In the aftermath of the attacks of Sept. 11, our sport-like our nation-was left to ponder its place in the world. Skiers took pride when the 10th Mountain Division helped lead the way into Afghanistan to strike a blow for retribution. Then in January, when New York City's fire department gathered at Hunter Mountain for the 29th Annual FDNY Firefighters Ski Race, the sport showed its real strength: the ability to lift spirits.
"I was up on the mountain yesterday," says race director and retired FDNY Capt. Joe Jove, while greeting the 675 racers. "There were a bunch of firefighters out already, and I noticed them just standing on the top of the hill, looking around at the view and the trees. They're just standing there, gazing. And you know, it's just what they need-a good cleansing. Hopefully this will be the start of the recovery."The Firefighters Ski Race began in 1973 as a friendly grudge match between two FDNY ski houses. "It just snowballed from there," saysco-founder, Ray Valcich. Race rules require five competitors in helmets and turnout coats to carry a 50-foot hose through a modified GS course.Today, 135 teams will compete. It's one of the first FDNY social events since 9/11, and race day dawns bright. Atop Madison Avenue, a leisurely blue run that serves as Hunter's race hill, three lithesome "Bud girls" wrap themselves around firemen as they mug for team photos. "I just love these guys, they're the best, God bless America," gushes Michelle Peters, clad in a fiery-red Anheuser-Busch outfit.
Though they might not all put it the same way, the fraternity that is the New York Fire Department has a place in its heart for each and every one of its members. "The firehouse is a lot like family," observes firefighter Jerry Lee. "We eat and sleep under the same roof." On Sept. 11, that family took a crushing hit when 343 of its members didn't come home.
Waiting in line to race, joking with teammates from Ladder 23 and Engine 80, is 11-year veteran Rob Carlo of Queens. With temperatures near 60, Carlo wears a pair of blue flowered shorts under his turnout coat. "They were my brother's," he says solemnly. And there, pinned close to his heart, is a laminated photo of his younger brother, Michael. Beneath a head shot of the handsome 34-year-old firefighter, it reads simply: DOD 9-11-01.
"Everything's different now. Everything's changed," reflects Mike Mushlit, a member of last year's winning team. A hundred miles-but just yesterday-from Ground Zero, where the grim recovery work continues as he speaks, guys like Mushlit clearly welcome the chance to be on the mountain. "We just want to ski," offers teammate Joe Montano.
Mike Kenney, from Ladder 106 in Brooklyn, is equally passionate about hitting the hill. He flew in this morning from skiing in Utah, just to be back for the race. "I had to be here," Kenney says, sadness showing in his Irish eyes. The terrorists killed his good friend, Paddy Waters, and one of his company's lieutenants, Glenn Wilkinson from Engine 238.
"Mike stole my trophy once before we were friends," barks teammate Kevin Griffith, rescuing the moment. "1989!" Kenney needles back. "It was on a technicality," grouses Griffith, still taking issue with the five-second penalty for illegal apparel.
For every well-oiled team in the race-like winners John Koinor-owski and Co.-there's another performing a slapstick routine worthy of Warren Miller. This time it's Tim Lipinski and his mates from Ladder 22 that whip, trip or otherwise shuck half the team off the hose. Desperate to rejoin the line, Lipinski makes a headlong lunge through the finish. "I had to make that dive," he announces gleefully, oblivious to the blood tingeing his broad grin.
"Finding guys was the worst thing that ever happened in your life, but also the best thing," Lipinski says later. He looks around. "This is good. It's one of the first times I forgot everything." Then he huddles with another firefighter to share a tiidbit about a fallen brother.
"They'll talk, they'll cry, and they'll ski," says Jim Curran, president of the New York Firefighters Burn Center Foundation. "That's a healthy thing." The race is also for a good cause: The Foundation, which will take in $41,000 today, helps support the Burn Center at New York Presbyterian Hospital, the facility that treated the most critically burned patients from the WTC.
When the lifts stop, the fire department's Emerald Society bagpipes-which have played at far too many funerals lately-will echo through Hunter's airy lodge. But first, Carlo, Mushlit and Kenney seize the opportunity to rack up some vertical, breathe sighs of relief and just gaze across the rolling landscape.
The sun begins to sink behind the Catskills, and the temptation to hit the bar grows strong. But still, guys in turnout coats point their skis down Belt-Parkway and 7th Avenue. From somewhere, it seems, 343 fallen comrades are whispering a request: one last run for them.
How To Help New York Firefighters Burn Center Foundation, 21 Asch Loop, New York, N.Y. 10475 www.nyffburncenter.org