The race was scheduled for noon the next day. If I mastered all 15 turns, they said, I would feel great having finished, no matter the official time. "It's good practice," insisted Ed Oscar, who had come to Stowe from Florida for a five-day ski racing camp. Practice for what I wasn't sure, but at the registration desk the following morning, I plunked down $4 for two runs.
Oscar and another skier, Maria Chua, from New York, had met in the camp and appointed themselves my coaches: We skied together, sticking to the gondola for warmth between the runs, and I kept up for fear of losing them forever. Now it was an hour before the race, and while officials plotted the course, boring holes in the snow for poles topped with pennants, and veterans murmured "Fresh snow, slow race," I decided not to work on my ski bottoms, preferring the worn waxy buildup I was accustomed to.
Stomach squalls started about 11:30, as I took a practice run off the T-bar beside the course. Spruce is the sunny mountain at Stowe, with a friendlier look than neighboring Mount Mansfield; but with flags and gates dotting the fall-line, it seemed like serious business.
I was number 212. The only problem was getting the paper out of its sealed plastic packet and grabbing the thin elastic bands that were to fasten it on. My fingers were unbendable in the zero weather. My stomach hardly had time to think.
Numbers out of sequence, race starting. Mostly men, some boys. Me, not ready, not even numbered. One father asking the starter, "Do you want my son to take his second run?" Starter, glancing at me: "No. I want her to take her first run." Me still fumbling with my registration packet. On the telephone to the finish line, starter calling out, "Now in the starting gate, number 213, Chua." Maria taking off, me losing sight of her after a couple of gates.
Getting out of the starting gate is the secret: poles planted out in front in line with shoulders, ski tips hanging over the ledge. Rocking back, then shooting out. As soon as the ankles trip the wand, the clock starts. It's vital to lean forward and think ahead. Oscar and Chua had drilled me on the formula: two-thirds, one-third. Begin the turn two-thirds of the way in front of the next gate, then brace for the next turn. That's five days' worth of ski racing camp.
"Number 212 now in the starting gate, Ostrow."
"First time," I murmured apologetically to the starter, having finally gotten my number attached. Think ahead, turn early, two- thirds, one-third. Now!
I was off feeling slow, looking toward the next turn and the next, yelling at myself to think ahead, turning now and now and now, setting my edges, keeping low, feeling like a "Wide World of Sports" somebody as my shoulder grazed a pole (or almost grazed it?) It was all a blur for 15 gates and 30.26 seconds, until I frantically pushed across the finish, just like on TV.
On my second run, I was wildly out of control, determined to push faster, using my poles more between gates, cursing out loud. I almost lost it as my left ski came up on a right turn and I leaned back for balance, on one leg for too long. A horrible run, I thought, but my time was the same to the tenth of a second: 30.26. Everyone else improved on their second run. Maria won a second silver medal and, once again, Ed missed the gold by a hair.
I waited patiently while Ed performed the arithmetic, confirmed a moment later by the scorekeeper: I came away with a bronze.
There's nothing like the rush of terror before a downhill slalom race. A mere $4 buys the chance to feel good about yourself and a little pin reading "Stowe, NASTAR, bronze" to flash at home.
SPEEDING DOWN THE SLOPES National Standard Racing (NASTAR) regulations pit entrants against the time of the national pace-setter for a particular course, on a particular day, broken down by age groups and gender. Those over 50 have an easier time winning a gold medal, for instance, than 20-year-olds; 25-year-old females have an easier time to beat than males the same age. A scorekeeper records the times on a bulletin board as they're boomed over a loudspeaker at the finish line.
One hundred twenty-two ski areas hold NASTAR races each year, including five nearby slopes: Ski Roundtop and Ski Liberty in Pennsylvania, Snowshoe in West Virginia and Bryce and Massanutten in Virginia. By the end of March, some 200,000 people will have entered races at courses around the country; 10 percent of them will come away with gold medals, 20 with silver and 30 percent with bronze.
As it happens, this year's man to beat is Peter Dodge of Stowe, Vermont, the 1981 national pace-setter.