Eugene Buchanan: Steamboat second-graders get crash course in skiing |

Eugene Buchanan: Steamboat second-graders get crash course in skiing

Ski coach Lori Keefe helps Soda Creek Elementary School second-grader Elli Gienger as she makes her way down a beginner slope at Howelsen Hill during a recent Ski Town USA Initiative outing. (Photo by John F. Russell)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Save for that head plant into the snowbank, Kenneth is killing it. So is his buddy Jose, save for that spine-on-the-tails pirouette into the bush.

To their credit, those mishaps come on their first-ever run down the Magic Carpet at Howelsen Hill. Somehow, their “pizza pies” deserted them mid-hill, leaving them to improvise a braking system. Their fellow second-grade classmates lay scattered around in equal stages of disarray, some splattered on the slope and others somehow surviving all the way to the bottom, where they scoot back on to the carpet to give it another go.

I’m here as a volunteer coach for the last Ski Town USA Initiative of the season, a unique program brilliantly designed to get Steamboat Springs second-graders out on skis. While some of the kids are already little rippers and others veritable Bambis on ice, it doesn’t matter; they’re all having a blast, and it beats the pants off being in school.

Sure, the Pythagorean Theorem and Archimedes’ Principle are important and all, but so is learning how to ski — especially in Ski Town USA. And what kid worth his or her eraser wouldn’t rather be at Howelsen than holed up in class? The program lets them swap their desks for DIN settings and try their hand at the sport for themselves.

The program is beautifully simple: pull second-graders out of class to give them a chance to ski. Between Strawberry Park and Soda Creek elementary schools, there are six classes total, plus an additional 20 kids from Montessori, meaning each class get two outings — plenty of time to master the intricacies of gravity.

Organizer Lori Keefe came up with the idea last year, and it’s snowballed just like its students. She lined up support from the city of Steamboat Springs, Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, Christy Sports, Mountain Valley Bank, Steamboat Mountain School and countless volunteers. The kids come Tuesdays and Thursdays, arriving and leaving by the same yellow bus that takes them to class.

“We couldn’t do it without everyone’s help,” Keefe said. “Believe it or not, not everyone in Steamboat skis, and this is a great way to get them started. We’re Ski Town USA, after all … every second-grader ought to be on skis.”

Ski coach Lila DiBaso watches Soda Creek Elementary School second-grader Adolfo Prieto-Munoz at Howelsen Hill during a recent Ski Town USA Initiative outing. (Photo by John F. Russell)

The kids who are already good head up the poma with a coach. The newbies borrow gear from Christy Sports — the boots lined up perfectly when they arrive, with the coaches buckling — and take to the carpet.

As they march through the lodge door, I can’t help but hand out high-fives. Their enthusiasm is infectious. They’re as psyched to ski as any glass-presser on a powder day.

I’m shadowing Johnny St. John, whom Keefe calls “The King of the Never-evers.” I show them how to carry their skis the “cool” way — over the shoulder, tips in front, forearm providing counterbalance — and we Frankenstein over to a small hill. No mechanized help, yet; first, they have to earn their turns, hiking up and snowplowing down.

Coaches catch those whose snowplows aren’t quite up to snuff. Careening this way and that, like a math problem, some kids grasp the concept and others don’t. Then, they all hike back up to do it again. Once they can stop on their own, they graduate to the, gasp, Magic Carpet, akin to the rest of us standing atop the Hahnenkamm.

Aladinning up the sloped conveyor belt is an art in itself. Since it’s somewhat slippery, everyone, including us, takes one ski off to avoid sliding backwards, riding uniped-style like we’re in a one-legged race. Unloading is equally awkward, especially when peg-legging off. The pile-up often resembles an assembly line gone haywire.

Then, after clicking back into their lone ski, they cringe at the couloir in front of them. Darwinism kicks in for the brave few who did it last time. Muscle memory wields the all-important wedge of life, which keeps them from hurtling out-of-control. The first-timers, however, have their stomachs in their throats while confronting one of humankind’s most deeply embedded fears: being strapped to a slippery piece of plastic designed to go fast on snow.

Like giving a presentation in front of a class, one by one, they muster up the courage and shove off. Some get slowed down by coaches snowplowing backwards in front of them, and others schuss solo. And all of them offer lessons to those yet to take the plunge.

One kid eats it after straight-lining down, only to get up, dust himself off and yell, “I’m OK!” That encourages my charges, Kenneth and Jose, to cowboy up and push off. While Jose promptly careens into a sarvis berry bush, I help Kenneth through the steep part before turning him lose. Miraculously, he makes it down upright, and we re-group at the bottom to do it all over again.

Everyone is in varying stages of success across the slope — some garage-sale; some scream down at Mach One, swapping French fries for pizzas; and some form perfect wedges the whole way down. As if we’re running Sicilian food carts, us coaches, meanwhile, yell “pizza, pizza, pizza,” at the top of our lungs — oftentimes, while doing backwards pizzas of our own. Of course, it’s hard for our students to make perfect pizzas when they’re skiing over the top of our skis. There’s not much purchase on graphics.

On Kenneth’s next run, my coaching covers all bases: “Pizza, pizza, pizza! Watch out for that snowmobile! Pizza, pizza, pizza!”

On the last run — on his coach’s, ahem, advice — Kenneth tries to turn into the tunnel to avoid the hike back up to the carpet. But he abandons his snowplow and careens just left, head planting into the snowbank. “Missed it by that much,” I think, pulling snow out of his collar.

But the grins are worth every grimace. A mom later calls Keefe to say her son absolutely loved it and asks how to get him lessons. And Howelsen’s Ski Free Sundays, she adds, make it easy for families to continue the learning curve, further swapping chalky snow for a chalkboard. If not turning them into future Mikaela Shiffrins, the program helps instill a love of the sport.

Back at the lodge, the kids strip off their gear and order — what else? — slices of cheese pizza. Then Keefe hands them all a Starburst candy as they head out the door back to the bus and school — their self esteem at being skiers bursting as well.

To reach Eugene Buchanan, call 970-871-4276 or email

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