I didn't have my camera with me at the USSA Masters National Championships in Breckenridge, Colo., last March. I should have. For five days, the heart and soul of American ski racing-some 300 strong-gathered to put the pedal to the metal. Renew old friendships. Drink a little beer. But mostly, to kick some butt and bring home the medals.
Competition crackled on World Cup-level courses and in 12 competitive age divisions-from post-college age to 80-and-over. These are the people who keep America's ski racing tradition alive: coaching junior programs, driving to weekend regional series races, dressing up for ski-ball fundraisers, loving skiing beyond the common passion. They are the best ski racers in America nobody's heard of. So slip into visualization mode and follow along with my "If-I'd-only-had-the-camera" slide show.
Here we are inside the warming hut on Breckenridge's Peak 10. I know, it's a little hard to see, isn't it? That's because of all the steamy breath in there. It was really cold-below zero with whipping winds-and the guys were hanging out inside, stretching and laughing nervously, waiting for the men's slalom start. Click
Here's Chip Chilson, a 42-year-old Aspenite, working his hamstrings and talking with his office on the cell phone. The guy behind him in the old-fashioned padded sweater is Stein Halsnes, Chilson's "nemesis" in the Class 4 (age 40-44) bracket. Both men raced on the now-defunct Coors Pro Tour in the early Eighties. These days, Halsnes builds houses up in the Steamboat area, and Chilson runs an athletic club in Carbondale, Colo. Halsnes is about to walk by and punch Chilson on the shoulder. It's a friendly enough punch, but it also sends a message:
Forget the phone, buddy. You ready to race?Click
Some of the top skiers here have equipment sponsors just like the World Cup stars. Chilson is still sponsored by Rossignol. And this woman, in the super-hero suit, is 54-year-old Glenn McConkey from Olympic Valley, Calif., the scourge of the Class 6 women and mother to famous freeskier, Shane. No doubt she picks up her Volants right from the factory. Non-sponsored Masters tend to be cutting-edge gearheads as well, forking over large chunks of their wages for the latest GS race shapes, slalom armor and wax boxes bursting with $100 per ounce fluorinated glide powders.Click
Meet a guy who is definitely not sponsored, Wayne Sheldrake, 37, from Creede, Colo. Check out his kit. The skis he bought for $3 from a second-hand store (mint-condition, 10-year-old Fischers). The lifters he made himself by jigsawing sections out of an old wooden ski. For headgear, he cut the face mask off a football helmet, and he found his racing tights (lime green Otto Tschudi signature models) at the Rainbow's End thrift store in Alamosa, Colo. Eleven-dollar, hardware-store gloves and nylon overpants from Kmart complete the ensemble. Sheldrake's best finish in Breck was a 22nd in slalom. He was just happy to be there. "I might be five seconds out," he told me, "but hey, there's no shame in that. I just want to race with these guys, take a second run and maybe improve my time by a second." Sheldrake earned the right to compete at Nationals, like everyone else there, by competing in a winter-long series in one of eight USSA Masters regions: Alaska, Pacific Northwest, Far West, Rockies, Intermountain, Northern, Central and East.Click
This shot shows the white circle of frostbite on Sheldrake's cheekbone on the brittle morning of the GS. "I thought maybe," he told me, "if I kept my tongue in my cheek...." Click
While some Masters may be overachieving NASTAR gold medalists, many raced in college. A few, such as former U.S. Ski Team member Tom Bowers, here smoking the second run of the GS, can really arc 'em. Arc-to-arc skiing, that's what they call it. Bowers, 37, who manages a ski shop in Aspen, sliced one pencil-thin semi-ciircle after another around the panels. No skidding, no drifting, no gaps in a continuous sinuous Tomba-line. At the finish, friend and age-division rival Ron Matelich said it all: "Nice touch, Thomas."Click u A lot of racers are here for a lot of different reasons. This is John Risley, 48, from Long Meadow, Mass. His 20-year-old daughter, Kate, died last summer in a boating accident. He's still shaky about it, "but the skiing seems to be grounding me," he explained between slalom runs. Risley won't finish higher than 13th in any of the races (SL, GS, super G and combined) but he feels his daughter's presence on every run. "We all have a heightened sense of vulnerability now. Continuing to ski race, being here," he told me, moisture freezing on his eyelashes, "is one way to honor Kate."Click
Some of the older guys and gals have been racing each other so long they're like family-a family of fiercely competitive siblings. This is Norma Lausmann, 74, from Olympic Valley, Calif., the queen of Class 10. You can barely make her out there in the starting gate in her amanita speed suit-red with the white polka dots. The snow really pounded down on Tuesday for the women's GS.A second before she stepped up to the wand, Lausmann turned to the bundled group behind her in the start corral and shouted, "You know, I could be in the old folks' home right now, knitting, with a shawl over my legs. What am I doing here? Shivering! I never shiver!" Whereupon Lausmann drove her poles into the snow ("Racer ready? Go!"), dove into the murk and spanked the technical, thigh-burning course for her fourth gold medal of the Championships.Click
I tried to get a good shot of the awards parties that bubbled along every night at Maggie's slopeside bar, but it was tough. All those bodies milling around, grazing, beer cups in hand, heads craning to see video replays of the day's races. That long-legged blur there bounding off the podium is Stacie Pannell, an Air Force nurse from Boise, Idaho, and Class 1 (25-29) racer. She took third in the super G. "I'm not supposed to wear my hair down like this," I later overheard her saying to a group of admirers, referring, apparently, to military rules. The attention paid the comely 26 year old pointed up a recent lacking in the Masters program-too few younger racers-a dearth USSA hopes to address this year by expanding Class 1 down to age 21. Click
Over there by the crudités, the tall fellow with the white hair, that's Capt. John Woodward, Ret., U.S. Army Tenth Mountain Division. Eighty-four years old from Phoenix, Ariz. One of the real heroes. Woodward took all four golds in Class 12. The man skis smooth as nylon. Mind sharp as a tuned edge. His chief rival in the 80 and overs, Colorado's Max Dercum, raced this week on a pair of 25-year-old, super sidecut Head Yahoos from his basement collection, "Just to prove that old is new." There must be something to this high-speed pushing of the envelope, this pouring of sometimes reluctant bodies into skin-tight suits, this nomadic string of weekend races culminating here at the Nationals. The East's Agnar Fjordholm (52, Ashburn, Va.) calls it "mental therapy." Yes, and surely there is some physical magic at work, too: cold snow and fast times keeping the muscles and the spirit young. This year's Masters Nationals will be held at California's Mammoth Mountain, March 21-28. For regional series and membership information call USSA Masters Coordinator Bill Skinner at (801) 647-2633.