Love of racing still strong among masters program skiers |

Love of racing still strong among masters program skiers

— The strength of the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club is never more evident than at about 3:30 p.m. every weekday at the base of Howelsen Hill, a daily traffic jam as hundreds of parents drop off their pint-sized skiers and snowboarders.

But the depth of the club is never more evident than in the hours before and after those children come and go, when the snow at the downtown Steamboat Springs complex is still a crisp corduroy, and the pace, at least at first glance, is decidedly slower.

That's the realm of the Winter Sports Club Alpine Masters program, a collection of skiers who defy the assumption that Steamboat's best-known organization is made up of tomorrow's Olympians.

Thrill of the race

To some, the patrons of the masters program are a collection of has-beens and never-weres. Unlike most of their fellow club members, they harbor no dreams of Olympic grandeur, no hope of landing a coveted spot on the national team.

Their goals aren't truly very different from those of the athletes who swarm Howelsen at its daily height, however, and it just takes watching one middle-aged father or over-ambitious 20-something rip down the face of the daunting Howelsen Hill to prove as much.

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They're still here for the thrill of racing.

"For me, it's just fun," said Sc­ott Sch­affer, a community resource o­fficer by day, a Winter Sports Club Alpine coach by evening and finally, with the masters program, a racer by night. "I coach with the younger kids, and this really keeps my enthusiasm up. You develop a better appreciation for what they're working on when you put yourself in the same situations.

"It's exhilarating, and it's intellectual. It's almost like a chess game out there. You really have to think. There aren't too many things like it."

The masters program has been a Winter Sports Club staple as long as most of its organizers can remember. It's the surest way for Steamboat's Average Joe or Jane to become a true ski racer.

Classes are offered about three times a week, the area of focus for each two-hour session rotating based on what is up next in the winter Town Challenge ski racing series. At this point in the season, it costs $100 for six sessions.

All ages allowed

Throughout the past week, the classes attracted all sorts, and masters coach Kevin Hendrickson said that's not unusual.

Mel Halliday tries to ski year-round, and the Australian is in Steamboat on an extended vacation, sitting out the sweltering summer months in her home city of Sydney. She raced on the FIS circuit growing up, and though those days are gone, she was eager to pick up training in Ski Town USA.

"I love it because the coaching is great, and the courses are great," she said. "It's always pushing me."

For most, the appeal wasn't just a faster time in Town Challenge races, though. Many of the week's participants pointed to a cause and effect relationship that made every death-defying dash down Howelsen worth it.

"I really like what it's done for my skiing," said Bill Sullivan, a Texan who owns a condo in Steamboat and is in his second year training with the club.

Better skiing, then, has its benefits.

"One of the things about skiing, the better you get, the more fun it is," added Jim Kohler, rocking a pair of speed skis for the first time Friday afternoon in his final dry run before today's Town Challenge super G.

He raced for Virginia Tech while in college but said he enjoys the lighter side of the sport as much as the serious these days.

"This is definitely one of the reasons I live here," he said. "Instead of going to the gym, you can come out here and do race training."

Continued education

The result is a close-knit group of skiers who not only are quick to turn to Hendrickson or other coaches for advice, but also are quick to swap it with one another.

Friday's super G training started with a slow once-over of the course with Hendrickson. He paused at the major problem areas — the day's course featured two steep drops and one tricky, turny section in the middle — and explained strategy.

Then he pulled off to the side of the run and watched as each skier flew down the course, rode the Poma lift back to the top and screamed by again.

On Wednesday, he took a break from watching and commenting to videotape a few runs, later pointing out mistakes and offering praise in front of a TV in the Howelsen Hill Lodge.

"The coaches, their eyes are great," Sullivan said. "Maybe when I'm skiing, there will be something in the back of my head I think I might be a little wrong with, and as soon as I get to the bottom, they just nail it."

Sullivan said he's in need of experience, and Halliday acknowledged that she's still searching for the confidence it takes to fully open up on a steep and slick run down the slope.

Both said they're eager to continue to build those traits in the program.

"Everyone is so supportive," Halliday said. "You can learn something from everyone, and everyone has such a good time. It's not intense, and you're welcome even when you first come.

"The people are really what seal the deal."

For more

Check out the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club’s Web site for a detailed masters program schedule to find out when the program will be training and what kinds of courses it will be attacking.

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