If there is one tried and true way to set the hook in ski racing, it is duals. There’s nothing quite like the adrenaline boost of going head to head with your opponent, and the satisfaction of taking him or her down at the line. NASTAR was on to something with its recipe for recreational racing: Set the hook with the mano-a-mano format, then sustain interest with medals for individual improvement. When Bob Beattie took that formula into the World Pro Tour, added cash, TV coverage and a party atmosphere, the format hit its stride. Some of the world’s best ski racers eagerly traded the restrictions of the World Cup, the Olympics and their National Teams for the fun and freedom of the Pro Tour.
And then, among many other factors, amateur rules relaxed, the World Cup regained top spot in the ski racing hierarchy, and the World Pro Tour went away. After that, dual racing—among elite racers— became the domain of made-for-TV events, or the cathartic finale of a “regular” racing season. The appeal of head-to-head racing’s raw excitement and simplicity, however, never went away.
It took a while, but the World Cup took notice. Parallel races popped into the schedule as city events, then as a team event at the 2015 World Championships. In 2018, as an Olympic event, parallel racing had arrived. Regardless of what the FIS proposes for dual format skiing next month, we know this show will go on. Dual format is driving changes that will make it viable and accessible at every level of ski racing, while bridging the barriers that once divided ski racing’s premiere circuits.
DUAL RACING FOR KIDS
The format has always been popular with very young, and for good reason. It is easy to set up, self-explanatory, can accommodate large numbers in relatively small areas and involves no complicated points or scoring. Duals can even be run without timing if necessary, and still be a satisfying and productive experience. Beyond those practicalities, dual racing also teaches good race habits and solid fundamentals including: strong starts, skiing around gates instead of through them, solid stance, agility, releasing the ski, moving forward, etc. Sally Utter is chair of the EACC Children’s Committee and on U.S. Ski & Snowboard’s Children’s Committee.
“Dual has been part of the culture in Vermont for more than 25 years,” said Utter, noting longstanding annual races on the calendar.
She echoed the many benefits of dual racing for building strong skiers.
“My job is to teach them to send it,” says Utter. “If they don’t find that next gear, then skills are harder to teach,” she said.
She adds that dual racing taps into a different athleticism, allowing different kids to shine.
DUAL RACING FOR JUNIORS
At this critical stage of development, dual racing helps many issues by using a uniquely American approach—pure competition—to address uniquely American problems in ski racing. American skiers typically lag behind our European peers in the kicking, drooling, race-like-your-next-meal-depends-on-it punch that it takes to make it in the big leagues. The lost art of running ruts, along with the discipline of finishing run after run, rewards athletes who develop both physical and mental toughness. By instantly reinforcing punch and grit, dual racing naturally raises the level of competition. Furthermore, the time (up to four racers on the course at once) and space (100 vertical feet max) efficiency of running dual races and training increases access while helping minimize costs for equipment, hill prep and travel. Bonus points for being suited to venues that are in easy reach or in view of the base area.
GETTING THE POINT(S)
Talking with ski coaches about the benefits of dual racing is preaching to the choir. One problem, however, with widespread participation among junior racing programs, has been the inability to score events, and thus improve individual rankings. For that, as well as for creating other standards, Ski & Snowboard put together a national task force and gave approval to score some test events last season. Colorado’s Karen Ghent heads up the Ski & Snowboard task force.
“We realized FIS is working on this too, and we don’t want to put something in place that we have to change, but we wanted something in place for this year,” she said.
What is evolving are two ways to score events. The first is by running single pole duals, which allow for the necessary combinations to make a legit slalom. The first two runs—one on each course—are scored to the USS list, and then the race organizer has the option to run a bracketed event to a final. The other way is by creating a new Parallel SL points list, to eventually replace Alpine Combined. NYSSRA Executive Director Dirk Gouwens (also on the task force) helped with last season’s events. He notes that the challenges are finding a hill wide enough to separate the courses a safe distance, running two sets of wiring, and, when running brackets, finding venues with a fast turnaround time. One other unforeseen challenge emerged.
“I could barely hear on the timing headphones because there was so much cheering at the start,” says Gouwens. “Usually that happens with girls but the boys are dead silent. This was with everyone.”
Therein lies another bonus of dual racing: Even in individual events, dual racing fosters camaraderie and enthusiasm amongst participants. When duals are run as a team event, they come with a huge and healthy dose of team cohesion.
“I think everyone is excited about it,” says Ghent. “Once it becomes legit it will take on more weight.”
In the meantime, Gouwens sees no downside at any level to making duals a regular part of training.
“It’s amazing to watch kids when they see someone next to them. You can see them step on the gas,” he said.
NCAA, GIVING IT THE COLLEGE TRY
Also this year, CU will run a dual event as part of their home meet at Lake Eldora. The night event will take place after the SL and before the two GS races. CU coach Richard Rokos, ran a test event last year and worked out the kinks with the timing program which now runs smoothly, automatically ranking athletes for each new heat.
“The race is so dynamic, with four racers a minute,” says Rokos, who adds that dual racing is “better than a trip to the chiropractor,” for the way it fixes posture and gets you balanced and aligned.
“That event ran 120 athletes, in three heats for six runs total, without resetting. We had to water but the surface lasted to the end of the race, which was two hours, start to finish,” he said.
So far, there are no dual races on the eastern carnival schedule, which is more compressed than the western circuit but which (for the future) does visit some dual friendly venues. Rokos will also be presenting a proposal on university parallel racing at the FIS meetings in October. He and others are hopeful that parallel will be part of the 2020 NCAA finals in Bozeman, MT.
NCAA skiers from all across the country can race in the six events on this year’s Pro Tour without losing their eligibility, as long as their winnings defray training expenses. Also welcome on the Pro Tour are the growing ranks of independent elite American ski racers, from the Junior to the World Cup ranks. Parallel SL will be included at this year’s US Nationals in Waterville Valley. Pending approval of the USS task force’s proposal by the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Executive Committee, some of the slaloms on the calendar nationwide may switch to duals.
This time around everybody is part of the parallel party. As a disciple and long-time friend of Bob Beattie’s, Rokos can take pride in his part of fulfilling Beattie’s vision of bringing innovation, excitement and accessibility back to the sport. “We have countless hours with Beattie, talking about how to make ski racing better,” says Rokos. “He was ahead of his time.”
UP NEXT: Taking it from the Pros. The Bob Beattie Foundation is stacked with vets from the glory days of World Pro Skiing. From tips on how to make dual racing more exciting and accessible for all, to an ambitious vision for providing gates to programs across the country, the BBSF is on a mission to “celebrate the history of ski racing, while advocating for its healthy future.”