On the morning of race day, nostrils freeze in dawn's early light, the sky shimmers ice blue and slalom gates flap red and green against the steep whiteness of the race course. From an ascending chairlift, Joanne Bates, wearing a numbered racing bib, gazes upon the primary-bright scene and feels sick.
"I'm used to it," says Bates, a 32-year-old artist, riding toward the starting gate. Growing up in Philadelphia, she swam in a highly competitive age-group league. She remembers well this nervous buzz, the shortness of breath, the dry-mouthed gulp of adrenaline and anxiety. It is a racer's high, and this morning all 27 of us in the Mahre Training Center can taste it.
Six days ago, asked why we had come to this Colorado mountain, at a cost of more than $700 each, few mentioned a desire to win races. We wanted to become better skiers. The tyranny of gates would force that. On a slalom course you either turn well and at the right time or you crash.
But whenever we have practiced on a race course this week, with a clock keeping track of our relative speeds, our mood has changed perceptibly.
Jaws clamp shut. Eyes narrow behind plastic goggles. We crouch into turns and grunt coming out. We would all, in our secret, savage hearts, like to whomp every skier on the mountain, particularly those we have befriended this week.
"I'm going for it. I'm just going for it," says Jim Rose, the 24-year-old foreman of a Chicago tool and die shop who is waiting at the top of the course, jumping up and down in his skis like a man trying to stamp out a campfire. Rose is a cheerful type, blue-eyed and apple-cheeked. But he has made no secret of his chief ambition on this, the sixth and last day of our racing clinic, to beat his Chicago buddy Bill Childress, the same friend who taught him to ski.
The clinic, designed by Olympic medalists Phil and Steve Mahre and their coach Harald Schoenhaar, has been pointing toward this race all week. We began with skiing's simplest, essential elements -- balance, body position and turns. We concentrated on each component part, then linked them into a rhythmic whole.
And every morning, we were forced to look at the evidence of our progress, or lack thereof.
One at a time, we skied down an intermediate slope toward the lens of a videotape camera. After the run, we would stand as a group in the cold and watch slow motion replays of our form. Some days it was exhilarating. More often it was frustrating.
"I would have bet anything that I was really moving up and down during that run," said Si Johnston one morning, while viewing a tape that proved he had skied like a frozen snow cone. "I've got to keep working on that."
We were separated on the first day into four groups, according to ability. Our group, though not the most talented, proved to have the most fun. We encouraged one another from morning till night, on ski lifts, in restaurants and bars. We began with ski talk and pro-gressed to more intimate details of our lives. We were like kids at camp. But instead of a bunkhouse, we retired each night to separate condos.
Rose, at 24, is the youngest and best skier in the group. Pat Hagood, a 45-year-old California banker, is the oldest. Hagood had never been on skis until a visit to Austria at the age of 39. As a result of that indoctrination, he now considers skiing without a chaser of schnapps to be bad form. The others in our group are Johnston, Bates, Linda Margolin, a 41-year-old banker from Manhattan, and Milt Platnico, a St. Louis marketing specialist.
Our instructor is Kim McNeil, a Colorado native and former U.S. Ski Team racer. She has managed to keep us hungry to improve while convincing us we are the greatest students in ski history. Then there is Phil Mahre, winner of three World Cup overall titles and two Olympic medals before his retiremen following last year's climactic campaign. Twice during the first three days Mahre joined us for a few hours of teaching. We all appeared to be very comfortable with this ski legend. But when Phil Mahre told one 35-year-old student, "Good turn. You've really improved a lot in a very short time," the student flushed like a third-grader getting a gold star from a favorite teacher.
Each night, the entire clinic has gathered for movies and a lecture on some aspect of ski racing, such as waxing or offseason conditioning programs. It is our chance to meet the other coaches and students. There are only two youngsters in this clinic, Michael and Tonya Dewey, a brother and sister, 9 and 11, respectively. They are very nice kids, despite the fact that they are better skiers than 90 percent of the adults.
Fred Glover is perhaps most impressive. He has worked as a biologist for the Department of Interior, a pilot for the Air Force and a professor of wildlife management. Now 67, he is a proficient skier with a body most 50-year-olds would envy.
"Skiing is one of the things that keeps me this young," Glover said a few minutes before the start of our final race.
For this race, we have been regrouped into teams on the basis of qualifying times on a similar course the day before. The idea is to make all the teams as nearly equal as possible. To add some spice, the teams have been encouraged to bet on themselves in a calcutta.
We race in pairs through parallel courses of 17 gates. Each of us will get two runs. Only the fastest time will count. On the first run, most of us are conservative, sacrificing speed for the certainty of making every gate. For the second run, we abandon all caution.
My race partner is Nancy Sutton, 33, a Coloradan who has been joking all week that she could have spent this ski clinic money on a trip to Tahiti. Today, as we wait in the starting gate, there is only fire in her eyes. She has good skiing form, but I suspect I have more speed.
We come out of the starting gate together. For the next 32 seconds we ski like Siamese twins. With each gate we pick up speed. With three gates to go, I take a turn on the flat of my ski instead of the edge and slide out of contention. Sutton beats me by .14 of a second.
There are other disappointments on this last day. Jim Rose clocks a very good time of 28.15 seconds. But it is more than a full second behind the time of his friend Bill Childress. And when Rose discovers he also has been bested by the 67-year-old Glover, his smile is forced.
Everyone in the clinic performs at least respectably. The prerace nervousness changes to postrace elation. We have survived our initiation into ski racing.
"I'm happy," says Linda Margolin. "I just wanted to make it through in one piece."