She was kidnaped on her first ski trip by some college friends who strapped skis to her feet, pointed her down the steep and icy slope of a Pennsylvania mountain and pushed. A few years later, when the fear generated by that first trip had subsided, Joanne Bates went to Canada to try the sport again. This time, she was stranded on a chairlift, 22 feet above ground, in sub-zero weather.
"We had a choice of either jumping or freezing to death," Bates said. She jumped.
You might think those two icicles in the heart would be enough to convince any reasonable body to abandon skiing. But here in Colorado, on a mountain covered with snow soft as cotton candy, Bates was pointed again toward the bottom of a nosebleed slope. And this time she had paid to be pushed.
At the age of 32, Bates was about to become a downhill racer.
"I don't guarantee that any of you will get good enough to race in the Olympics," warned Phil Mahre, the 1984 U.S. Olympic gold medalist in the slalom, and founder -- with his twin brother Steve -- of the Mahre Training Center, a six-day clinic designed to teach Yuppie schussers "the techniques that made them World Champions."
There were 27 of us enrolled in this clinic at Keystone, a Rocky Mountain ski resort 75 miles west of Denver. We ranged in age from 9 to 67 and in ability from beginner to better than good. From California, Texas and New York City we came bearing credit cards, eager to be transformed from recreational skiers into speed demons.
Judging by our first-day form, Franz Klammer's reputation is not yet endangered.
"I know I didn't tell you specifically to stop before you hit the trees but, from now on, let's do that," said Kim McNeill, the instructor assigned to our subgroup of seven skiers after two of us (blush) sailed off the lip of a trail into a forest of pine trees and waist-deep snow. The crashes occurred during our very first downhill exercise, an attempt to learn balance by imitating a one-legged skier. Standing above the sprawled spectacle, McNeill joked, "I hope this isn't going to be a long week."
McNeill is a former member of the U.S. ski team. She is blond and blue-eyed, with an Ultra Brite smile and a warm sense of humor. Within the first hour of class, all in her group, including the two women, Bates and Linda Margolin, were infatuated and eager to please.
When McNeill told us to try carving a downhill turn with our uphill ski, a feat that is both irregular and seemingly impossible, all of us tried hard enough to tumble. This racing business, we discovered, could be harder than it appears.
The Mahre clinic is just the latest, and perhaps most glamorous, of the racing camps that have been spawned by the boom in recreational skiing during the past two decades. A novice skier with adequate financing could spend almost every day of 1985 being taught at a choice of more than 30 camps in the United States, Europe, Australia and Japan.
But you don't need to attend ski boot camp to join the racing craze. At nearly every ski resort in the United States, there is some type of recreational racing available for an amateur. The most popular is NASTAR, a standardized program in which skiers race down a gated course against a clock. Their time is compared to those of racers in the same age category at more than 100 other courses across the country, for gold, silver and bronze medals.
There also are the Equitable Family Ski challenge for family teams, the Masters program, the Alpine Citizens Race Series, the Buddy Werner League, the Camel Sprint Series . . . Everywhere, it seems, the ski hills are alive with racers.
"People get to a certain level in skiing and they start looking for something new," says Billy Kidd, an Olympic medalist in 1964 and the director of his own racing camp in Steamboat Springs, Colo. "You can helicopter to the top of a mountain and ski virgin powder. You can start jumping cliffs or you can race."
Most of the racing camps are aimed at the average skier rather than super elites. The reason is economic. "If we gear this just to experienced racers, we get only 10 percent of the market," Phil Mahre said. "The average skier represents 85 to 90 percent."
At an orientation session the night before the start of the clinic, we discovered that our group fit the target profile. Only a half-dozen have skied in any type of amateur race. The rest of us, however, are eager to begin.
"I don't think any of us paid this kind of money (more than $700 for food, lodging and instruction) without wanting to go fast," Simon Johnston, a medical equipment salesman from Washington state, said.
"Everybody has some competitiveness in them. Even if it's just wanting to beat your buddy or the guy next to you," said Bill Childress, a 28-year-old forklift operator from Chicago who races in his ski club's B league.
On Day 1, we discover that racing will have to wait. After being separated into four groups on the basis of perceived skiing ability, we begin work on the fundamentals of balance, body position and graceful turns. Most recreational skiers turn on the flat bottoms of their skis, with a twist of the hips and shoulders.
The correct method is to use the knees and the edge of the downhill ski to carve a turn rather than slide through it. As simple as it sounds, a well-carved turn perhaps is the most difficult skiing skill to master. McNeill promises that by the end of the six-day clinic, we will have learned at least that.
"If you don't, I'll beat you with my poles," she joked during our first lunch, at the top of Keystone Mountain. It was not a morning to inspire much confidence. The exercises revealed a discouraging awkwardness. It is much easier to go fast, we discover, than to go slow with style. At one point in the lesson plan, four of us (blush) took a wrong turn and lost our teacher.
But as we ate soup and sandwiches in a lodge overlooking the Continental Divide, McNeill made us believe we were proceeding ahead of schedule. To reassure us, we suppose, she told the story of the inaugural race clinic at Keystone two weeks earlier. On the first day of that camp, one man in her group broke his leg in two places. Some others became so frightened by one of the slopes that they removed their skis and slid down the mountain.
After lunch, we learned that Phil Mahre will join us for the afternoon class. The news was both exhilarating and a bit frightening. Imagine submitting your first poem to Walt Whitman.
For three hours we skied with Mahre, trying to trace his perfectly rounded turns down steep runs, then performing exercises before his critically friendly eyes. He conferred with each of us, explaining technical points in plain English. You could almost forget that this was a man who won three World Cup overall titles and an Olympic gold medal -- until you saw him ski.
"What's the cliche, poetry in motion?" asked McNeill as we watched Mahre glide downhill with a dancer's rhythm. "You'll all look like that in a week."
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