IN THE QUEST to do the best they can, athletes often make sacrifices. Amateur wrestlers go days without substantial food to make weight. In a different way, as a college athlete I also sacrificed. While competing in varsity soccer and track, I reluctantly avoided learning to ski because of the possibility of injury.

But when my university track career ended, I eagerly accepted the skiing challenge -- unfortunately, as it turned out, with an overdose of stubborn nai'vete. An athlete with little knowledge of alpine technique, I expected my natural abilities to conquer my lack of proficiency.

They didn't.

Last March, as the ski season waned, I set out for Killington in Vermont, which my friends said was one of the best ski areas on the East Coast. A nine-hour, 466-mile drive from Washington, Killington is located in the center of the state about 180 miles southeast of Montreal. The resort, I was told, would offer me the best variety of alpine skiing in the East once I advanced past the beginner slopes.

Never on skis before, and here I was already thinking about outracing the Mahre twins. Despite this confidence, I had the good sense to sign up for lessons at Killington Ski School. They assigned me to the Accelerated Ski Method (ASM), a new learning program for beginners initiated last year.

Before tackling the regular slopes, students progress through a series of "stations," with at least one instructor at each station demonstrating basic skills. After mastering each station, students advance individually, which means fast learners aren't held back by slow ones. They are started out on four-foot "shorty" skis, which are much easier to maneuver than the standard long ones, and the length is increased as the skier improves.

There's even a film showing the proper way to fall to avoid injury.

(The cost -- lift ticket, lessons and equipment -- ranges from $76 for two days to $170 for five days. This year Killington has a nursery program for children 2 to 8 at $18.50 for a half day to $158 for five full days.)

On hearing the program outlined, I felt, without modesty, that I would have little difficulty mastering the sport within a matter of hours once lessons got under way the next day. But impatience tempted me. I decided to join my friends on Killington's slopes on Sunday.

In the eyes of a ski instructor, it was a sin worthy of the physical discomfort I was about to endure.

My exuberant companions, who were only experienced novices themselves, insisted I would learn "quicker and easier by going out and getting the hang of it," although the Killington people had advised me not to ski until classes began on Monday in order "to get the most out of the program." Flowing adrenaline, enhanced by apprehension--a stimulation carried over from my more serious athletic days--persuaded me to do otherwise. I even expected the possibility of acquiring a bruise or two.

Right from the start, things went badly. I nearly fell off the double chair lift trying to get on for my first ride, an unnerving omen if not a sign of what would very quickly confront me.

"Just keep your eyes looking ahead and follow us," coaxed one of my comrades as we reached the top of Snowden Mountain, one of six peaks at the resort. Eighty-two trails have been mapped gloriously down Killington's mountains, including a four-mile intermediate trail and a new 10-mile novice trail with a gentle six-degree grade, which Killington claims is the longest alpine skiing trail at any of this country's resorts.

Even though there's a novice run down each mountain, my preoccupation with fright unintentionally carried me to the icy expert slope full of those bumps skiers call moguls. I was trapped on the expert slope with no place to go but down.

Sheer panic kept my eyes glued to the tips of my skis. My friends zipped quickly ahead, leaving me stranded in a crowd of aspiring Jean Claude Killys and Susie Chafees, who with scarcely a moment's notice glided past me with the grace of eagles in flight.

It was only a matter of time until, feeling like a bouncing Ping-Pong ball as I tumbled repeatedly, I conceded defeat, sat down and rode my behind, sliding down the rest of the slope. Humbled, I removed my skis 50 meters from the bottom and walked down to the base of the mountain.

Falling on my left hip had produced a bruise that looked like a pregnant rainbow. That and a sore neck from banging my head against the icy slope were constant reminders that I had tried to learn the wrong way. I was an eager student for next day's formal ski lessons.

On a bright morning at Snowshed's isolated beginner area, I joined six other newcomers and three instructors manning the three beginning stations. Lessons are given away from the crowds, says resort spokesman John Rohan, because the atmosphere is more relaxed, which improves concentration and safety. The resort even provides a practice chairlift.

The first station, where I was shown how to make a turn, I had to ski 20 meters down a 10-degree grade. After an uneasy half hour trying to accomplish this, I proceeded to the second station, where -- in a more difficult task -- I was instructed to ski down a slight incline through four ski poles situated 10 to 15 meters apart, improving my turns.

Feeling braver, I moved to the third station, which involved skiing down a slightly longer, steeper slope. Here we took wider turns, which I began to manage. That ended the first half day of lessons. I felt I had got a pretty good grasp of the basics, though some of my classmates were still struggling in the third station.

The next morning, progressing onward, I joined a group of 20 more-advanced beginners on Snowshed's major slope. I was now testing my day-old skills with a bunch of sliding and falling (but courageous) students ranging from 3-year-olds to grandparents. In the afternoon, I was free to practice on my own, of course avoiding the expert slopes.

The third and last day of my lessons dawned with four inches of new powder and a morning blizzard. But that did not keep the instructor and 10 of his students off the slopes. In this session, I learned to be a bit more aggressive in my style by taking wider turns and using the moguls to my advantage to make turning easier.

My goal at the outset had been to ski an expert slope with some success and satisfaction. But after three days of monitored lessons, I was quite pleased just to make it down the four-mile intermediate trail with only a few spills.

This year, maybe, the expert slopes will be mine to conquer.