To serious skiers this is the Banana Belt, but one of our local knolls has produced a contender for the 1984 U.S. Olympic Team.
Sixteen-year-old Becky Hall's success illustrates the boom that has ski racing in this area, both in sanctioned competition and in racing for the pure pleasure of testing one's time down a slope against that of others across the country.
Dozens of amateur, sanctioned and even professional races are scheduled on almost every weekend this season at area resorts. Ski clubs, resorts and shops are offering technique-improvement classes at racing clinics. Skiers are grabbing practice runs on lighted slopes after school or work.
"I started skiing at Roundtop [in Lewisberry, Pennsylvania] when I was six," said Hall, stomping the snow off her boots after a day's practice with the National Junior Ski Team in Winter Park, Colorado. "I started racing when I was about eight or nine."
As one of the nine female members of the team, Hall has advanced closer to Olympic competition than any other racer from an area slope, according to U.S. Ski Association officials. That she has made it this far despite the region's short runs, crowded lifts and sometimes sparse snowfall has given incentive to other young racers.
Hall had an advantage, she said in a telephone interview, in that she grew up only two miles from Ski Roundtop, where her mother was an instructor. g
As soon as they got snow, she said, she was skiing every day. "My dad [a lawyer] would take us over every night. We had three nights of training and two free nights. On Saturday, we raced and trained. On Sunday, we trained."
That kind of dedication won her races, and she was soon climbing the Ski Association's ladder to the state and then Eastern Division team, the Junior National Team and racing trips from the Rockies to the Alps.
Along the way she outgrew Roundtop. A couple of years ago she entered a ski academy at the foot of Vermont's Stratton Mountain. She goes to classes in the morning and trains in the afternoon, or vice-versa.
When she's traveling, as at Winter Park, she takes her schoolbooks along. "You have to be enthused about racing," she said. "You've got to train as much as possible."
But racing here is hardly limited to Olympic challengers. There's organized racing "for anybody who can get down the hill," says Tim Ross, the Ski Association's alpine competition director for the East. The age classifications run from under 14 to over 70.
In the past, he says, competition meant "the serious diehard racer." But since the mid-'70s, "there's been a huge growth in recreational racing." On the East Coast alone, he says, some 5,500 youngsters and 5,000 adults are participating in Ski Association racing programs.
Racer Brian Eardley, a coach for the Ski Center ski shop's series of one-day racing clinics in January, thinks racing has become popular here for two main reasons: First, people around here are skiing better than they did five years ago. "Now they're motivated to compete." And racing "gives you something to do on these small hills."
That's a sentiment shared by Karen Johnston, who helps directs the Ski Club of Washington's racing program.
"Since the skiing is not that great, you might as well race," she said."It makes it more interesting."
Much of the recreational racing is done through ski club or ski resort teams, though there are many races open to individuals.
Once in a while, she adds, "you get lucky" as a racer, and "they'll let you jump ahead" in a crowded lift line.
Racing, she thinks, "improves your skiing skills. And it gives you self-confidence."
Originally from the Kansas flatlands, Johnston, 31, a sales representative for a printing company, considered herself "a low intermediate" two years ago. Friends talked her into entering the Ski Association's "citizen" program for 19-year-olds and above. Skiing about 30 days a season -- including several races -- she took a third last year in the East Coast finals at Pico Peak in Vermont.
There's no question that it costs money for the teen-age racers on the Olympic track -- transportation, lodging, entry fees, equipment, lessons. Without a comfortable family income or easy access to a slope, says Ross, "It's very, very difficult" to afford to compete. But recreational racing is a matter of a few dollars at most for entry fees.
As for the hazards, he said, "I don't think it's any more dangerous than the sport as a whole. The higher risk of higher speeds and skiing around gates is offset by the fact that racing is done in a controlled situation."