The purpose of this article is to present my view on how to become a better ski racer. My approach is not complicated: If athletes read more books they will become better ski racers.
As a boy I plastered my bedroom with cut out images of famous ski racers. I taped up Gustavo Thoerni, Phil and Steve Mahre, Jean-Claude Killy, Ingemar Stenmark, and Fausto Ridici (a one-eyed Italian slalom specialist). On top of that collage I stapled long strips of rolled teletype paper (it was a long time ago) onto which I set courses with my crayons. I set red and blue gates around which my mind (and my flashlight) raced until I fell asleep. During those nights, as a giant weeping willow brushed up against the side of our house, I dreamed that I might become a member of the U.S. Ski Team … and go to the Olympics!
One fact constrained this … outside my bedroom window was Wisconsin … and a horizon that didn’t rise in the West until it met the Colorado front range exactly 1,065 miles down the block from 403 14th Avenue East, Superior, Wisconsin. At that time, I was a ski racer only in the Wisconsin sense of the term … racing into eroded river valleys along the South Shore of Lake Superior. Our base lodge was actually at the top of our mountain at its 310-foot summit. And it was cold. For parts of the winter it was too cold to ski more than a few runs at a time. At twenty degrees below zero pre-radial car tires froze and needed at least four blocks of the car thumping down the street until the friction warmed the rubber and smoothed the ride for my mother’s wood-paneled station wagon.
At the time I thought I was sentenced to accomplish no more than 310 feet of success in a sport defined by mountains.
The good part was that by the time I finished ski racing, I had been a member of the United States Ski Team and had competed in World Cup races against the same racers I had pinned to my bedroom walls. In addition, I became an NCAA four-time First-Team All-American, and an NCAA team and individual national champion at the University of Vermont. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it to the Olympics.
Learning how to ski race on a foreign planet
I have been thinking about my time as a ski racer in an effort to try to find some meaning in it all. It has been more than 30 years since I raced. In contemplating this I have been guided by the notion that an experience is never really complete until it has been written about long after it occurred.
Towards that end, I started writing about all this 10 years ago. I have finally come to this conclusion:
I became a world-class ski racer because I read the book Dune, by Frank Herbertwhen I was 14 years old
Before I read Dune, I had never voluntarily read any book.
The reason I read that book at that time had everything to do with the fact that the best ski racer on our team spent an entire trip doing nothing but reading Dune. I watched him read it day after day. He read it in the van. He read it in the base lodge. I actually saw him reading it on the chairlift in Killington, Vermont when it was raining … he was reading it on the chairlift in the rain!!! And in the midst of all of that … he won races. He read Dune and he won races. I hadn’t read Dune, and I hadn’t won any races.
When he finished the book, I picked up his water-soaked and bloated paper-backed copy, and I started reading it in the van, and in the base lodge, and on the chairlift in the rain.
The planet Dune, known otherwise as Arrakis, is a desert planet. If you look out the window of Seitch Tabor in the Great Southern Desert, there is only sand to the horizon in every direction. It is actually the least likely place any person could be expected to become someone important.
There is a boy there, however, named Paul Atreides. His weapons teacher taught him how to anticipate and react and predict in ways that showed a path that wasn’t really about hand-to-hand combat. There were games and trials and fables and superstition … and a mixing of many things to form a complete view on combat and leadership and politics. Paul Atreides became a rebel leader, war hero, and eventually a leader of billions.
As I read Dune I felt that, maybe, I could become more than I was. Paul Atreides overcame his starting position. Even though I came from the alpine desert of the Midwest maybe I could become a real ski racer.
The part I didn’t realize at that time was the genesis of how I came to read that book. My coach, Scott Wilson, engineered situations like my Dune episode by enlisting other athletes to set examples, to pass down habits, and to literally pass down books. I was in fact the third racer on our team to read that same copy of Dune.
When I look back I realize that the books I read, that seemingly had nothing to do with skiing, were critically important to my development as a ski racer. While I had many amazing actual ski coaches, including George Hovland, Scott Ransom, Scott Wilson, Finn Gundersen, Marty Heib and Kathy Gundersen, I also found other great coaches who never skied. I discovered that our world is filled with ski coaches masquerading as Nobel laureates, renaissance artists and civil rights activists … and of course, Frank Herbert.
- Michelangelo: During my senior year of high school, I read a book titled the “The Agony and the Ecstasy” by Irving Stone, a biographical novel about Michelangelo. His path is in fact a roadmap for the development of ski racing skills … starting with the basic skills he developed as a 12-year old apprentice painting background flowers on the paintings of famous artists. While he followed most of the directions he was given, at certain moments he would, even at an early age, pivot to do things that made sense just to him that had never been done before. This intuition later led him to devise the perfect way to support the weight of the David sculpture from within the confines of the limited size of the block of marble he was given. He also snuck into the Vatican to carve his name into the sash of the Pieta when another sculptor tried to claim the work as his own. And importantly he learned how to navigate the various factions of Medicis, popes, their advisors, and the enemies around of all of those people.
From Michelangelo I was exposed to a sense of how to more effectively navigate the world of ski racing. To become a successful ski racer I needed skills to navigate around equipment suppliers, U.S. Ski Team coaches, teachers, parents and my competitors.
Michelangelo also helped protect me from ski coaches that would hold me back. One coach dictated to me that because Phil Mahre positioned his hip in a particular way (and I had no idea what that meant) I was required to do the same. Michelangelo did not do the ridiculous things papal advisors commanded. And I didn’t either.
The effort to achieve perfection is, by definition, personal and unique.
- Sir Isaac Newton: Isaac Newton knew a lot about ski racing … including the big fact that gravity is the most important tool for a ski racer. What Newton discovered in 1666 in the midst of his exile from Cambridge during the time of the Black Death (their Covid-19) was that ski racers should not fight gravity, but take advantage of it . . . to employ this force to accelerate at the beginning of every turn on Mt. Alyeska, and in Trondheim, and on all the other mountains on which we raced. 32ft/sec2 is a constant predictable partner for any free-falling downhill object willing to accept its help.
- Martin Luther King: There were also people that I read about who helped me avoid failure. At the end of one season I fell apart. I remember waking up in a bed in Stratton on the morning of a Nor-Am series race, not wanting to get out of bed. I was supposed to get dressed and stretch and prepare and eat and go for a run and do all those things I did on race mornings … but the prior weeks were so bad. I had nightmares of hooking my tip on every gate. How does that happen? How do you forget how to do what you have spent years doing over and over and over again? I didn’t get up.
The next steps were dark. It was time for Spring break, and I was set to go home … to Wisconsin. I thought I had escaped that place, and it seemed that when things went bad I was sent back there.
As I left school, Kathy Gundersen, my history teacher at Burke, said I should spend some during the break learning about Martin Luther King. I spent a lot of time at the Superior Public library reading the “I Have a Dream” speech, and his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” And when I returned to Burke I spent the Spring term writing my senior paper on Dr. King.
Martin Luther King convinced me not to quit ski racing. His ability to manage the multiple forces working against him evidenced skills rarely seen in history. He simultaneously balanced conflict between the NAACP, various religious interests, the foil of Malcolm X, the vitriol of Bull Connor and large swaths of the population of Mississippi and Alabama.
Against that backdrop I found perspective on the forces revolving around me in skiing, and I found a way through … within months of delivering that paper I was racing in Europe Cup races among a select group of U.S. Ski Team racers trying to qualify for the Olympics.
- Edwin Moses and others: I read about Edwin Moses’ training regime as he was growing up in Dayton, Ohio and it became a example of expanding the anaerobic boundaries confronted at altitude for 80 seconds in a giant slalom. I also read about other athletes and their coaches. Ingemar Stenmark balanced on a tight rope (I put one of those up in the woods behind our house). John Wooden had his players practice their mistakes (we did that right under the chairlift in front of laughing racers on Mt. Hood).
- Writing: A teacher at Burke Mt. Academy, as an assignment, had me write about my ski racing every day. This included: how many push-ups I did, a description of the mistake I made in a Europa Cup in Marshall Tito’s hometown in Slovenia, the good turn I made on the top pitch at the Austrian National Championships in Bad Kleinkircheim, the mistake I made in the compression in Squaw Valley on KT22, and that mixture of different waxes and base preparations that worked best when there was warm new snow on top of old ice at Mt. Tremblant in the Laurentians. Writing helped me think better about all this, to be more aware, to order my thoughts and help me find solutions.
There are an unlimited number of coaches that do not work for local clubs, ski racing academies or the U.S. Ski Team … and your access to them is not constrained by Covid-19.
Find them if you want to become a better ski racer … read a book and ski faster.