I first met Reid Sabin on a chairlift at Big Mountain, Montana. While engaging in the usual lift-ride-with-a-stranger banter, I learned that he occasionally raced. Noticing his free heels, I asked the next logical question, "Do you race telemark?"
"Yeah, I just got back from a race," he said, almost reluctantly. "I took first, so I was pretty happy."
As we reached the fogged-in summit, I congratulated him and apologized for not knowing more about telemark racing. Later, I learned the race Sabin had won was the Telemark World Cup in Miringen, Switzerland.
I guess I expected the best telemark ski racer in the world to be a bit more smug. But telemark racing is not for the smug. In the U.S., it remains an obscure offspring of the Alpine set, with no coach, no official training site, and little financial support. Yet Sabin has managed to win the World Cup two years in a row -- the first American ever to hold a World Cup telemark title.
Whereas Alpine racing is traditionally associated with sponsorship and celebrity, telemark racing simply allows freeheeling skids some measure of success. Sabin holds down two seasonal jobs and drives a crappy truck so he can afford to keep racing.
With no car sponsorship, the U.S. Telemark Team arrives at races packed in a Honda Civic, borrowing credential stickers from other country's vans in order to secure a parking space. No wonder success hasn't gone to Sabin's head. "I don't think it'd be the same if everything came easy," he says.
Racing 50 miles per hour while executing a telemark turn may seem like a death wish to some; to Sabin it's a good-natured competition among friends. The all-terrain classic race -- which includes giant slalom sections, banked turns, rollers, uphill skate-sprints, and a Nordic jump of up to 75 feet -- is Sabin's specialty.
As long as his wife, Kirsten, has her say, Sabin won't be relinquishing his title anytime soon. When he questions how racing will fit with a new baby and additional financial burdens, Kirsten gently reminds him, "You're number one, Honey. You can't stop now."
There is talk of eventually adding telemark racing to the Winter Olympics, at which time Sabin may finally be found cruising around in an official van with sponsors' logos. And lift rides with strangers will mean autographs, not apologies. Until then, he'll remain a local skier who just happens to be the best telemark racer in the world.
Born: December 21, 1971; Gig Harbor, Washington
Home Mountain: Big Mountain, Whitefish, Montana (incidentally the unofficial home of the U.S. Telemark Team; eight out of 11 team members live there).
Started Telemarking: 1992
Started Racing: 1995
Titles: World Cup Overall Champion 2000 and 2001;2001 World Champion Classic Race, Valthovens, France.
Telemark or Alpine? "You're crazy if you think one sport is better than the other. I have the utmost respect for Alpine racers, freestyle skiers, and snowboarders."