Battle of the Ski Schools

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This is the article from last year's competition at Vail, Colo. Keep checking SKImag.com for the latest results from this year's competition at Whistler/Blackcomb, B.C.

Think "synchronized skiing" and what comes to mind? The Busby Berkeley-like human flower arrangements of synchronized swimming? A precision half-time marching band? "No way," says Doc Tulin, coach of Beaver Creek's Team Obermeyer. "It's more like an air show on skis¿at 30 mph."

Picture the Blue Angels streaking across the sky. Only there are eight of them in line, and they're snapping off identical, short-radius turns at exactly the same cadence. Suddenly half the line, the 1, 3, 5 and 7 skiers, pops off to the right, while the other four pop to the left. They ski apart, still in perfect synch, then everybody swings into big, round, high-speed turns, tracks like parentheses, roostertails of snow spraying trees at the trail's edge. The two lines weave through one another, a moving braid, bodies passing just inches apart at a combined 60 mph. Down at the finish line, before the panel of judges, the whole bouncing, popping, mesmerizing ensemble stops as one, in a heartbeat, poles raised in glinting salute.

Competition at the World Alpine Synchro Ski Championships last April in Vail looked like a combination Brazilian Carnivale and a cloning festival. Teams dress in fantastic matching suits, hats, goggles, poles and skis¿most of them 170-cm or 180-cm carving boards stacked up high with under-binding plates. Team Diva, the women's squad from Snowmass, Colo., sports identical silver helmets with Harley Davidson flame decals licking their sides. Members of last year's second place team from Ramsau, Austria, have died their hair an identical persimmon color. Even the telemarkers (there is one team, Total Tele, from Vail), those famously idiosyncratic individualists, don matching, if retro, navy blue and red uniforms.

Obviously, showmanship figures in here. But at its core, this is a serious, rooted, difficult, even dangerous endeavor. Television color commentator Steve Podborski, himself a decorated Olympic downhiller for Canada, acknowledges as much in his on-camera lead in: "This is the highest level of precision skiing you're ever likely to witness. And this is the largest international field ever brought together for this, 'The Battle of the Ski Schools.'" Thirty-three teams representing nine countries have gathered for an event Vail has hosted since the mid-Eighties but which has only recently been billed as a bona fide World Championships.

That grand title and the "Battle of the Ski Schools" moniker were promoter Hayden Scott's ideas. Like Hayden, the terms are both grandiose and credible. He is, with partner Franz Fuchsberger, a two-time World Powder 8 champion and a moving force in the fledgling World Synchro Ski Council, which sanctions competitions in Europe as well. He is also a natural-born P.T. Barnum, having successfully staged a synchro competition indoors, on a plastic slope, in his native London. With intense blue eyes under an eagle-sharp scowl, Scott wants very much for these World Championships to be taken seriously¿perhaps someday even to be considered an Olympic event.

The subtitle "Battle of the Ski Schools" recalls the event's roots. Throughout skiing's formative decades¿the Thirties through the Sixties¿a ski school's hottest instructors would descend in formation to the lodge as the morning ski school bell rang. Witnesses were awed and/or inspired to take lessons from these alpine gods. Beginning in the Fifties, synchro demonstrations found formal expression at the quadrennial Interski Congress, where teams representing the cream of each nation's ski schools showed off precision maneuvers for one another. Though not scored, these gatherings were fiercely competitive, to the point where Swiss national pride might be bruised by a particularly innovative performance by, say, the upstart U.SDemo Team.

Interski and the whole idea of national ski schools promoting their own theory and style have been in decline, but not the need for serious/friendly competition between resorts. In this country, Vail has won the lion's share of events in the Nineties, including the 1998 title on home turf. With its World Cup and Alpine World Championships experience, the resort does know how to put on a show. This one has all the trappings: a raised, shaded, beverage-stocked platform for the six international judges; uniformed staff; big scoreboard; fences and flags. And a full-time disk jockey.

In fact, music is integral to the competition. Each team must choose and supply its own music for each of five "passes" over the two days. A sixth pass, usually the middle pass on day one, is the required "school figure." Organizers pick the soundtrack for this run¿same music for everybody¿a scrap of a thumping, breathy, Britney Spears pop hit. After about 10 teams have descended the Zot course above Mid-Vail to the same thudding beat, one wag in the spring-mood crowd demands to know the song title. "Redundancy," comes the tongue-in-cheek answer from event announcer John Dakin. After the 30th straight Britney Spears fragment, just as the Steamboat Springs (Colo.) Boat Babes are completing their school figure, Dakin intones, "And sales of Britney Spears CDs plummet at ski areas around the world..."

For the other five passes, including two "show passes," during which teams are encouraged to utilize the huge, freestyle jumps on the lower third of the course, choreography and music are left completely up to the competitors. The music runs a delightfully eclectic gamut. The snowboarders from Steamboat, who call themselves "8 Dudes Riding," swing their first pass to the song from the laconic Volkswagen ad: "Da da da." A number of teams use Offspring's "Pretty Fly For a White Guy." Mammoth's women's team, The Broad Squad, does a pass to the Beach Boys' "California Girls." There's a lot of dance mix/dance machine kind of stuff. And some surprises, too. The team from Oberpfalz, Germany, selects a waltz called "Radetzk-Marsch" for one pass and matches it perfectly with sweeping double-pump turns and elegant step turns down the fall line.

Everybody fears the compulsory school figure, which can make or break a team's chances over the two days. You get to throw out your low score from the first and third passes. But you can't throw out your school figure score or any of the three scores on the second day. As demonstrations go, the school figure is not especially complex. But it does magnify any flaws in synchronization, which counts as 50 percent of the score, and ski technique, which is another 25 percent. Showmanship and exciting, entertaining choreography make up the final quarter.

The official rules describe the pass this way: "One vertical line of eight. Skiers 1, 3, 5, 7 right turn first. Skiers 2, 4, 6, 8 left turn first. Count: 5 short turns, 2 long, 5 short, 2 long, 5 short, 2 long, 5 short, stop on 6th. Skiers will be in opposite synch and pass through each other during long turns."

I ask Team Beaver Creek's Claudia Bossi, a native of Davos, Switz., how she memorizes this stuff. She says she breaks each pass down into three or more parts, like a dance. She learns them on paper first¿squiggly lines diagram the changes in tempo and turn shape. "Then I learn the counts: three short, pop, two long, whatever. It's not so difficult really." Yeah, and Claudia speaks four languages seamlessly.

Between runs I see Tamara Sale of Vail's Team Contessa (sponsored by Contessa Farm Raised Shrimp) and teammates doing their counts and moving their hands like fish swimming, the way ski racers do, usually with eyes closed, imagining the turns in a course. "The first time, we may walk through a pass in somebody's living room. But by the time you're in competition, you're not counting any more. Sometimes free skiing, you just do the count on your own, by yourself." Grooving the sequence.

You'd think, given that the school figure has remained unchanged since 1997, the sequence would be pretty well grooved for the veteran teams. And yet the team from Silver Star, B.C., after a flawless upper section, finishes the pass with three long turns and five short. "Is that Canadian math?" deadpans Dakin. "I think that's the ratio of the U.S. to the Canadian dollar," quips the ever quick Podborski.

The gaffe costs Silver Star, an otherwise stylish team in blue and white, earning the squad 58.6 points out of a possible 80 for the pass. Well ahead of the pack with 69.8 points are the flame-haired boys from Ramsau, who give a clinic in exactitude. Three-time Swiss national champions, Flumsberg, hang close with a 64.1.

The five all-women teams compete turn-for-turn with the men. After the first day, Vail's Contessa and Team Diva from Snowmass appear to be the cream. The women from the Roaring Fork Valley ski faster and take bigger risks off the jumps, But the Contessas have the polish, staying fluid and controlled and finishing each run with beaming smiles, as if they'd just completed the best pass of their collective lives.

If the compulsories demonstrate discipline, then the show passes showcase what some of the world's best skiers can do on the new carving skis. The Deer Valley guys, the DV8s, tear through one pass without poles, laying out practically on their sides, boarder-like, raging edge-to-edge across the machine-groomed Zot. The Swedes from Åre are particularly daring and exciting. They perform the school figure at twice the speed of most teams. In the midst of the swooping, interwoven, large-radius turns one of their boys loses an edge and goes down but manages to spring back to his feet, catches up and even makes it back into synch with the rest well before the finish.

For their first pass on day two, the Swedes pull off some astonishing tricks, including carved outrigger turns and something called a "Norwegian Turn" in which they cross legs, one over the other, and keep turning in unison. "Pretty fly for a bunch of Swedish guys," croons Dakin from the announcer's table.

Remarkably, there are few mishaps between skiers at such close quarters and at such dazzling speeds. A few tails clipped mid-cross and a few over-the-handlebars tumbles going for huge air off the kickers. Nothing like the horrifying moment in last year's final round when brothers on the Flumserberg team collided chest to chest at full bore, sending one sailing over the fence and into the spectators. I hear that incident recounted more than once in hushed tones. It gives frightful credence to Doc Tulin's air show analogy.

This year in early morning practice, two German team members skiing opposite synch smacked into one another, sending one to the hospital with a possible broken leg. But it's a wonder, given all the "boxes" and "diagonals" and intermeshing "chainsaw" formations, that we don't see more accidents. It's a tribute to very high skill levels and to the time these people put in. The Deer Valley team is competing for the ninth year in a row. Ramsau's team has been together as a unit for seven years. Team Beaver Creek practices more than 40 days a year, mornings, afternoons, Saturdays, whenever they can steal an hour around ski teaching schedules. All for no pay¿though there is an $15,000 purse, courtesy of presenting sponsor Paul Mitchell Systems, for the winners of this championship.

They do it in part for the prestige. Intra-school competition to land a spot on the synchro team can be savage. Vail's team is pretty much hand-picked, according to 12-year veteran Peggy Wolfe. "It's a real commitment to the competition and to each other. But it's worth it to ski with some of the best women skiers in Vail. And we have the best end-of-season party!"

And, they do it for the intrinsic pleasure in the patterns, the cooperation, the cohesion, the employment of wount on your own, by yourself." Grooving the sequence.

You'd think, given that the school figure has remained unchanged since 1997, the sequence would be pretty well grooved for the veteran teams. And yet the team from Silver Star, B.C., after a flawless upper section, finishes the pass with three long turns and five short. "Is that Canadian math?" deadpans Dakin. "I think that's the ratio of the U.S. to the Canadian dollar," quips the ever quick Podborski.

The gaffe costs Silver Star, an otherwise stylish team in blue and white, earning the squad 58.6 points out of a possible 80 for the pass. Well ahead of the pack with 69.8 points are the flame-haired boys from Ramsau, who give a clinic in exactitude. Three-time Swiss national champions, Flumsberg, hang close with a 64.1.

The five all-women teams compete turn-for-turn with the men. After the first day, Vail's Contessa and Team Diva from Snowmass appear to be the cream. The women from the Roaring Fork Valley ski faster and take bigger risks off the jumps, But the Contessas have the polish, staying fluid and controlled and finishing each run with beaming smiles, as if they'd just completed the best pass of their collective lives.

If the compulsories demonstrate discipline, then the show passes showcase what some of the world's best skiers can do on the new carving skis. The Deer Valley guys, the DV8s, tear through one pass without poles, laying out practically on their sides, boarder-like, raging edge-to-edge across the machine-groomed Zot. The Swedes from Åre are particularly daring and exciting. They perform the school figure at twice the speed of most teams. In the midst of the swooping, interwoven, large-radius turns one of their boys loses an edge and goes down but manages to spring back to his feet, catches up and even makes it back into synch with the rest well before the finish.

For their first pass on day two, the Swedes pull off some astonishing tricks, including carved outrigger turns and something called a "Norwegian Turn" in which they cross legs, one over the other, and keep turning in unison. "Pretty fly for a bunch of Swedish guys," croons Dakin from the announcer's table.

Remarkably, there are few mishaps between skiers at such close quarters and at such dazzling speeds. A few tails clipped mid-cross and a few over-the-handlebars tumbles going for huge air off the kickers. Nothing like the horrifying moment in last year's final round when brothers on the Flumserberg team collided chest to chest at full bore, sending one sailing over the fence and into the spectators. I hear that incident recounted more than once in hushed tones. It gives frightful credence to Doc Tulin's air show analogy.

This year in early morning practice, two German team members skiing opposite synch smacked into one another, sending one to the hospital with a possible broken leg. But it's a wonder, given all the "boxes" and "diagonals" and intermeshing "chainsaw" formations, that we don't see more accidents. It's a tribute to very high skill levels and to the time these people put in. The Deer Valley team is competing for the ninth year in a row. Ramsau's team has been together as a unit for seven years. Team Beaver Creek practices more than 40 days a year, mornings, afternoons, Saturdays, whenever they can steal an hour around ski teaching schedules. All for no pay¿though there is an $15,000 purse, courtesy of presenting sponsor Paul Mitchell Systems, for the winners of this championship.

They do it in part for the prestige. Intra-school competition to land a spot on the synchro team can be savage. Vail's team is pretty much hand-picked, according to 12-year veteran Peggy Wolfe. "It's a real commitment to the competition and to each other. But it's worth it to ski with some of the best women skiers in Vail. And we have the best end-of-season party!"

And, they do it for the intrinsic pleasure in the patterns, the cooperation, the cohesion, the employment of what long-time Beaver Creek instructor Kathy Ryan calls "mature" skiing skills. I notice it myself stealing along behind some of the teams while they were warming up or skiing down to the course. The simple but difficult act of matching my turn shape exactly to those of the skiers in front of me changes my skiing. It takes me out of my normal patterns and into something larger. Add in the mesmerizing alpha-wave rhythms, and you enter a group consciousness, a joint striving for harmony that is quite contrary to skiing's individual nature. And, I imagine, quite addictive.

I have a sister who was a professional ballet dancer. I remember watching her learn a complex series of steps, as a snowflake, say, in "The Nutcracker," and then go out and perform it with a dozen other girls of slightly different sizes and temperaments. All of them striving to meld into a whole greater than the sum of its parts, a single visual expression of the music.

The only synchro team to really pull this off is Ramsau. These guys are on a mission of personal pride and national ambition. Their penultimate pass, to the tune "Rock Me Amadeus," earns the day's highest score by far, a 72.7, and an involuntary wide-eyed "Wow!" from the crowd. Fast, precise and full of fist-pumping energy, they achieve something head judge Norm Crerar counts as the ultimate in synchro: "They skied as one and not as eight guys trying to be one." They also earn the highest compliment Crerar can bestow: "As you watch, you want to be in that demonstration."

I have that feeling a lot while watching the hypnotic, born-on-skis beauty of the Swiss from Grindelwald; the exuberant finish (in lederhosen!) of the boys from Solden, Austria; the awesome rapid-fire air of the Snowmass men, who stick all eight landings and pop right back into synch. Even the rough, just-emerging-into-butterflies style of the two teams from Turkey¿yes, Turkey¿sweeps the crowd like an infectious wave. For the moment at least, there is enough talent and international goodwill to lend weight to the Olympic idea. "You have synchronized swimming and ballroom dancing now," says Beaver Creek's Tulin. "So why not synchro skiing?"

At the end there is the slightly terrifying tradition Hayden Scott calls the Pass En Masse. All 300-plus competitors gather at the start and descend together like a crowd pouring out of the stands to tear down the goal posts. You just pray nobody falls in the middle of the leaping, short-swinging, pole-clinking horde.

The camaraderie continues deep into the night at the Kaltenberg Castle restaurant at Lionshead in Vail. The Contessas, women's division winners, have showered and changed into tight, matching white shirts with the Contessa logo. Typical Tyroleans, many of the Austrians drink beer in their ski boots and competition uniforms. The partying spills into the streets where a limo disgorges three prom-night couples from nearby Battle Mountain High School. Ever gallant, and still in synch, the ginger-haired Austrians stand at attention and create a ski pole arch through which the astonished couples pass, honored and giggling.

For more information about the Battle of the Ski Schools, log onto www.battleoftheskischools.com

Check out Getting in Synch

Check out Getting in Synch: Getting Started

Check out Getting in Synch: All The Right Moves, Basic Moves

Check out Getting in Synch: All The Right Moves, Advanced Moves of what long-time Beaver Creek instructor Kathy Ryan calls "mature" skiing skills. I notice it myself stealing along behind some of the teams while they were warming up or skiing down to the course. The simple but difficult act of matching my turn shape exactly to those of the skiers in front of me changes my skiing. It takes me outt of my normal patterns and into something larger. Add in the mesmerizing alpha-wave rhythms, and you enter a group consciousness, a joint striving for harmony that is quite contrary to skiing's individual nature. And, I imagine, quite addictive.

I have a sister who was a professional ballet dancer. I remember watching her learn a complex series of steps, as a snowflake, say, in "The Nutcracker," and then go out and perform it with a dozen other girls of slightly different sizes and temperaments. All of them striving to meld into a whole greater than the sum of its parts, a single visual expression of the music.

The only synchro team to really pull this off is Ramsau. These guys are on a mission of personal pride and national ambition. Their penultimate pass, to the tune "Rock Me Amadeus," earns the day's highest score by far, a 72.7, and an involuntary wide-eyed "Wow!" from the crowd. Fast, precise and full of fist-pumping energy, they achieve something head judge Norm Crerar counts as the ultimate in synchro: "They skied as one and not as eight guys trying to be one." They also earn the highest compliment Crerar can bestow: "As you watch, you want to be in that demonstration."

I have that feeling a lot while watching the hypnotic, born-on-skis beauty of the Swiss from Grindelwald; the exuberant finish (in lederhosen!) of the boys from Solden, Austria; the awesome rapid-fire air of the Snowmass men, who stick all eight landings and pop right back into synch. Even the rough, just-emerging-into-butterflies style of the two teams from Turkey¿yes, Turkey¿sweeps the crowd like an infectious wave. For the moment at least, there is enough talent and international goodwill to lend weight to the Olympic idea. "You have synchronized swimming and ballroom dancing now," says Beaver Creek's Tulin. "So why not synchro skiing?"

At the end there is the slightly terrifying tradition Hayden Scott calls the Pass En Masse. All 300-plus competitors gather at the start and descend together like a crowd pouring out of the stands to tear down the goal posts. You just pray nobody falls in the middle of the leaping, short-swinging, pole-clinking horde.

The camaraderie continues deep into the night at the Kaltenberg Castle restaurant at Lionshead in Vail. The Contessas, women's division winners, have showered and changed into tight, matching white shirts with the Contessa logo. Typical Tyroleans, many of the Austrians drink beer in their ski boots and competition uniforms. The partying spills into the streets where a limo disgorges three prom-night couples from nearby Battle Mountain High School. Ever gallant, and still in synch, the ginger-haired Austrians stand at attention and create a ski pole arch through which the astonished couples pass, honored and giggling.

For more information about the Battle of the Ski Schools, log onto www.battleoftheskischools.com

Check out Getting in Synch

Check out Getting in Synch: Getting Started

Check out Getting in Synch: All The Right Moves, Basic Moves

Check out Getting in Synch: All The Right Moves, Advanced Moves