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Fast And Furious

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Fast and Furious

It is early March in Jackson, N.H., and four young racers are matching pole for pole, kick for kick as they attack the steep, sinuous track that winds through the hardwood forest. Here in the shadow of Mount Washington, record heat has wreaked havoc on the U.S. Ski Association's Junior Olympic Cross-Country Championships. Fifty-degree temperatures and rain have turned Jackson's classic JO course to a heavy slush that drains skiers accustomed to training on central Idaho's dry, cold, fast crystals.

On this, the third and final five-kilometer lap of the J1 Boys (ages 16-18) 15K Classic, the four have climbed nearly 800 vertical feet in seven miles. My son Andrew's arms and legs are leaden with lactic acid. His breathing is deep and rapid, and his heart wavers in and out of an anaerobic red zone. He cannot hear the screaming parents and cheering teammates who line the course. He can only see moving skis, pumping arms, blurred faces and flying snow. Sweat pours off his face as, timing his poles to a rapid, diagonal stride, he fights to hang with the group. Eight months of training at Sun Valley's 6,000 feet will allow him to give more, but not much. As the grade increases his pace slows and he starts to drop back.

To qualify for JOs earlier that winter, Andrew had to finish in the top six at three Intermountain qualifiers. The same, however, is true for every other junior skier who has traveled from the Far West, Pacific Northwest, Great Lakes, Alaska and six other divisions. At JOs there are no pushovers, no 90-pound weaklings or pace-setting rabbits who will bolt aside at the shout of "Track!" These are the nation's best-tough, motivated and extraordinarily fit teenagers who, for this week in early March, would rather win a gold medal than a date with Jennifer Lopez.

Each place in the final standings is viciously contested. In the minds of the racers, coaches and spectators, the difference between 20th and 21st is as vast as that between first and second. To compete at JOs not only requires intense focus and hard work but also a white-hot fire in the belly. That 16-year-old Andrew and 14-year-old Robert are here at all fills me with wonder.

Though nordic skiing is steeped in tradition-4,000 years of tradition, if the petroglyphs in Rodoy, Norway, are accurate-in the U.S. the sport has always played the poor stepchild to alpine skiing. Watch U.S. Olympic coverage and you will see that cross-country is afforded roughly one-quarter of the time typically allocated to alpine-in itself a minor, beleaguered sport when compared to the lush, effusive coverage given to figure skating and hockey. And yet, I realize that if my sons can excel in nordic skiing, then college or a career will offer minor obstacles.

IT IS HARD TO MISS ANDREW'S BRILLIANT BLOND HAIR AS HE BURSTS FROM SHADOW TO SUN AND BACK TO SHADOW. AS HE CLIMBS TOWARD ME, I YELL"Get tough, son! Get tough! It's downhill from here!" Andrew has admitted that he never hears me and thus it makes no difference whether I cheer or not. He does, however, always hear Coach Rick Kapala.

Kapala has been waiting a year for this moment. Five-foot-seven, 170 pounds, early 40s, Kapala's powerful shoulders and legs speak to a career in collegiate wrestling and nordic coaching. He is, by any standard, a dynamo-a man of enormous energy and rare insight. As one of 10 coaches for the Intermountain Team, he has been forced to adapt to unseasonable temperatures, evaporating snow and last-minute schedule changes. Races have been pushed forward by two days and now, standing near the highest point on the course, he watches Andrew attack the steep, slushy grade.

Kapala believes coaches exist to support the athletes when moments of weakness appear. In the past, I have heard him advise the kids, "Each race is a risk, and to be the best you can be in cross-country skiing takes a long time. You can't know how you will finish. Sometimes you win...most of the time you don't. But ifou believe in yourself and understand first that your mind is your most powerful tool, then everything else comes easy." Then in a nod to the grueling workouts and races, he adds, "Or less hard might be a better way of putting it."

Kapala starts to run before Andrew reaches him. Despite the fact that his voice is hoarse, he yells out Andrew's splits. "You're skiing the race of your life!" he shouts. "You're two seconds out of 13th! Six seconds out of top ten! Andrew, this is your race!" Andrew will indeed ski the race of his season-14th overall at 43:47.3, he finishes 57 seconds out of the top ten.

Since arriving in Jackson, Kapala's days and nights have been filled with team workouts, testing waxes and offering encouragement and advice to 54 nervous racers. None of the coaches have had more than six hours of sleep in the last two days and the fatigue shows. By the time the last Intermountain skier finishes, Kapala will have sprinted the hill 50 times. The faces and splits will change, but his energy will not waver. Each racer draws strength from his raspy voice and unshakable confidence.

To distinguish themselves from the pack at JOs, the Sun Valley boys made a pact to dye their hair. The colors ranged from shocking pink and industrial-grade lime green to an artistic aquamarine and rusty orange. My son Robert brewed up a raspberry red that bore a disturbing resemblance to automatic transmission fluid. Kapala's own black horseshoe of hair ringing his bald crown may look like hell, but he clearly regards it as an honor to be included in the team's tribal ritual.

None, however, compare to my son Andrew and his friend Bryce Turzian, who nearly blinded themselves in the process. If they had consulted me, I would have warned them that peroxide resembles nitroglycerin-benign at times, explosive at others. The catalyst is critical. Warm water works well. A gentle shampoo is also good. Laundry bleach, however, is definitely not on the list. But, according to Andrew, the peroxide was taking too long to go off and, to speed the chemistry along, he and Bryce bathed their scalps in Clorox. The result? Black scabs dotted what looked like an orange-blonde Brillo pad. "It looks a lot better now!" Andrew objected to my horrified reaction. "You should have seen it four days ago!"

THE DREAM OF REACHING THE JUNIOR NATIONALS WAS BORN IN SUN VALLEY'S SEASON-ENDING SPRING SERIES THE PREVIOUS YEAR. By Mid-April, both Andrew and Robert were burned out. Totally. With little more than a month off, however, they resumed training in early June. Before school ended, Sun Valley's Nordic Ski Team started to improve its base fitness. From June through December, in preparation for the season's first race, training was all-consuming. During July and August, the team roller-skied, ran backcountry trails, climbed Sun Valley's surrounding 11,000-foot peaks, lifted weights, double-poled for miles and monitored their resting and maximum heart rates.

In the Intermountain Northern Division of the United States Ski Association (IMT/NOR), a competitor's overall ranking is determined by adding his or her three best finishes during a series of sanctioned competitions. On weekends, the team traveled to Park City, Utah, Boise, Idaho, Jackson Hole, Wyo., and Bozeman and Missoula, Mont., where, on frigid, hilly courses with few spectators, they hurled themselves at the finish line in hopes of qualifying for JOs. Forty minutes of sustained aerobic redlining left them swaying on their poles, lungs screaming for oxygen, stomachs threatening to turn. The best six finishers from each age group, plus three alternates, went on to compete.

One unsung beauty of racing in Jackson is the chance to experience the East. For kids born and raised in Sun Valley, Bozeman and Park City, Jackson amounts to a foreign country full of weird accents and the "Live Free or Die" flintiness that defines the local citizenry as much as the basalt outcroppings. Unused to the narrow roads, covered bridges, clapboard lodges and ski trails winding through hardwood forests, the kids ponder if they could ever come east to ski for the University of Vermont, Bates or any of the other Eastern nordic powerhouses.

This is Robert's first JO, and on the first day of competition he clinched sixth in the freestyle race. Now, listening to the splits on Kapala's radio, I hear he is on pace to place third in the Classic. For a 14-year-old who only joined Sun Valley's Nordic Team two years before, Robert is skiing an unbelievable race.

I watch my youngest son power up the hill to where Kapala is waiting. Boots slipping in the snow, stopwatch gripped in his right hand, clipboard in his left, Kapala starts to run uphill, "Robert, you're four seconds out of third," his hoarse voice fills the forest. "Twelve out of second. You've got a podium finish going! Dig deep! Get tough! Stand up straighter!" Robert disappears over the crest, which quickly completes a loop through the woods and returns to the coaches before dropping onto a long downhill. Though Robert will later fall, he finishes fourth overall. In my mind, a brilliant fourth, but he counts the lack of a podium finish as a loss.

THE THREE-MAN RELAYS PROVE TO BE THE MOST EXCITING EVENTS. STRUGGLING TO STAGE THE EVENTS BEFORE THE SNOW DISAPPEARS ENTIRELY,the organizers move the venue to a local cow pasture. Shortly before the races start, the sun has softened the snow and the girls shed their racing suits for bibs and sport bras while many of the men strip to bibs and bike shorts. The Intermountain J2 Girls ski to the gold medal by a dominating 28 seconds. The Intermountain J2 boys team take second and third, while my son Andrew's team finishes eighth.

Spectators screaming, competitors fighting for position, the morning passes in scenes of flying snow, rugged determination, courage and strength. Robert's J2 boys relay team stands a chance for a medal, but the first racer stumbles out of the gate and is second to last at the first turn. He then skis an incredible leg to finish fifth out of 19. The second racer skis an equally strong second leg, and when he hands off to Robert, the team is in fourth. Robert skis a tough leg, stays out of trouble and by the top of the downhill is locked on the leader's tails. "I knew I was going to win it," Robert reflects weeks later. "I was going faster than he was on the downhill and tried to pass him on the inside."

Robert can't see the deep slush that had been pushed out by the previous heats until he's in it. The second he hits the wet, deep snow, his skis stop, and he explodes over his tips, flipping into the air and skidding off the course. Up instantly, he might have still have stood a chance at a medal if the fall had not broken his pole. By the time an official handed him a new one, it was too late.

Though I could not see it then, I realize now that Robert's fall reflected all great disappointments in sport. It was as if a game-winning home run had fallen just short of the fence. Or if in the last seconds of a playoff, a football was dropped in the end zone or a hockey puck hit the post of an undefended goal and was deflected. Moments such as these speak to season-long hopes and hard work that suddenly evaporate.

It would have been wonderful if Robert's team had won, but perhaps the medal would have offered the weaker lesson of the two. More than the medal, what I valued was the grace and maturity with which Robert's teammates accepted his fall. Meeting him at the finish they shrugged, grinned and put their arms around his shoulders.

When I later asked him about the fall, Robert said, "Of course it was a big disappointment. I knew I'd lost it when I stood up and saw my broken pole." Then, shaking his head he added, "But we're going to win it next year, so it doesn't matter."

The snow held off until the sprints finished, then pounded down. At two inches an hour, the grip of an early sprinrrow roads, covered bridges, clapboard lodges and ski trails winding through hardwood forests, the kids ponder if they could ever come east to ski for the University of Vermont, Bates or any of the other Eastern nordic powerhouses.

This is Robert's first JO, and on the first day of competition he clinched sixth in the freestyle race. Now, listening to the splits on Kapala's radio, I hear he is on pace to place third in the Classic. For a 14-year-old who only joined Sun Valley's Nordic Team two years before, Robert is skiing an unbelievable race.

I watch my youngest son power up the hill to where Kapala is waiting. Boots slipping in the snow, stopwatch gripped in his right hand, clipboard in his left, Kapala starts to run uphill, "Robert, you're four seconds out of third," his hoarse voice fills the forest. "Twelve out of second. You've got a podium finish going! Dig deep! Get tough! Stand up straighter!" Robert disappears over the crest, which quickly completes a loop through the woods and returns to the coaches before dropping onto a long downhill. Though Robert will later fall, he finishes fourth overall. In my mind, a brilliant fourth, but he counts the lack of a podium finish as a loss.

THE THREE-MAN RELAYS PROVE TO BE THE MOST EXCITING EVENTS. STRUGGLING TO STAGE THE EVENTS BEFORE THE SNOW DISAPPEARS ENTIRELY,the organizers move the venue to a local cow pasture. Shortly before the races start, the sun has softened the snow and the girls shed their racing suits for bibs and sport bras while many of the men strip to bibs and bike shorts. The Intermountain J2 Girls ski to the gold medal by a dominating 28 seconds. The Intermountain J2 boys team take second and third, while my son Andrew's team finishes eighth.

Spectators screaming, competitors fighting for position, the morning passes in scenes of flying snow, rugged determination, courage and strength. Robert's J2 boys relay team stands a chance for a medal, but the first racer stumbles out of the gate and is second to last at the first turn. He then skis an incredible leg to finish fifth out of 19. The second racer skis an equally strong second leg, and when he hands off to Robert, the team is in fourth. Robert skis a tough leg, stays out of trouble and by the top of the downhill is locked on the leader's tails. "I knew I was going to win it," Robert reflects weeks later. "I was going faster than he was on the downhill and tried to pass him on the inside."

Robert can't see the deep slush that had been pushed out by the previous heats until he's in it. The second he hits the wet, deep snow, his skis stop, and he explodes over his tips, flipping into the air and skidding off the course. Up instantly, he might have still have stood a chance at a medal if the fall had not broken his pole. By the time an official handed him a new one, it was too late.

Though I could not see it then, I realize now that Robert's fall reflected all great disappointments in sport. It was as if a game-winning home run had fallen just short of the fence. Or if in the last seconds of a playoff, a football was dropped in the end zone or a hockey puck hit the post of an undefended goal and was deflected. Moments such as these speak to season-long hopes and hard work that suddenly evaporate.

It would have been wonderful if Robert's team had won, but perhaps the medal would have offered the weaker lesson of the two. More than the medal, what I valued was the grace and maturity with which Robert's teammates accepted his fall. Meeting him at the finish they shrugged, grinned and put their arms around his shoulders.

When I later asked him about the fall, Robert said, "Of course it was a big disappointment. I knew I'd lost it when I stood up and saw my broken pole." Then, shaking his head he added, "But we're going to win it next year, so it doesn't matter."

The snow held off until the sprints finished, then pounded down. At two inches an hour, the grip of an early spring loosened under a foot of fresh powder. During the awards ceremonies that night, the competitors had their moment on the podium in front of the packed, cheering gymnasium. Though the reception for perennial team winners Alaska and Midwest shook the rafters, the greatest surprise was saved for Sun Valley. Though the team did not capture the most medals, on average the boys finished higher than the two traditional powerhouses, and for the first time in history, tiny Wood River High School captured the No. 1 ranking in the nation for cross-country skiing.

In an interview following his silver-medal victory at the Lake Placid Olympics, Bill Koch summed up nordic racing in a single phrase: "The difference between winning and finishing is how you tolerate pain." Koch knew that to win you either had to be wired differently or learn how to ignore your burning lungs, dead arms and cramping thighs. Koch was right. These kids are wired differently.

The thunderous cheer that went up at the conclusion of the awards ceremonies alerted the skiers, coaches and parents that the future of U.S. nordic skiing was assembled in that jammed gymnasium. And as the storm raged outside, a rock band opened with a deafening first set as the racers waved their hands in the air in a joyful celebration of youth and the promise of future Junior Olympics. Winning, at this moment, seemed inconsequential.

There are 734 junior racers competing in 78 USSA clubsfrom Maine to California. For information on joining the USSA, call 435-647-2666, or visit www.usskiteam.com.pring loosened under a foot of fresh powder. During the awards ceremonies that night, the competitors had their moment on the podium in front of the packed, cheering gymnasium. Though the reception for perennial team winners Alaska and Midwest shook the rafters, the greatest surprise was saved for Sun Valley. Though the team did not capture the most medals, on average the boys finished higher than the two traditional powerhouses, and for the first time in history, tiny Wood River High School captured the No. 1 ranking in the nation for cross-country skiing.

In an interview following his silver-medal victory at the Lake Placid Olympics, Bill Koch summed up nordic racing in a single phrase: "The difference between winning and finishing is how you tolerate pain." Koch knew that to win you either had to be wired differently or learn how to ignore your burning lungs, dead arms and cramping thighs. Koch was right. These kids are wired differently.

The thunderous cheer that went up at the conclusion of the awards ceremonies alerted the skiers, coaches and parents that the future of U.S. nordic skiing was assembled in that jammed gymnasium. And as the storm raged outside, a rock band opened with a deafening first set as the racers waved their hands in the air in a joyful celebration of youth and the promise of future Junior Olympics. Winning, at this moment, seemed inconsequential.

There are 734 junior racers competing in 78 USSA clubsfrom Maine to California. For information on joining the USSA, call 435-647-2666, or visit www.usskiteam.com.

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