by Jake Bright
“I have an ‘in’ to some ski event. Do you want to go?” This is what my hip hop producer friend says to me after dinner around 9:30pm on a New York Thursday. Next thing I know I am at the US Ski and Snowboard Association’s (USSA) Annual Ball hanging out with the icons of my sport. Ironically, there is probably not a more appropriate person in Manhattan to already be at the Ski Ball, USSA’s premiere appreciation and fundraising event. As a young professional in NYC, I am a closet ski nut. I know every day trip bus service in the city to get to the closest NASTAR courses or jump in with a high school race team, whose coach I’ve sweet talked into letting me train with. I race on two masters teams in the area and take my gear to work on the rush hour subway in order to make car pool for Wednesday night race league at a small resort in Northern New Jersey. The way some people follow the Yankees or Giants religiously, I follow US alpine and World Cup ski racing. As an amateur racer who comes home bruised from the gates chasing my own elusive tenths and hundredths, I relate to it more than football or basketball. I recognize the US’ often underdog status in the sport and what it takes for our athletes to pull it out on course against the best in world. I also spend lots of time coming down the mountains of Colorado following the lead of my Grandpa Frank, an ex assistant ski coach who’s a bit of a folk legend at Copper Mountain. A World War II veteran in his late 80s, Grandpa skis nearly every day, often logs over 6 million vertical feet a season, and was in one of the latest Warren Miller videos under his screen name, “Father Time.”
So in a town where I usually feel isolated in my ski fervor, it was more than a bit surreal to suddenly stand in one of the biggest concentrations of ski enthusiasm and talent on the planet… after only several minutes notice. I ended up getting a chance to hang out with many of the athletes, including the core of the most winning US Alpine Team in history. In the US ski racing’s a small sport, generally only followed by mainstream Americans in Olympic cycles. Off that cycle, it’s very low key and communal. From little kids to senior citizens, masters racers to the pros – at summer ski camps out West to competitions early year – we all lug gear together, ride lifts together, and train, race, and ski side by side with little difference among us, bonded by love of skiing.
I’ve still never gotten a chance to talk to the athletes like at the Ski Ball. In last year’s Winter Olympics the US Alpine Ski Team trounced the world and pulled off a major upset by nearly shutting out the dominant Austrians from the top of the podiums. Lindsey Vonn won gold and bronze. Julia Mancuso won two silvers. Young Andrew Weibrecht from Upstate New York surprised the world by winning a bronze medal in Super G. And iconoclastic Bode Miller, who got crucified by US media at the Torino Olympics (even though he competed in all five alpine events), completed a grand slam by winning bronze, silver, and a gold medal in alpine skiing’s highest mark of ability, the super combined discipline.
So it was more than cool to spend some time with the current team and old and new US ski legends. I got a camera photo with Lindsey Vonn, hung out with ’06 gold medalist Ted Ligety, Julia Mancuso, and ’94 Olympic gold medalist Tommy Moe. I spoke with former Dartmouth and New York skier Andrew Weibrecht for a while about amateur racing, my Grandpa Frank, and my friend’s father in law, Ralph Miller, who skied at Dartmouth, on U.S. Ski Team in 50s, and set world speed records. Andrew was familiar with Dr. Miller and surprised and interested to hear we race out of Manhattan.
And finally, I got to meet my all time favorite athlete, Bode. I rarely get star struck, but I was a little nervous meeting him. I’ve related to the guy a lot and know a lot about his ski and life background. He’s the Steve Prefontaine type rebel ski racer with tremendous talent, but a very complex, defiant personality. Bode’s the anti child prodigy athlete who grew up with hippie parents in a cabin in New Hampshire without electricity. He used to trek through the snow as a kid with a couple dollars for lunch money to free ski all day at Cannon Mountain. Bode’s consistently pushed skiing ingenuity, while challenging skiing orthodox, the media, and coaches. He’s been both the darling and fiend of the US public and media; hit high points and fallen flat on his face in front of them. He’s followed a go for broke style and at times has been equally as likely to crash out of a race as to win it. He’s struggled with efforts to make him the smiling poster boy of the US Ski Team and openly criticized the commercialization of the Olympics. When Bode first started on the World Cup circuit, he had more DNFs than finishes. The star athletes at the time would gather around the large TV screens to laugh at some of his spectacular crashes. Soon none of them were laughing when through tenacity and raw ability, Bode ascended to become the winningest US alpine racer ever and one of the best racers of all time. After the public relations fall out from the ’06 Torino Olympics, the US Ski Team gave him a take it or leave it list of restrictions to accept. He quit, formed his own team, and won skiing’s highest prize, the World Cup overall title.
Bode’s been back with the US Ski Team and I was lucky enough at the Ski Ball to talk with him about his progression, Torino, and the last Olympics. He described how he was able to find the same enthusiasm in the start house he felt years before in his first world cup races again in last year’s Olympics – this time channeled through more maturity and experience. Bode explained that it was about shifting away from the media, money, and commercial side and focusing on what he loved in the first place: ski racing. To rekindle that energy and excitement he just needed to shut a lot of other stuff out and remember his pure love for racing and the core culture around it. The difference, he explained, was that even having found that enthusiasm again, at the level he is competing at now, it produces only incremental rewards compared to before. We also talked about our shared hippie era inspired names (my middle) and my Great Grandmother (Grandpa Frank’s Mom) who lived on Lake Winnipesaukee near his home town. All in all it was pretty awesome to talk one on one with Bode Miller.
I explained to the friend who got me in and to Andrew, Bode, and Lindsey directly how proud I was of the US Alpine Ski Team. They were the most successful national team at the Vancouver Olympics, but they did it in a very “American ski culture” sort of way. They put in the tremendous amount of work and intensity it took to win at crunch time and beat the robotic Austrian terminator types. However, off the course they remain chilled out, modest and friendly people. Essentially approachable ski bums you could just as easily shoot the breeze with on the lift or meet in a back bowl, except with massive amounts of athletic ability and talent. This is a rarity in mainstream US sports for anyone who holds that kind of success and skill. As for my experience crashing the event, I am already in touch with the USSA about how I can more appropriately contribute to next year’s Ski Ball.
pic: Author at NASTAR Nationals. Jake Bright is a young professional and freelance writer who lives in New York City. He races and trains NASTAR and masters at Windham Mountain and Copper Mountain.
USSA Ski Ball (Courtesy USSA)
US Alpine Athletes (Courtesy USSA)