Ski Racing Against Time
For many ski racers, the Sise Cup is New England’s fountain of youth
The eclectic collection of skiers milling about Mount Sunapee’s Spruce Lodge were obviously kindred spirits. Little did I know just how much we had in common. Women and men, most dressed in the padded skin suits favored by ski racers, many with sprouts of gray or white hair indicating that they might well be past their competitive primes, shared lighthearted banter and twinkles in their eyes. Age had not encumbered them. The easy laughter was contagious. I leaned in when the conversation turned to dealing with joint replacements. “You’re racing with a new hip and a new knee?” I asked one gentleman, incredulous. “That’s amazing.”
“Feels as good as new,” said David Strang, an emergency room physician from Gilmanton, New Hampshire.
“So you must be a racer too,” Stacey Weston, a scientist from Massachusetts, asked me.
“No, no,” I replied with a chuckle. “I just happen to have a few new body parts too.”
Welcome to the New England Masters ski race series, which might be more accurately described as winter’s fountain of youth. Also known as the Sise Cup, after founder Al Sise, an inductee in the Vermont Ski Museum Hall of Fame and the National Ski Hall of Fame, the series is the oldest annual Masters racing program in the country.
The Sise Cup series, which includes slalom, dual slalom, super-G, giant slalom, and downhill disciplines, is typically confined to the northern four New England states. In the recent past, New Hampshire has hosted events at Mount Sunapee, Cranmore Mountain, Waterville Valley, Gunstock Mountain, Mittersill, Whaleback Mountain and the Dartmouth Skiway.
“Compared to ski racing in the western United States, we don’t have to travel nearly as much,” said 52-year-old Alex Gadbois of Bow. “They often have drives that are six hours or more. We’re fortunate that you can find at least a few races an hour or so away, so it’s a day trip.”
The drive isn’t discouraging these folks. While skiing is considered a lifetime sport, the same can be said for ski racing. The New England Masters often has competitors well into their 80s and even older, such as 92-year-old Paul Rich of Laconia and 91-year-old Alphonse Sevigny of Amesbury, Massachusetts. Many continue to snap into their bindings and answer the starting gun thanks in part to the miracles of modern medicine.
“The medical world has been terrific for ski racing,” said Gregory Gill, a 73-year-old retiree from Sutton who started skiing at 12 and has been racing since 16. “We have both men and women who have had hips, knees, hips and knees replaced, and are racing better now than before they had surgery.
“Recovery time to ski racing usually takes almost nine months” following hip replacement, said Gill. “Most racers have another activity that complements their winter ski racing, like biking, tennis, sailing, running. We aren’t getting any younger, but our commitment is unwavering.”
That commitment is a common theme. Ask any of these Masters racers as they warm up in the lodge or shuffle with nervous energy in the lift lines if they’d rather be doing anything else, and they’re likely to look at you like you’ve got three heads. Weston, at 64, has had “two spinal fusion surgeries, 11 years apart, one successful hip replacement, and a variety of other medical issues over the years that have curtailed my racing periodically.”
Still, she has no plans to hang up her skis and race suits, defying the adage that “all good things must come to an end.” The lure of pushing her skis downhill, as fast as possible, is simply too strong.
“You can’t just quit the sport — it gets in your blood and your soul,” said Weston. “It makes me happy.”
A similar joy is what brings Matthew Dodge, 32, a financial planner originally from Meredith now living in Concord to these events.
“We’re a bunch of individuals who will wake up early, drive hours to the mountain, wait at the top of the course in the cold and wind, only for a 45-second opportunity to take part in the sport we love,” said Dodge. “Often times, we may be disappointed with the outcome, or worse, end the day with an injury.
“We might seem a little crazy to those who don’t understand us. We racers have a connection in that we all recognize the challenge this sport can be at times, and respect our fellow competitors for joining us.
Strang echoed similar sentiments. A “latecomer” to the sport, he started racing at the ripe old age of 21, at the urging of his best friend from high school and lured by the speed and the challenge of competition.
“I became enthralled with ski racing as an activity that could be done in a season when we tend to be inside and more sedentary,” said Strang. “As I stayed in it, I made friends with my ‘winter family,’ people who had similar interests and skills as I did, but whom I often only saw during the winter competition months. It now represents something that I not only do in the winter, but prepare for and train for in the summer and fall seasons.”
In fact, Strang admitted to scheduling his surgeries so they’re less likely to interrupt his racing season. When I first met him, he was six months removed from a total knee replacement.
“I’ve joked we should start a ‘Prosthetic Cup’ within Masters and have a handicap system like NASTAR, where you lower your time based on the number of joint repairs or replacements that you’ve had,” he said. “I was back on snow just four months after my knee replacement, so absolutely there is a real pull of the sport.
“When you become a ski ‘racer,’ you’ve reached the epitome of the sport, the top of the ladder. You’ve typically refined your technique to such a degree that you can now race. But, if you want to stay on top, to keep winning, you’ve got to train and keep in shape.”
Staying is shape is a requisite since the sport is demanding. It’s more than just letting gravity pull you down the hill. Instead, ski racing at a high level requires nerves of steel, sturdy legs and a solid core, and cat-quick reflexes. Its greatest rewards, in terms of trophies, are reserved for the fittest, said Lisa Densmore Ballard, a former New Hampshire resident and multiple New England and national champion.
“The stronger you are, the faster you’ll go just naturally because you’ll be able to handle the various forces that ski racing puts on your body,” said Densmore Ballard, who literally wrote the book on running the gates — “Ski Faster! Guide to Racing and High Performance Skiing.” “You’ll also be able to maintain good technique longer and have ‘gas in the tank’ at the end of a long course.
“Don’t forget to pay attention to your flexibility,” she said. “Many adults forget that, especially men, but ski racing demands athletic moves in extended positions, and if you want a low, aerodynamic tuck, you need to have good hip and back flexibility.”
Truth be told, a distinct lack of suppleness marked the gaits of most competitors at Sunapee the day I visited. Many walked with a hitch that couldn’t be attributed to just their ski boots. Playing hurt is commonplace and not all that surprising, given that these men and women are pushing their muscles, sinew and synapses often to the breaking point. My wife, an occupational therapist, quipped that she could open a first aid stand — like a food truck — at the resort’s parking lot, selling salves and bandages, and make a killing. Although she was joking, her comment contained an unmistakable kernel of truth.
Whenever you have “senior” athletes, age 40 and older, testing the boundaries of their bodies, strains, sprains, and injuries will happen. In some regard, ski racing is a game of attrition. And it’s easy to lose sight that this is a part-time endeavor.
“Everyone who races Masters goes to work on Monday,” said Gill. “Our intent is not to get hurt.”
Beyond fitness, the sport also draws people with analytical minds who embrace a challenge, and can appreciate the incremental improvement that comes with dedication. A great comparison, said Densmore Ballard, is golf.
“After 18 holes, you’re sure you can lower your score, so you come back another day for another round,” she said. “Likewise, every time you cross the finish line of a ski race, you’re sure you can lower your time. It’s addictive. For many, even those with Olympic aspirations, it’s a passion.”
That passion is captured by Dodge, who said racing’s magnetic force is renewed every time he races, regardless of location.
“I think it’s a unique feeling in sports to stand in the starting gate, knowing you’re about to engage in adrenaline-filled competition within mere seconds, and you look down the course to see the expansive snow in front of you,” said Dodge. “You look further, and you see rolling hills in the distance. You see the beauty of the moment, and then launch yourself down the icy slope in search of more and more speed.
“After 50 seconds, you’ve descended the slope and you can look back up at where you just came from. It’s a bit of a rush that keeps you coming back for more.”
Coupled with that rush is the sport’s precision. Mistakes that cost milliseconds can spell the difference between winning and finishing off the podium. Every race, said competitors, can be a humbling experience.
“Ski racing also teaches you humility and respect,” said Strang. “You may beat one of your friends one weekend and then get crushed by them the next. You have to learn how to both give and receive praise with equal sincerity and genuine respect.”
Rubbing elbows over the course of the winter season also promotes a great sense of camaraderie, a reflection of an ever-widening circle of friends who share a common enthusiasm, and exuberance.
“Masters racers come from all walks of life, but they all are drawn to the competition, the challenge of doing the best we can and having that ‘breakthrough’ race,” said Strang. “Although none of us have been to the World Cup, when we watch the Hahnenkamm (in Austria), the Olympics, or other high-level races, in our minds we’re skiing just like these world-class athletes.”
Those relationships, collectively, are another key component to Masters racing’s popularity. The social aspect is what made me, a non-racer, feel so at home with this group at Sunapee, trading tales of replacement body parts. The after-race parties are relished as much as the actual races.
“There are many lifelong friendships and relationships that have come out of Masters racing, including friends all across the country,” said Nadine Price, who is “66 going on 25” and vice president of the group’s board of directors. “The part about how good a skier you are is only important for a few minutes, but the friendships last forever.”
The expansive age range that defines Masters racing also allows for a wonderful mingling of generations, with experienced racers welcoming newcomers into the fold.
“This year, I did my first Masters races with my son,” said Gadbois. “That’s a whole new aspect of it for me. He really enjoyed the experience as well.
“I’d encourage anyone who has a love of skiing and a challenge to give it a try. The skiing may bring you to a Masters race, but the people and relationships are what brings you back.”
Still, competitors decked out in helmets and padded racing suits can look a little intimidating to those unfamiliar with the sport. It is one of ski racing’s lingering misconceptions.
“A lot of people who do beer league or recreational league ski racing don’t think they’re good enough to do Masters races, and that’s totally false,” said Gadbois. “If you’ve done NASTAR or a beer league race, imagine a course two or three times longer, on a more interesting trail, with a great group of enthusiastic, like-minded skiers. The vast majority of [Masters racers] are very willing to help out new skiers.”
Not surprisingly, with so many different racers, so many different categories, so many different ability levels, there are many “races within races.” Each event produces age-related lists of results, so each racer can see where they finished in their competitive categories. But many acknowledge that the true measure is how they did compared to their own expectations.
“One thing that has become very clear to me since I started racing Masters about nine years ago is the diversity of experience each racer brings,” said Dodge. “Some of us are former Division One college ski racers who have trained in this sport since a young age. Others found the sport late, and are just now exploring it in retirement.
“However, we all come into the race with unique goals and have the ability to reach them on any given day,” he said. “Although we all ski the same course, we are all running our individual race in some ways. It allows for any one of us to be a winner on any given day.”
To put it more succinctly, when I asked Dr. Strang how long he expected to keep racing, he told me: “I’ll keep doing this until I can’t walk or hold in a turn anymore.”
For more details on New England Masters and the Sise Cup Series, visit nemasters.org.