It has certainly been a challenging 2020 for our ski racing community. In mid-March, Covid-19 through a wrench in the machinery of our sport’s plans, cancelling races and ending the season prematurely. The disruption continued through the summer as opportunities for on-snow training dwindled; in the U.S., only Mount Hood was able to accommodate racers. The fall was only slightly improved with the U.S. seeing very limited access to Europe for early-season skiing. The recent surge in Covid-19 all over the U.S., including in many states with ski industries, skiing in general, much less ski racing, was under constant threat to be shut down for the season, an outcome that struck terror and sadness in the hearts of racers, coaches, parents, and leaders of our sport.
Yet, with a vaccine rolling out as I write this article, hope for our sport (and the world, of course) springs eternal. Ski areas are open, ski academies are operating, and ski teams are welcoming racers back to training. World Cup races are underway, racing began in the U.S. in November, and U.S. Ski & Snowboard has officially scheduled races throughout the coming winter.
Despite the stressors, fears, frustrations, and disappointments that all of us felt in 2020, there is also much to be grateful for as we enter the holiday season and hopefully turn the corner on Covid-19 and the year that was and wasn’t. I tip my hat and express my sincerest gratitude to everyone in our sport who pulled together and showed remarkable strength and flexibility to make the most of a “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad” year. I would like to put into the spotlight some of the organizations and groups who got us through 2020 and are making 2021 appear like, dare I say, something resembling a normal season of ski racing.
Before I dive into my gratitudes, I want express my recognition of and sensitivity to those who have truly suffered during the pandemic, whether in terms of the physical, mental, or financial health of their families. The sad reality is that many people have experienced tremendous hardship during these last nine months. Others, such as myself and my family admittedly, have been largely unaffected by Covid-19 aside from the relatively minor inconveniences and frustrations that have been a part of the response to the pandemic. My heart and best wishes for the future go out to those who have been hit hard by this crisis.
My first standing ovation goes to the ski areas. It started at Mt. Hood this summer where thousands of racers, from U8s to U.S. Ski Team members were able to get much needed training during a time when the pandemic was still relatively unknown and uncertain. The fact that not one case of Covid-19 was reported due to on-hill training (at least that I heard about) is a testament to both the stringency of the Timberline staff in enforcing requirements for operation and the racers and coaches who followed the guidelines.
This effort continued into the fall where Vail, Copper, and Loveland (did I miss anyone?) welcomed racers from all over the country to train under ideal conditions and, again, no positive results I am aware of were reported.
And, now that we are deep in December, I applaud every ski area in U.S. (and around the world) that is making 2021 a season that almost wasn’t. I participated in a meeting with the CEO of a ski area in California recently in which he told the attendees that skiing in our sport came this close (thumb and forefinger barely separated) to being shut down for the season by the state health department (I assume that ski areas in other states had similar brushes with the end of the season before it began). Only through incredible lobbying efforts by the ski industry, arguing that allowing people to ski would be valuable to everyone’s mental health and overall well-being, as well as the economic health of the states. Additionally, we also learned that the ski-area industry has spent millions of dollars in preparing to welcome skiers safely. Without the ski areas’ incredible efforts to open, our sport would be dead in the (frozen) water. So, thank you, thank you, thank you!
What a heavy lift it has been for ski academies around the U.S. As a Burke Mountain Academy alum (who also works with many kids there) and as a parent of two student-athletes at Sugar Bowl Academy, I have seen first hand the obstacles and setbacks that ski academies have had to confront and overcome to open their doors in the fall. Yet, in the face of enrollment, budgetary, staffing, health, curricular, and technological challenges, open they did with great success. The board of trustees, school leadership, and staff showed their passion for ski racing and education, and their commitment to their schools, students, and communities by forging a path forward where one did not clearly exist. Everyone involved in ski academies deserve a hail and hardy bravo, kudos, and “way to go” for their yeoman’s efforts.
Every ski team in the U.S. (and around the world), from the tiny local programs to the biggest competitive programs have earned our gratitude. These teams and clubs have enabled their young racers to return to their hills to do what they love and to pursue their ski racing dreams. Just like ski academies, those involved in ski teams, from top to bottom, are all working extra hours and sacrificing their personal lives to make this potentially lost season found.
Within those ski academies and ski teams, special thanks go out to the coaches who are doing the day-to-day work of supporting their young athletes. Let’s be honest. Being a ski coach is tough enough physically and psychologically. When we add in the many complexities that Covid-19 has presented, the burden on them can turn overwhelming. Yet, again as I’ve seen first hand at Mt. Hood and in Colorado and California, coaches are embracing the extra responsibilities of keeping their young charges safe. I wish there was hazard pay for ski coaches because each and every coach will deserve a hefty bonus at the end of the race season. But for now, all we can provide is the deepest degree of gratitude for everything they are doing for our sport during a once-in-a-lifetime (hopefully) year of constant uncertainty, challenge, and change.
Let’s not forget the people who really make ski racing possible, namely, all of the parents who commit their time, energy, and, yes, considerable dollars to enable their children to have the kind of life-nurturing and life-shaping experience that we in ski racing believe to be unique in the sports world. What a tough year it has been for parents (and I can say that as a professional who works with many parents and as a parent myself!). So many things to worry about, yet parents stayed calm (mostly), focused on what’s best for their children, and juggled so many balls to help them do what they love to do and which, especially during these difficult times, is so important to their physical and mental health.
Ski Racing Media
As in any area of life, a robust platform of information and commentary is essential for the health and vitality of a community. Since its founding in 1968 by the late and great Gary Black, Ski Racing Media (SRM) has, in its many forms, provided the ski racing world with such a platform in two ways. First, to paraphrase the New York Times tagline, SRM offers its readers “all the [ski racing] news that’s fit to print.” Over the years (I began writing for SRM in the mid-1980s while in graduate school and still have the clippings of my articles) and to this day, SRM provides those passionate about ski racing with the latest news from around the world.
Second, SRM has offered a soapbox, both supportive and critical, to those of us in our sport who constantly strive to make ski racing more enjoyable and more successful for all those involved. I am deeply grateful to Dan Leever for keeping the tradition of Ski Racing alive and well, and continuing its long history of news and advocacy, while also challenging the status quo to push our sport into the future.
Finally, I want to express my gratitude to the ski racers everywhere who have chosen to take “the road less traveled” to pursue their sport, educational, and personal dreams. 2020 has been a difficult year for young people where the pandemic has caused what I call a “lifequake,” in which the life of stability and certainty that they (and all of us) have come to know and trust has, for the last nine months, been rendered null and void. As evidenced by the increasing rates of mental illness in 2020 among young people, the toll has been significant. Yet, ski racers around the world have tapped into the resilience that comes with our sport and found ways to not only overcome the disappointment, frustration, anger, and fear, but also to use this massive disruption as an opportunity to develop as athletes and grow as people. Instead of surrendering to the pandemic, I have seen racers all over the world recommit themselves to our sport and use this time to better themselves as ski racers, athletes, and people, while working within the confines that the pandemic has imposed on them. Ingenuity, creativity, and innovation were evidenced in their dedicated efforts in their dryland, on-snow, and mental training, all with the goal of being a better ski racer (and person) than they were before the pandemic. May 2021 be a winter in which those efforts reach fruition.
Have I missed anyone? If so, my apologies and please add them in the comments section below.
All my best for the holidays for ourselves, our families and friends, our sport, and the world. And let’s hope for a 2021 that is exciting and challenging, yet somehow quite mundane and ordinary compared to 2020.