In the competitive world of ski racing, Olympic dreams can die young. But if your job is a youth ski racing coach, you never know if you might have the next Picabo Street on your hands. Chris Schow is a coach at the Schweitzer Alpine Racing School (SARS), where he tries to maintain a healthy perspective between dreams and reality.
"It's tough," says Schow. "You don't want to discourage kids if that's what their dream is. But you want to help them realize that the skills they learn in ski racing will also transfer into success later on in life."
SARS is one of a handful of local ski racing clubs that offers programs for kids who want to develop their racing skills, or possibly advance to become nationally or internationally ranked ski racers. Schow says the chances of reaching the ultimate goal of making the U.S. ski team and competing in the Olympics is a long shot.
"One person of every birth year in this country makes the U.S. Ski Team," he says. SARS offers programs for skiers ages 5-18 years old. Schow coaches the kids 12 and under, whom he says focus primarily on the slalom and giant slalom events. "That's where they really learn the techniques of ski racing. It's a very precise sport."
Schow says the skiers don't start downhill racing until age 13. By the time the kids are 16, he says the competition starts to really heat up.
"A lot of ski racing at that level is about earning points. They travel more throughout the West going to races with the best competition to earn points. They're also getting looked at by other coaches and programs with the goal of making national teams."
Schow is taking a break in the lodge after a full day coaching his team at a recent Youth Ski League race at Mt. Spokane. The young racers (ages 6-12), all wear those Lycra Spiderman body suits and look like the pros, but still act their age, as they run around the lodge waiting for the awards ceremony to start. "We have some great skiers," he says. "There's this one girl named Courtney Altrane, who's just lightning fast. She's a little eight-year-old who just smokes everyone." He mentions another skier named John Guthrie, who has his eye on advancing to a national team.
"He knows he's a long shot, but he still wants it. We encourage it, but if that doesn't work for him I know he'll do well in whatever he does because of the skills he got from racing." Schow says a lot of kids go on to compete in the college circuit, with some receiving athletic scholarships for ski racing.
For more information on Schweitzer Alpine Racing School.
A Junior Olympic qualifying race, with slalom and super G events,
is being held at Schweitzer this weekend, Jan. 19-20. (208-263-1081)
Consider, for a moment, the sport of sled dog racing. And imagine yourself standing on the narrow runners of a sled as you try to control the 12 powerful dogs, howling and yipping in anticipation of pulling your sled at speeds approaching 30 miles per hour. And then imagine the only control you have over this engine of 12 panting pistons is the sound of your own voice. A command of "Gee," dogs turn right. Say "Haw," dogs turn left. Give the "Whoa" command and if you're lucky, the team will stop.
If this sounds a bit overwhelming, maybe the thought of watching other people harness the huskies is more reasonable. On February 2-3, mushers from across the Northwest will answer the call of the wild as they compete in the 33rd annual Priest Lake Sled Dog Race. Race organizer Wendy Booth says mushers will compete in several middle-distance and sprint races ranging from a 12-dog, 35-mile-a-day race to a novice four-dog, 4.5-miler.
Training and racing sled dogs is a major commitment, says Booth. "It's more than just a hobby, it's a year-round lifestyle."
Brendia Heintzelman agrees. She and her husband Vince are members of the Inland Empire Sled Dog Association and train 16 Alaskan Huskies. She says there's nothing like the feeling of being pulled by her team of dogs.
"It's so much fun," she says. "These dogs absolutely love running. I mean, you're flying and the only thing between you and the ground is a two-inch runner. My husband ran last weekend in a race and he averaged 27 miles per hour. And he only came in third place." She admits it's a little scary going through trees and around sharp corners. "You learn to hang on, or else it's a long walk back. One of the main things for a musher to know is the word 'no.' If they go the wrong way and you yell 'no,' they'll usually find the trail and stay on it."
Contrary to popular belief, very few mushers use the command 'mush' to get the dogs to go.
"That's only in the movies," says Heintzelman, who's been racing sled dogs for 28 years. For her, a simple command of "let's go" or "hike" is all her dogs need to hear. "It's not a problem getting them to go," says Booth in agreement, "it's getting them to stop."
The Priest Lake Sled Dog races begin at 10 am on
Saturday, Feb. 2, and 9 am on Sunday, Feb 3. (509-447-5744)
Haven't signed up for the Langlauf yet? You still have until Jan. 25 before you pay the extra ten bucks for late registration. What's that? You want to ski Langlauf but you haven't learned to cross-country ski yet? Well, now there's an issue with a little more urgency. But remember the procrastinator's motto: "It's never too late to put something off a little longer." Actually, that's not their motto. I just made that up. They haven't really gotten around to writing their motto yet. But with or without you, the popular 10-kilometer cross-country ski race will take place on Feb. 2-3 at Mt. Spokane.
Langlauf is the largest cross-country ski race in the Northwest, and as always will attract some of the best Nordic skiers from the region, as well as skiers of all other abilities. Like Bloomsday on skis, the nearly 400 skiers will take off from one mass start that's separated into four zones depending on ability: Elite, for the fastest racers; Fast, for those who can ski fast but not all-out; Sport, for experienced skiers in good shape who rarely need to stop; and Fun, for the beginners who want to enjoy the scenery.
The annual race strictly adheres to its old-school tradition of being a classical Nordic-technique event. That means no skating is allowed. In fact, a long time Langlauf tradition is the Woolies and Woodies awards, which are given those skiers whose fashion statement best depicts the sport's early, pre-Lycra styles.
This will be the 24th Langlauf, and that means for the 24th year in a row the biggest topic of discussion will be... wax. Getting the right wax can be the difference between winning or losing for the elite skiers, and, for the non-elites, the difference between a fun outing or sheer drudgery. Jeremy Cope of Fitness Fanatics ski shop says waxing can serve two purposes, "People either want to get more glide or get more grip. During Langlauf, most people are coming in to get tips on grip wax, so they don't slide backwards on the uphill."
So, again this year, organizers will be offering a free waxing clinic at Fitness Fanatics the night before the race to help the Langlaufers get just the right wax. On the morning of the race, they'll also apply the wax du jour to your skis at no charge. After the race, be sure and stick around for the famous awards ceremony. They'll draw for more than $3,000 in door prizes, hand out some hardware to the top finishers, and award the Woodies and Woolies. What else could you want?
Langlauf takes place at Mt. Spokane on Sunday, Feb. 3, at 11 am. Price: $15, before Jan. 25. Junior Langlauf (kids 10 and under) is Saturday, Feb. 2, at 1 pm. Free. (509-922-6080)