Ski Like a Girl

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More women than men try skiing each year, but men outnumber women almost two-to-one on the hill. Where do women go? And why? A peek into Jeannie Thoren's world of women's clinics reveals the answers.

"I signed on for the clinic because I taught my kids how to ski, and now that they're older, they like going down Screech Owl a double-black mogul run at Beaver Creek, Colo., and I don't," says Ann Olin, one of the students at Thoren's three-day clinic at Vail, Colo.

"I just want to be able to keep up with my husband," confides Janet Haines, a shoestore owner from Glenwood Springs, Colo. Turns out her husband has been on Winter Park's patrol for 26 years, and she's had a couple of serious back surgeries. "After the first surgery, I was in a lot pain, and they thought I'd never be able to ski again," says Janet.

Ann and Janet are not alone-17 other women are here looking for solutions to similar frustrations. Thoren's students range from 27-year-old entrepreneurs to 65-year-old housewives, and they all have one thing in common: Their ski progress has leveled off, and they're exhausting their enthusiasm for the sport by just trying to get better. All that stands between them selling their skis at the next local ski swap are Jeannie Thoren and her husband, Tom Haas (a.k.a. "Dear"). Every fall, they hook a 28-foot trailer to their Dodge Ram diesel and drive from resort to resort, preaching the gospel according to Jean. By mid-April, when they finally point their rig for home (Duluth, Minn.), they've woven a 20,000-mile web, linking resorts throughout the country. At each resort, Jeannie has handpicked a team of women instruction gurus who know and believe in her theory. Many have been teaching her instruction program for years now, so Jeannie can focus on gear. A hundred days every winter, Jeannie and Tom are on: Jeannie buzzing about in ski boots, advising students, helping them get into the right gear, giving technical pointers; Tom the Saint, kneepads in place, fitting students in boots, adjusting bindings, quietly smiling all the while. Stamina is this man's middle name.

The first night of the Vail clinic finds 19 of us attentively listening to a lecture on human anatomy and ski construction. There are no yawns during the post-cocktail, two-hour talk-just resounding "hmms" and "aahs." Jeannie Thoren stands at the front of the room, giving the same talk she does at least 20 times per season. You'd think she might have gotten bored of her own jokes, but no. Her enthusiasm and laughter are genuine. "If I weren't a native Yooper, I probably wouldn't have stuck with my ideas about specialized equipment for women in the face of industry disbelief," chuckles Thoren. "I was born in Marquette, Michigan. It's a Scandinavian stronghold, so you have a bunch of hard-working, hard-headed people who don't mind the cold. We try stuff, and we stick with stuff," she says earnestly. To be sure, she still has the thick Yooper accent and tenacity born from growing up in such a harsh, isolated place.

Her own ski story explains a lot about why she's standing in front of our group tonight. And she's clearly proud of what she's accomplished. Jeannie was on the 1964 Junior National Alpine team, placed second in her class in the Birkebeiner in the late Seventies, won the Sun Valley, Idaho, Pin-Binding Downhill three consecutive years and was named to SKI's list of 100 Most Influential Skiers and Skiing Magazine's Top 25 equivalent.

"So," she says, bold as the day, "I clearly could hold my own with the best of them. But I wanted to ski even better." No matter how hard she tried or trained, however, she just couldn't get to the next level. "Then I read Warren Witherell's book How the Racers Ski. His concepts on alignment and equipment modification made sense to me as I had struggled with skiing 'knock-kneed' my whole life." So she went to the local shop and had her alignment checked. At her insistence, the shop installed 4-degree cants, hi-side inside, under her bindings. "I skied the mountain non-stop, skied into the woods at the bottom, threw my skis, poles, gloves, goggles and hat as far as I could fling them, sat on a log and cried for an hour. All those years of working so hard, and all I needed were shims under bindings. I've never skied a run since without my cants."

That was the turning point in Thoren's career. From that moment on she trusted her feelings and not someone else's observations. "Instead of blaming myself for flaws in my technique, I looked to mechanical solutions." Footbeds, heel lifts, and forward binding locations followed.

So while Jeannie updates her clinics as ski technology evolves, the underlying principle of the Thoren Theory is the same today as when she discovered the magic of cants three decades ago. She describes with gusto the differences between men's and women's bodies (she was pre-med before she got sidetracked into being a full-time ski instructor).

"Women are not small men," Thoren emphasizes. "They aren't better or worse-just different." Women have bigger hips and smaller shoulders, and thus their center of gravity is lower and farther back than a man's. Women also have smaller feet. Why this matters, explains Thoren, is because skis are typically designed and bindings mounted with a man's bigger feet and higher center of gravity in mind. This makes it hard for the average 5-foot-5-inch, 140-pound woman to flex the tip of the typical ski. Try as she may to pressure the front of the ski, it just chatters in response because her weight is back.

"Hold a pear upside down; this is how a man is shaped," says Thoren, "with more weight above the waist, so it's easier for him to get forward on the skis. Now hold the pear right-side up, and you have the woman's body shape. When a woman tries to get forward, her male-tailored equipment forces her back onto the tails of the skis."

Thoren explains how wider hips affect technique. While a man's thigh bones come out of the hip socket almost perpendicular to the ground, a woman's angle more radically toward the knee. These more pronounced "Q-angles" make it harder to get a ski up on edge. Then there are the woman's lower calves and thinner ankles, not a big deal unless you're trying to find a ski boot that holds down your heel but doesn't pinch your calf. Last on the list is canting, an adjustment from which most skiers-male or female-can benefit.

"You can't change anatomy, so it's logical to change the apparatus," she chuckles. Moving the bindings forward 2 centimeters solves the center-of-gravity dilemma for most women. Proper canting and cuff alignment alleviate the Q-angle problem. Heel lifts resolve most calf/ankle issues, while also helping women pressure the tips of their skis. Using women's-specific skis, which are lighter and softer in flex, completes the package.

Over the next three days, Thoren and Tom make gradual modifications to everyone's gear. While a few women come to the clinic with dialed-in setups, most own either old boots and/or skis that are too straight or too long. For a few, cost has been the main obstacle, but many say they haven't updated their gear because salesmen and new technology intimidate them. Jeannie and Tom travel with 100 pairs of skis, the same number of boots, and a fleet of demo helmets, goggles and poles for exactly these reasons.

On the first morning, we meet for breakfast at 7:30. Everyone's a bit nervous, and tired. Before boarding the lift, Jeannie has us click into our gear and leads us in on-snow stretches. After we're warmed up, she has us lift our poles off the snow as we try to balance on one foot. At first everyone strains to stay upright, but soon giggles spread through the group. In just two minutes on snow, Jeannie has managed to loosen us up physically-and mentally. We repeat the same exercise on the other foot. Almost everyone has a strong and weak side.

"Footbeds and canting will take care of that," promises Jeannie. "Let's go." We glide over to the Lionshead gondola, scoot to the front of the ski school line and board in three groups of eight.

The first few runs are spent showing us how gear affects our skiing, with an emphasis on boots. Jeannie videotapes us as we make short turns on our original equipment down a short, moderate pitch. Some women make 50 turns; others manage just 10. We do exercises that help us feel how well our boots fit-or don't. As we glide across the hill, we're asked to do "a thousand steps."

"Generally people don't pick their feet up off the snow," Jeannie explains, "and until they do, they don't realize how many gaps and spaces there are between their boot liners and their feet." It doesn't take long for Jeannie and her team of instructors to figure out what adjustments need to be made. We head down to the slopeside meeting room where Tom goes to work, pulling out liners to insert heel lifts and padding.

After a few more runs, we head back to the meeting room for lunch. During the break, some women decide to demo new boots. While they're being fit, the rest of us huddle around the TV to watch video. Jeannie and the instructors give us pointers. Even the strongest skiers fidget as they await their moment on the screen. As she watches herself, Ali Myer, owner of Vail's Verbatim bookstore, confides, "I wish I could get my skis up on edge." "To do that," answers instructor Pam Melone, "your feet need to be farther apart. We'll work on that."

After more tweaks to the boots, we head out again for an afternoon of instruction. Pam lets the group dictate what we work on. The unanimous weak point is bumps. One chair ride to the top of Vail's frontside nets us three bump runs. Pam starts us with an easy one. No problem. The next one is a bit steeper, and everyone hesitates. "Who's going first?" nudges Pam. Eagle local Ann Olin, ever energetic, points 'em down the fall line. The first few turns look good, but by the fourth she's back on her skis, looking tentative. "Watch my hands," says Pam, as she smoothly weaves her way down to Ann. As we watch, we let out a collective chuckle at the thought of trying to emulate her. Pam's whole body, not just her hands, is pure precision. "Did you see what they did?" she asks. After everyone puts in her two cents, Pam gives out a few tips. The one that seems to resonate most is, "Stab the monkey in the toes, punch the monkey in the nose." Translated that means, plant the pole down the hill, then punch your hand down the hill and your body will follow. It works miracles in tight spots.

That evening, we convene at Kenny's Double Diamond Ski Shop to have canting analysis done and custom footbeds molded. Kenny's is one of the country's best bootfitters, and everyone is quickly sold on the benefits of both processes. After a bit of wine and cheese, many of the women are sold on new ski outfits, too.

We put the boot modifications to the test the next morning. Only the hardest-to-fit women are disappointed. Everyone else is ecstatic. "I was a bit skeptical about the need for new gear," admits Ann. "So I decided not to tell them that my right leg is a quarter-inch shorter than my left. While I was having my alignment checked, he kept asking me to bend and flex and then rechecking the marks on my knees. Finally he just looked at me and said, 'What's wrong with your right leg?'" In addition to a new footbed and canting work, the guys at Kenny's put a quarter-inch lift into Ann's right boot. "I can tell a huge difference," Ann reports. "I feel more solid on my skis-like my feet are in control, so my legs don't have to work as hard."

A properly fitted boot won't help much if you're on the wrong ski, so we move on to the ski demoing process. Each of us is handed a card that lists all the skis by model and length, so we can keep track of what we've skied and which ones we like. By lunch, even self-described technophobes who had come to the clinic as a last resort aises Jeannie. "Let's go." We glide over to the Lionshead gondola, scoot to the front of the ski school line and board in three groups of eight.

The first few runs are spent showing us how gear affects our skiing, with an emphasis on boots. Jeannie videotapes us as we make short turns on our original equipment down a short, moderate pitch. Some women make 50 turns; others manage just 10. We do exercises that help us feel how well our boots fit-or don't. As we glide across the hill, we're asked to do "a thousand steps."

"Generally people don't pick their feet up off the snow," Jeannie explains, "and until they do, they don't realize how many gaps and spaces there are between their boot liners and their feet." It doesn't take long for Jeannie and her team of instructors to figure out what adjustments need to be made. We head down to the slopeside meeting room where Tom goes to work, pulling out liners to insert heel lifts and padding.

After a few more runs, we head back to the meeting room for lunch. During the break, some women decide to demo new boots. While they're being fit, the rest of us huddle around the TV to watch video. Jeannie and the instructors give us pointers. Even the strongest skiers fidget as they await their moment on the screen. As she watches herself, Ali Myer, owner of Vail's Verbatim bookstore, confides, "I wish I could get my skis up on edge." "To do that," answers instructor Pam Melone, "your feet need to be farther apart. We'll work on that."

After more tweaks to the boots, we head out again for an afternoon of instruction. Pam lets the group dictate what we work on. The unanimous weak point is bumps. One chair ride to the top of Vail's frontside nets us three bump runs. Pam starts us with an easy one. No problem. The next one is a bit steeper, and everyone hesitates. "Who's going first?" nudges Pam. Eagle local Ann Olin, ever energetic, points 'em down the fall line. The first few turns look good, but by the fourth she's back on her skis, looking tentative. "Watch my hands," says Pam, as she smoothly weaves her way down to Ann. As we watch, we let out a collective chuckle at the thought of trying to emulate her. Pam's whole body, not just her hands, is pure precision. "Did you see what they did?" she asks. After everyone puts in her two cents, Pam gives out a few tips. The one that seems to resonate most is, "Stab the monkey in the toes, punch the monkey in the nose." Translated that means, plant the pole down the hill, then punch your hand down the hill and your body will follow. It works miracles in tight spots.

That evening, we convene at Kenny's Double Diamond Ski Shop to have canting analysis done and custom footbeds molded. Kenny's is one of the country's best bootfitters, and everyone is quickly sold on the benefits of both processes. After a bit of wine and cheese, many of the women are sold on new ski outfits, too.

We put the boot modifications to the test the next morning. Only the hardest-to-fit women are disappointed. Everyone else is ecstatic. "I was a bit skeptical about the need for new gear," admits Ann. "So I decided not to tell them that my right leg is a quarter-inch shorter than my left. While I was having my alignment checked, he kept asking me to bend and flex and then rechecking the marks on my knees. Finally he just looked at me and said, 'What's wrong with your right leg?'" In addition to a new footbed and canting work, the guys at Kenny's put a quarter-inch lift into Ann's right boot. "I can tell a huge difference," Ann reports. "I feel more solid on my skis-like my feet are in control, so my legs don't have to work as hard."

A properly fitted boot won't help much if you're on the wrong ski, so we move on to the ski demoing process. Each of us is handed a card that lists all the skis by model and length, so we can keep track of what we've skied and which ones we like. By lunch, even self-described technophobes who had come to the clinic as a last resort are running into the room gushing about how the Völkl Vertigo G20-20 is more stable at speed than the Head Cyber Light, but the Cyber is easier to turn. Ann's favorite pair is the Rossi Viper. "If I could have any ski, this would be it. But it's not in the budget right now," she says.

Soon everyone has selected a favorite ski, and Tom starts moving bindings forward. This adjustment has the most impact for lightweight women who have trouble pressuring even the most supple skis.

By the end of the day, the results are in, and there's no question that the combination of equipment modifications and exceptional instruction has produced significant improvements in the way we ski. Ann, who hated bumps and feared speed, zooms down expert Minnie's Mile. "I still have a healthy respect for speed," she says, "but now I feel in control. Before there was a lot of slop in my boots, and it made turning my skis so much work. Now my skis are actually doing what I want them to do, which gives me confidence." That night there's a banquet at the Colorado Ski Museum. After cocktails and dinner, each participant shares her ski story. "I still probably won't go down Screech Owl," admits Ann, "but I feel a whole lot better than I ever have before. When I came to this clinic, I didn't think new, more expensive equipment would help me ski better. Now I'm a convert. I understand why it's important to have the right equipment for your skill level."

Each tale is unique, but the theme is the same. And as we work our way around the table, you can feel sparks of understanding fly around the room.

The last morning, instructors mesh the mechanical adjustments with skill development. After lunch, Jeannie videotapes us again for a final evaluation at the après-ski party. The rest of the afternoon is all about just ripping it up, and by 3 p.m., we're all exhausted. As we huddle around the monitor, all the nervousness of the first day is gone. Women cheer one another on and laugh at their own less-than-perfect turns. The room is filled with camaraderie and a rejuvenated love for skiing. Mary Anne Frye of Cincinnati pulls a bag from under the table and holds up a T-shirt that reads "You Go Girl."

"I saw these and thought y'all might like one, too," she explains. We all pull one on and line up for a group picture. The smiles on our tanned faces are huge. It's good to be a girl.

Check out Jeannie's homepagert are running into the room gushing about how the Völkl Vertigo G20-20 is more stable at speed than the Head Cyber Light, but the Cyber is easier to turn. Ann's favorite pair is the Rossi Viper. "If I could have any ski, this would be it. But it's not in the budget right now," she says.

Soon everyone has selected a favorite ski, and Tom starts moving bindings forward. This adjustment has the most impact for lightweight women who have trouble pressuring even the most supple skis.

By the end of the day, the results are in, and there's no question that the combination of equipment modifications and exceptional instruction has produced significant improvements in the way we ski. Ann, who hated bumps and feared speed, zooms down expert Minnie's Mile. "I still have a healthy respect for speed," she says, "but now I feel in control. Before there was a lot of slop in my boots, and it made turning my skis so much work. Now my skis are actually doing what I want them to do, which gives me confidence." That night there's a banquet at the Colorado Ski Museum. After cocktails and dinner, each participant shares her ski story. "I still probably won't go down Screech Owl," admits Ann, "but I feel a whole lot better than I ever have before. When I came to this clinic, I didn't think new, more expensive equipment would help me ski better. Now I'm a convert. I understand why it's important to have the right equipment for your skill level."

Each tale is unique, but the theme is the same. And as we work our way around thee table, you can feel sparks of understanding fly around the room.

The last morning, instructors mesh the mechanical adjustments with skill development. After lunch, Jeannie videotapes us again for a final evaluation at the après-ski party. The rest of the afternoon is all about just ripping it up, and by 3 p.m., we're all exhausted. As we huddle around the monitor, all the nervousness of the first day is gone. Women cheer one another on and laugh at their own less-than-perfect turns. The room is filled with camaraderie and a rejuvenated love for skiing. Mary Anne Frye of Cincinnati pulls a bag from under the table and holds up a T-shirt that reads "You Go Girl."

"I saw these and thought y'all might like one, too," she explains. We all pull one on and line up for a group picture. The smiles on our tanned faces are huge. It's good to be a girl.

Check out Jeannie's homepage