enthusiasm that is the real gift of skiing. When kids get into skiing, they are not just joining another youth league, but becoming part of an entire community.
The best part for shop owners Herb and Treas Manning is witnessing the reunion of city kids and mountain kids. "A lot of times they only see each other on winter weekends, so this is the first time for getting together," says Treas. "We call them 'foul-weather friends.'"
It's generally accepted that sports can go a long way toward enriching the lives of kids, enhancing their education by teaching valuable lessons in discipline, perseverance, independence, graciousness and humility. In addition to all those traits, kids that are drawn to skiing¿a decidedly non-mainstream pursuit that pushes the comfort zone in every way¿develop an oddly enduring bond.
A typical training day for any sport includes times of intense focus, drills, repetition and listening. But in skiing, you don't walk away from the field and go back to your real life.
Skiers spend the entire day together¿their training interspersed with chairlift rides, freeskiing, warming up in the lodge, hauling slalom gates and packing courses. These are times when friends learn about each other and often share more than they do with their non-skiing friends.
In school, as the youngest, shortest and last chosen on every playground kickball team, I gave up trying to fit in and instead lived for winter weekends. Ski racing became a parallel life for us, a focus completely removed from schoolyard cliques and popularity contests.
From the start, our priority was simply to set goals and achieve them. That's how we earned respect, which itself was enough of a prize to glean from the sport. I remember being in the finish corral of a ski race as a youngster. William Shatner of "Star Trek" fame was filming a Christmas special, and there was a staged shot of him with a group of us at the timing board after our run. He asked a few questions about the race and then ended it with, "Do you all want to go to the Olympics?" That apparently was our cue to scream, "Yes!" But I remember being dumbfounded.
Granted, I didn't really know these kids off the slopes, but the Olympics certainly wasn't something we ever talked about. It was the first time it occurred to me that we were supposed to get something concrete out of the sport.
People tend to ask a lot of sports, especially when it comes to their kids. Too often the focus is put on potential rewards or tangible benchmarks as a measure of the worth of the experience.
That helps explain why, long before the U.S. Ski Team or the Olympics were a reasonable goal, we'd see some pretty wild and strange behavior¿parents yelling at their kids for not doing well in a race, or chasing them down the hill, pushing them to go faster. But with skiing it somehow seemed easier to leave disappointments behind on the mountain.
There was much more to our lives as skiers than what went on between the start wand and the finish. Yes, it's an individual sport, but with a team structure for support.
Foul-weather friends could be counted onn to put the experience in perspective instantly, in a way parents rarely can. At the end of the day, the crowd was not split down the middle, winners and losers.
Rather, we treated each other the same as ever¿with brutal honesty and short attention spans that rarely kept score. On occasion, when people speak to me of their competitive sports experiences, they first qualify it with, "I never went as far as you, but..." As absurd as that lead-in may seem, I admit to having done the same thing.
For most of my years on the U.S. Ski Team, I thought an Olympic gold medal or World Cup title meant being set for life, that it would validate my time spent in ski racing. It seems foolish now, but I think many of my teammates believed it, too.
For a long time after competing, what stuck in my mind was not what I did, but what I didn't do¿namely, win an Olympic medal. But it's pointless to gauge success in those terms.
The real success is what you learn from competing. I was reminded recently of ski racing's enduring brotherhood at a double ex-racer wedding.
My husband grew up racing in Vermont and I grew up racing in California. Our collection of friends came from both coasts and everywhere in between.
The weekend ended up being a huge reunion of foul-weather friends. Some competed together into adulthood, others had barely seen each other since they were 15.
All of us had enjoyed varying levels of "success" in regards to "results," whether that meant being World Champion or qualifying for the Junior Olympics. Viewed en masse, these ex-ski racers showed an edge from the experience¿confidence, independence and an unrelenting drive to seek new challenges.
The day was filled with laughter and spirited conversation but very little mention of skiing and no reference to past accomplishments. Of all the stories told, none were of the medals won, the career-ending injuries, the fat endorsement contracts, or the forced retirements.
It was as if the soccer coach, the TV commentator, the new mother, the ski shop owner, the investment banker, the resort ambassador and all the rest were right back on the chairlift¿their characters fully exposed. There's an honesty to the relationships built out in the elements that allowed the assembled athletes to transcend time, to jump right back in each other's faces, and to settle into that comfortable place where individuality and familiarity coexist.
Checking out the excited kids getting fired up for the season, I don't look for the next gold medal winner. Rather, I see strong characters and friendships in the making.
They may get a medal, the tools to build a good career, a lifelong love of the outdoors, or a pile of memories. At the very least, they'll get a bunch of great friends and the makings of a really fun party in 15 years