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Clydesdales Get No Love

Was Tomba the end of a plus-sized era?
posted: 03/17/2004

Two-hundred-plus-pound skiers wonder: Will there ever be another Tomba...and do fries come with that shake? One of my various freelance boondoggles is serving as the "alternative sports coordinator" for the Laureus World Sports Awards. For the last three years, I've been flown to Monte Carlo for the ceremony, where I brush shoulders with supermodels, famous jocks, rock stars, and musicians. It's a good gig, though the 2003 edition was a bear. First, I got delayed at customs when officials let Lionel Richie cut the line, along with his whole entourage-a surprisingly large posse for a guy who hasn't had a hit since Michael Jackson was black. Then, at a cocktail party, I apparently lumbered my six-two, 210-pound frame too close to the teensy-weensy Rod Stewart; a security guard jumped me, damn near strip-searching me for credentials. It was humiliating, a profound embarrassment I hope a certain Scottish rocker feels every time his stupid rooster-haired head rises only to his supermodel girlfriend's chin.

The saving grace of Laureus '03 for me was hanging out with Alberto Tomba, a favorite of plus-size skiers everywhere. Oh, I didn't actually speak with Alberto. Not only is my Italian limited to "venti macchiato," but the security goon episode made me squirmy about getting too close to the glitterati. Nonetheless, I'd like to think Alberto and I will always cherish the time we spent together in the hotel gym: me attempting to marshal a winter's worth of adipose tissue into one of the firmer Jell-Os; him working quadriceps on which you could build condo complexes.

Tomba sits with Michael Jordan, Boris Becker, Dan Marino, and other superstars on the Laureus Academy, which picks the winners. The only other skier on the Academy is Franz Klammer. As deep as Innsbruck '76 is burned into every skier's memory, I still wouldn't call the compact Austrian my hero. In Monte Carlo, Klammer's hair appeared to weigh more than his torso. I simply can't identify. Give me Tomba: 200 pounds, plus a kilogram or two, of grimacing, ripsnorting frenzy, pummeling slalom gates like a fat man barging through the mall to make last call at Ben & Jerry's.

Tomba's retirement, I fear, portends a dark age for the 200-plus-pound skier. These days our ski heroes are the diminutive flying squirrels of the terrain parks. In place of Tomba, the Italian Stallion, are a bunch of Shetland ponies. I love watching the sprightly park monkeys, but I miss Tomba's slaloms-won while proving that momentum equals velocity times mass.

The sad truth is that Tomba is an aberration. Skiing hates heavy people. We snap poles like they're celery sticks (not that we eat celery). We fight against uncontrolled acceleration on steeps. Gravity and our elephantine butts dump us in the ruts of mogul fields. When snow coverage is light, we're the ones scraping rocks. We may as well exhaust ourselves and break trail on out-of-bounds hikes, because we'll crash through the leader's bootpack and post-hole anyway. We wallow in depths wee folk will never know.

Last winter, a group of friends and I were skiing Champex, Switzerland, and came upon a strange trail junction. Three guys took a cat track left. I made the mistake of following Dylan, a five-six, 130-pound telemarker, down the fall line and into tight woods. Cliffs eventually forced us left, too, onto Satan's Own Traverse. The only openings in the constant tangle of brush were as small as doggie doors. Little Dylan wormed through them by sinking to his free-heeled knees. For me, the traverse was a miserable repetition of "Are you f---ing kidding me?" and painful hand-to-branch combat.

The ordeal reaffirmed that skiing for offensive-lineman types should be considered an entirely different sport. Freeskiing events should add a "Clydesdale" category for those weighing more than 200 pounds. Mountain biking did. Ten years ago, 249-pound Maurice Tierney wrote in Dirt Rag that "The truest competition is against your peers, and...the heavy man's competition is other heavy men." Suddenly, Clydesdale racing was off and rumbling. Now thhe majority of mountain bike competitions offer separate trophies for lummoxes. The benign rules allow puny 190-something-pounders to enter, so long as they take a 10-second penalty for every pound under 200. There's even a website (geocities.com/hogboyracing) that lists "favorite trails based on elevation gain, technicality, proximity to a good buffet" and introduces web links by stating "my favorite links are sausage links, but these will have to do..."

If only skiing could show the heavy man such love. Sadly, it has not and probably will not. As evidence, I present the largest freeski star that ever was: Willie Steele. Though it sounds like a bogus porn-star name, Willie Steele is a Montana good ol' boy who modeled for memorable ski photos with Scott Spiker and other top photographers in the early '90s. Willie went 220, maybe 240 pounds back then, but damn if he couldn't ski. Slopes would tremble as Willie angled legs-each the size of a barnyard animal-across the fall line, sending up huge, very photogenic plumes of frozen water particles. Think of Chris Farley pulling a massive cannonball at the pool. He was an inspiration.

Alas, in the mid '90s, Willie suddenly disappeared from magazine pages (well, as much as a Kodiak-sized fella can disappear). I don't know exactly why. Maybe the constant aerobic demands of ski photography-"OK, hike up and flip off that kicker again"-discouraged him. The fact that Scot Schmidt's catlike hops were the Hot Thing at the time didn't aid the cause of rhinoceri like Willie. And I know for sure that he never fit in the "sample size" clothing that gear makers supply to photographers, which is always a severe Medium.

It's a lean, mean, anticarbohydrate world out there. Until the rules change, big-bellied skiers like Willie will never huff their way into freeskiing's upper echelons. So, how about it, International Free Skiers Association? Can you add a Clydesdale division? Think how compelling it'd be to watch tubbies negotiate sheer big mountain faces. It's one thing to hurl a spider against a wall and see how he handles it. It's quite another to hurl a basset hound. Judging could include "splash and snow displacement" criteria. Points could be awarded at season's end for most bent boards. It'd be a perfect world for Big & Tall.

It just makes sense. Remember how the ski industry grew in the 1970s by tapping into baby boomers? Well, if the industry's paying any attention to societal trends, it should know that teeming masses of obese kids are soon heading toward disposable-income age. That's right: tons of 200-plus-pounders, a thundering stampede of ski-cattle just waiting to put the "BOOM!" in boom.

Resistance is futile. Give us a Clydesdale ski hero, and while you're at it, wider lift chairs. Make girth cool again, ski industry. Or we Clydesdales will eat you for lunch...along with some fries. And a chocolate shake. And are you gonna eat those onion rings?

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