As you may have noticed, I run hot and cold about ski racing. During Olympic years, I love to watch ski racing. I would watch it during non-Olympic years if it were aired consistently on TV (you can catch World Cup races online, but it is not the same). But as our three years involved in competitive junior ski racing proved, we are not a ski racing family.
Still, although I’ve shared both our positive and negative experiences with ski racing, I didn’t feel either “fair” or “balanced” offering only my perspective. I mean, there are entire countries in Europe that eat, sleep and breathe ski racing (see Austria). Who am I to leave only my opinion on the table?
Thus, in the interest of fairness and diversity of opinion, I am revisiting junior ski racing one more time, but this time through the eyes of two families, one in Idaho and one in Colorado (which will have to do because I don’t know any Austrians and I don’t speak German). To those of you who are completely bored by this topic, I apologize. To those of you who felt that I slighted this great sport, I offer this post. It is my olive branch to all ski racing families. I salute you. I really do.
A Family Legacy
My friend Jim Grossman is a ski racer. His father was a ski racer. His son is a ski racer and his daughter may or may not be a ski racer. It is too early to tell. Clearly, ski racing is in the Grossman blood and is a family affair. When he was a senior in High School, Jim made the US Ski Team and then almost immediately blew out a knee, thus changing his life’s trajectory. Now a ski instructor at Sun Valley, Jim won the Masters National Super G in 2010 and teaches racing clinics. Jim summed up his family’s relationship with ski racing for me, “Ski racing is what we do. It is the natural by-product of growing up in a phenomenal ski town. Our life is focused around skiing. Being in a skiing and ski racing environment is our normal.”
Jim’s son Buey started skiing before he could walk and started with the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation developmental team when he was 7. As a young racer, he enjoys running gates, but according to his father, the only goal at this age is having fun. Living in the mountains, ski racing is an available outlet for competition, and Jim believes it is a positive outlet so long as the focus is internal (I am trying to ski faster than I did before, or better than I did before), rather than external (I am trying to beat that other kid). They have found that NASTAR is a fun way to foster this internal competition, as Buey competes against himself and sets his own goals to progress from bronze to silver to gold to platinum pins. Jim is always encouraging his son to free ski and try new things: ski the powder, ski the bumps, but most of all have fun. By focusing on the whole mountain, rather than just the race course, the hope is that Buey will always have a passion for skiing even if he walks away from ski racing someday.
As a racer himself and now the parent of a young racer, Jim indicated that it is always a quandary to know how much external encouragement he should give his son. “How much do you encourage them versus how much to you let their innate desire and talent develop?” Jim asks. Time on the mountain is important, but you don’t want a kid to burn out. But it is also important that kids understand that success doesn’t come from natural ability so much as it comes from effort. The best approach according to Jim? Have fun. As he put it, “Go out everyday and have fun. In the stuff that doesn’t seem fun, look for the fun. Strive for the fun and you’ll have a huge competitive advantage. Quality time on the mountain equals enjoyment.”
A Teenager With A Dream
My friend Carrie Brown-Wolf grew up in Ohio, twelve miles from the flattest place in the US. She did not grow up ski racing. Living in Summit County, Colorado however, she shares with the Grossmans a natural proximity to ski racing. When you live in a ski town, there is a pretty good chance that ski racing is what someone in your family is going to do. For Carrie’s daughter Ellie, ski racing is what she loves to do. A thirteen-year-old J3 racer, Ellie qualified for the Rocky Mountain Division USSA Junior Olympics last year. She didn’t begin her racing career super-early. She didn’t have immediate success. Ellie loves racing however and she has worked hard.
Ellie started ski racing at age 9. According to her mom, she wanted to start earlier and when her parents finally let her race she fell in love with it immediately. Four years later, she still loves it even though training takes her out of school early each day and continues year-round. Now this doesn’t sound so bad until you realize that if Ellie’s grades slip her parents and coaches won’t let her train. Ellie has to be disciplined and organized or she’s not skiing. Ski racing is a privilege and Ellie has to earn the right to ski race.
When I asked Carrie about her daughter, she said that while they feel it is important to “honor and support her and her passion first and foremost,” they worry about whether the level of competition is really a good thing. Carrie said that ski racing can become a breeding ground for insecurities, especially when parents seek to live out their skiing dreams through their children. She said it is important to keep the family grounded and to reassess ski racing every year. If the passion isn’t there, maybe it is time to move onto something different. It has to be fun. Or as Ellie put it, “Kids need to give racing some time to get used the program, other kids, and racing. Don’t decide you like it or hate it in one season and just have fun for a year or two before you make a decision to take it seriously. Otherwise, you might burn out.”
In Ellie’s case, the passion is there. And she has a goal. Surprisingly, it is not what one might expect from a young teenage racer. No, she doesn’t say she wants to be the next Lindsey Vonn. Ellie’s goal is to attend Dartmouth and join the Dartmouth Ski Team. Ellie knows that she has to be an excellent student and ski racer to make this happen. Hard work, yes. But hard work grounded in passion and a dream.
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