The Standard Race

For all of us growing up at Seven Springs Mountain Resort here in Pa., Lars Skylling, the Director of Skiing, was like a god to us. Handsome, with the Swedish accent, and great skier to boot, with Stein Eriksen form. We all looked up to Lars and wanted to emulate him on the slopes. Lars is shown here in this picture below, receiving his award for induction into the Pennsylvania Snow Sports Hall of Fame. He has the Tyrolean jacket on with the green tie- third from left in the back. Great guy, we all love Lars. He is retired now but I had the opportunity to ski with him a couple of years ago in Vail and for a guy in his elder years, he still made elegant turns. IMG_4952
So, when we were kids, Lars was the ski school director and he started an open race every Sunday after the day session ended that was called the Standard Race. My buddy Porter said it was called the Head Standard Race but in any event, it was an open, four gate flyer from the top of the front side of the mountain down to the finish line in front of the old warming hut. If you came within a certain percentage of the time that Lars laid down, you received either a gold, silver, or bronze “7” pin that we all clamored for with every run that we made. As we all got older and into our early teens, we were able to finally get that gold “7” because we were catching up to the master. However, Lars threw a surprise for all of us when he added the upper trail on the Stowe slope and jumped the corner when he made a right hand turn down on the Cortina Trail. Whoa!!!!! We all were taken by surprise and the conversation on the hill that day and on the chairlift to the start was whether we had the guts to jump the corner like Lars did. If we didn’t, there was no way we would get the gold so we all had to see if we had the bravado to do it and if we survived, we got the coveted pin. photo
One year, I decided that if I leaned forward at the finish line and tried to break the beam with my hand, I might be a little faster. Unfortunately, I blew out of my bindings when I lurched forward and took out the whole timing device and the electric eye. John Fraser and his dad came running out of the hut to see if I was ok, but the real challenge was to get the timing device up and running again. As we all crossed the finish line, Bob Rose would herd us into the station wagon that he had strategically placed outside the warming hut and the North Hills clan would eventually make it back to Pittsburgh with a dinner for the crowd at my folk’s house. My parents didn’t ski but they sure could cook and entertain. That was their contribution. All the kids talked about the race and how we ended up. If you got the gold pin, you were a stud, and everyone knew that the next step was the day that you would finally be able to beat Lars straight up. That day eventually came for most of us as we got older and faster. But no matter the outcome, we all loved Lars and if we were able to finally best his pacesetter time, it was a milestone in our skiing career that we would never forget. photo

The years have gone by but a lot of the guys who I still ski with at Seven Springs still have their pins. Porter, Jamie Edson, and me. Porter and Jamie proudly wear theirs in remembrance of an era gone by. NASTAR had taken over the citizen race arena with a much more sophisticated national ranking system and national championship. But the old Standard Race was a free form flyer that we all loved, and no matter what improvement we made with equipment upgrades, the prestige of that pin was something that is still remembered to this day. The Standard Race is a memory for all of us growing up at the last resort. So, Greg, Brad, Melissa,Dave Helmick, Heidi, all the Dupre girls, Johnny Fraser, Johnny McCarthy, Andy, Richard Nicolette, the Rose clan,the Edsons, the Rich clan, the Siegle clan, ………….dig out those “7”s and wear them with pride. You cut the corner, you survived the races, and you got your pins. Thanks for reading and enjoy the winter.

Hahnenkamm- The Super Bowl of Ski Racing

You know, anytime you get to witness a sporting event up close and personal, it is electrifying. I have had the opportunity to stand on the sidelines at a Penn State football game, see Tiger rip off a drive at the US Open, and see World Cup giant slalom and slalom events from the side of the trail. It is amazing to see the skill level of these athletes. We have a local sports writer who pooh poohs the Winter Olympics and calls them games at best. He is also the same guy who does not consider Tiger Woods an athlete because he wears dress slacks to play his sport. I have had a running dialog with this guy who most likely never toed the line in a race or ever really had much experience as an athlete. Because, if he did, he would respect the talent and dedication that is needed to perform at a national level or a world class level in any sport. But in all of my experiences as a spectator, none was more electrifying than witnessing the Hahnenkamm Downhill Ski Race in Kitzbuhel, Austria. This race will be run again this weekend – the 75th edition, and if you have Universal Sports as a cable channel option, you can witness it live. I will have the DVR on for sure because I am addicted to the Universal Sports Channel.Erik Guay - Race - Atomic USA
A number of years ago, I had the good fortune of being selected to represent Western Pennsylvania along with Kenny Griffin and Mark Singleton on a PSIA trip to the Austrian Tyrol The event was sponsored by the Austrian tourist board and the ski instructors group from the US had representatives from all of the national regions. We were each domiciled in a particular area for one week- teaching and sharing experiences with the local instructors. The other week was spent skiing different areas of the Austrian Tyrol , but the highlight of the trip for me was to see the Hahnenkamm up close and personal on the side of the famous “Streif” race course.AUT, FIS Weltcup Ski Alpin, Kitzbuehel Ski racing and bicycle racing in Europe is like the NFL here in the states. Eurovision broadcasts all of the World Cup ski races and cycling events and the European public is very knowledgeable about the details of each sport. They are rabid fans and show up in masses at events as shown on the famous climbs of the Tour De France. But there is no event that attracts more people in one venue than the famous downhill held each year in Kitzbuhel.Google Image Result for (2)
To give you a little bit of the atmosphere, imagine if you will, 100,000 people lining the race course, schnapps and beer flowing, excitement mounting as the first racers descend the mountain at an average speed of 66 MPH. At the start at the Mausefalle, the skiers are airborne and reach a speed of 60+ MPH within seconds of starting the race. The Austrian army uses water hoses the night before in the course preparation to ensure that the track is rock hard and icy, which the downhillers prefer. As they make their way down the 2.06 miles of racecourse, they come up on an off camber left hand turn called the Steilhang. This is where Kenny and I stood and watched as the rabid fans with their cowbells screamed as the racers flew by. The technical ability of a ski racer to hold a turn, on rock hard ice,off camber, at speed is impressive and it is anything but a game as the local sports hack surmised. The year we attended was in the prime of the “Crazy Canucks” where Canada reigned supreme for four consecutive years. Todd Brooker, Steve Podborski, and Ken Read were the heroes of the day, spoiling the Austrian and Swiss dominance of the race. I had seen Brooker race before when I worked at Sugarloaf,Maine. As a young guy with wild, wavy red hair, and a devil may care attitude, he represented Canada at the Can Am Races at Sugarloaf on his way to advancing to the World Cup level. It was neat to see him ski again in Austria at this premier event. He has had a checkered past with this event, winning once and having the worst crash of his life in Kitzbuhel on the Streif.Hahnekammrennen2011
In the final straightway to the finish line, racers approach 90 MPH and as they cross the line, the noise is deafening. An electrifying sports experience to say the least. I have never seen a Grand Prix event or Indy, but I can’t see how those events could be any more exciting that seeing these world class athletes rocket down a steep alpine face at 90 MPH. These guys are all 220 pounds plus with massive thighs.  You have to be that strong to hold those turns in that course at speed.

These days , my viewing is limited to what I see on Universal Sports. I love to see how these racers make turns. Lots of ski technique taught today at an advanced level is influenced by the way a racer turns. World Cup ski racing is the benchmark for equipment manufacturers which trickles down to standards in manufacturing and standards in ski instruction. Witnessing world class ski racing is something that is always etched in my mind. I will never forget the atmosphere of Kitzbuhel, the great apple strudel, the beer, the food,  and having the opportunity to witness an event as powerful as the Hahnenkamm. If you get the chance, try to watch it on Universal or streaming on line. It is not the same as being there, but you will get the idea. Thanks for reading and enjoy the winter.

The Attack from the Back

us%20ski%20team.finals2013photo I just came in from my hike in the snow and although it was pleasant, I am dying to ski. I have been out once, but the weather around here has not been consistent for the season to open full scale. So, I placate myself watching all the ski racing on TV and I DVR all of them. I just watched Ted Ligety, our US Team star slay all in the GS at Beaver Creek and watched Lindsey Vonn make her second comeback of the season from knee injuries to finish 10th in a downhill at Lake Louise in Canada. These world class athletes are amazing in that they take their rehab seriously and want to win at all costs. They are not afraid to put it all on the line and risk injury for the reward of a gold medal. My friend Travis Durfee, who at one time was top ten in Downhill and Super G west of the Mississippi for several years and a member ofthe prestigious Far West team, always said that the difference between world class competitors and national class competitors was that fearless attitude to go as fast as they could and put it all out there risking all. Susan DiBiase, another friend, said the same thing about women racing dowhill in mountain biking. If you are not willing to take every risk, you will never reach the pinacle of the sport. She was a pro mountain biker and knew the game. Ski racing is a dangerous sport and I thought of my dabbling in it way back when, and how I was not willing to take those risks at all cost.

I was not a very fast ski racer. I came from the instructors background and although people said I looked smooth in a race course, I was not fast. Locally, we had several guys who were fast because they tried as hard as they could to beat each other every weekend. We had juniors, seniors and masters races at our local mountain. My group all grew up racing together and when we were in our twenties, we all raced as masters in the USSA races here and sometimes visiting our friends in New England. It was a lot of fun, but guys like Porter Scott, Bill Boucher, and Craig Jerome were the fast guys. They were the tops in our division and my friends Craig Morris and Tim Chappell and I were always chasing their times. We got smart and decided that while those guys were trying to kill themselves to beat each other, we needed to put two consistent runs together and we might end up in the money. Usually one of them or a couple of them would crash because they would be willing to put it all on the line and one or two of us would sneak in there and stand up for two runs and grab a trophy. People got to think we were good but really our strategy was to make sure we finished two runs reasonably fast and hope for the best. That hope was that one of the fast guys or two of the fast guys would crash. We called ourselves the attack from the back and oftentimes we got the trophy. I have a box full of trophies in the basement that are a testament to the fact that I could put together two smooth looking but not fast runs, but fast enough if the good guys tried to kill each other.

I got to see some really good guys when I ventured to New England to race with my friend Eric Durfee who was a really fast racer and had collegiate and Can- Am experience. He was a real ski racer and the guys in New England were a different breed and very competitive and very fast. When our crowd went up there, we got smoked. Even the fast guys. I would do NASTAR races with Eric at Mad River and Killington and would watch him try to destroy the pacesetter while I was just trying to win a gold pin. That is the difference. The fast guys in New England were competitive as all hell and wanted to win no matter what the venue. To this day, Eric is our fearless leader when we ski with him and his competitive nature and win at all costs, is still evident in his free skiing. His son Travis is the same and it is amazing to see these guys in action.

I have also had the good fortune to see World Cup races and see the best in the world. Just like any sport, it is enlightenling to see world class athletes and how they perform. I skied with Phil Mahre one day, who was our greatest male ski racer of all time along with his brother Steve. I got to see first hand how strong they were and how they effortlessly carved trenches in the snow and nothing threw them off balance. I thought I was pretty good on the snow but when I got to ski with world class guys, you quickly realize that these guys are on a completely different level. Ski racing hones good technique and the one thing that was always good about running gates even at my level, was it made your skiing sharp and the little bit of local competitiveness was not only fun, but it made you a better skier. Craig, Tim and I talk all the time about the attack from the back and how we succeeded at grabbing a trophy out from under the faster guys. Eric, Travis, Ted and Bodie would disagree with our philosophy by saying that if you don’t put it all on the line, you will never know what your potential is even if you crash out of a lot of courses. Bodie Miller was a classic example in that if he managed to stand up for two runs, he usually was in the money. He crashed more often than not but his willingness to win at all costs is what makes him world class. The 59 year old kid, unfortunately, did not have the talent or the will to do that. But skiers from the banana belt seldom reach those lofty heights anyhow.

Probably the only time I can remember putting it all on the line was when I was a kid and dove across the finish line at our little Standard Race to try to win the coveted gold 7 pin. I got my pin but took out the timing device and everyone in the lodge thought I had killed myself. Kind of a dumb way to try to be faster but I was proud to win that gold. When you were a fat little kid and you wore that gold 7, you had arrived. I got the bug, but the smooth looking turns eventually won out and the attack from the back was born. Hoping some snow comes our way soon or I will have to keep watching the fast guys show me how it is done. Think snow and thanks for reading.