You put your kids in ski racing and guess what? They are really good at it. They win all the local races and they qualify for the regional or state championship in the recreational league. Now, they’ve been invited by your race club to join the competitive, traveling team. You are thrilled and begin showing your family You Tube videos of famous ski racers and sprinkling your dinner time conversation with references to the Hannenkahm downhill and the various merits of Holmenkol versus Swix wax. You’re in, hook, line and sinker. You’ve become a race parent.
If your kids have any success in the recreational leagues and if they enjoy racing at all, there will be pressure to move up to competitive racing, usually into a USSA (United States Ski and Snowboard Association) program. Generally, there are smiles all around and everyone is excited about taking ski racing to the next level.
When our oldest son was invited to move up to our club’s USSA division, I didn’t think twice. My husband did, but not me. Our son was excited about moving up, training more and skiing faster. I wanted to support him. I told myself that the expense was worth it. He would reap many advantages from ski racing and make new friends.
Our son competed at the USSA level for three years and our younger son joined at an even younger age for one season. We had a lot of fun during those years and when the boys decided to “retire” in 2009, I was sad. But when I reflect back on those winters now, I see only too clearly that I was motivated by my personal memories and positive experience with ski racing and the feelings of loss I experienced when it became economically infeasible for me to continue. Frankly, I didn’t have the skills, but as a teenager, I could think of nothing so cool, so fabulous, as belonging to one of the local ski-racing families. I didn’t want my kids to be denied this experience. So I pushed, the boys raced and then on a warm September afternoon, the truth was finally told.
“If I don’t race, can we still ski?” asked my son. With this simple question, we realized that he was racing because he figured that the racing commitment would get us, his parents, to take him skiing without fail, no matter what the weather and no matter how exhausted we all were. It had worked. But it wasn’t what he really wanted. What he really wanted was to ski as much as possible and play hockey – something that would be impossible with the racing schedule. When we asked our other son what he thought about racing during the upcoming season he sat quietly for a moment and then answered, “I’m not going to be a ski racer anyway, I’m going to be a big mountain skier. So if I quit racing I can focus on powder, bumps and extreme terrain.” (This kid was 9 at the time. See why we ski moms have to be BRAVE?) With that one conversation our days as a “cool” ski racing family were over.
Ski racing is different for all families. It can be a wonderful family experience if everyone, parents and athletes, are truly into it. It can be experience that parents will gladly tolerate and encourage if their child has an undying love for the sport. But in our case, it burnt us out and chewed us up.
Ski racing is expensive and time-consuming. It’s an individual sport masquerading as a team sport, which can lead to some awkward and unpleasant dynamics between “teammates.” It’s a sport, like swimming or track and field, that requires parents and athletes to wait for hours for 45 seconds of glory. Some kids love it. Mine, it turned out, did not. And that’s the real rub with ski racing – it has to be something the athlete, your child, really, really, really wants to do. Both of my sons improved their skiing and learned many physical and life skills courtesy of ski racing. They had some success, but they didn’t have the necessary fire in the belly for competitive skiing. They are skiers, not racers. They are also hockey players. So now, I’m a ski mom and a hockey mom. I’m just not a ski racing mom. I think that’s pretty cool.
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