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Ski Racing: A Sport for Life

A Glimpse Into the Holiday Valley and HoliMont Race Programs

Every Fall, the anticipation of winter and skiing strikes this small town and the hearts of those in the greater Western New York area who love to ski. Of this group, there is a small subsection of ski racers who have been dreaming of racing since the moment the lifts stopped turning in the spring. Most of them have been training in the off-season and preparing for their next shot at ripping a course apart. Ski Racing in New York State has an active community at all ages from U8 racing to the Masters program. 

One thing that always amazes me about this sport is once you get bit by the race bug, you don’t want to stop learning and growing as a racer. There is so much mental preparation that goes into ski racing, it requires such a high level of mental fortitude to succeed. There is always work to be done no matter your age; whether that is training more or hitting the gym harder. I have coached for seven seasons now full-time and raced through University attending USCSA National Championships two times. There is just something about this sport that keeps you hooked; it could be the pure adrenaline after running a great GS course or the camaraderie that spans generations. My father ski raced and so did my grandmother, making my sister and I third generation racers.

A person may ask, “How do you get into ski racing?” And the best answer is: “You don’t choose ski racing, ski racing chooses you.” Whether your kid is in lessons and the instructor suggests it or it is a family tradition that has been passed down, most likely the opportunity falls into your lap. With it not being a traditional sport (ie. soccer, football or baseball) there isn’t a lot of awareness around outside of the dedicated community. With the mainstream success of Lindsey Vonn, Ted Ligety and Bode Miller, ski racing is starting to become more well known in the average American household.

There is a sense of community that drives this sport. “To state the obvious, ski clubs, ski racing and ski racing culture provide a strong community for ski loving families. These families enjoy the sport, and then want to expose their children to healthy competition, valuable training, organized programming, sport conditioning and promotion of passion in a lifelong sport,” said Kathy Okoniewski, US Ski Association’s Eastern Region Youth Coach. Kathy spends her time traveling from club to club across the East coast, working with programs on coaching, concepts, procedure and sport safety. Okoniewski continued, “It seems to me that the family community of ski clubs across the country impacts the sport by providing an avenue for kids/families to get involved at a lower cost, lower intensity, all the while being more accessible to their home base. As these young skiers grow in the sport at the club level, great passion and love for their team and their sport develop, which stays with them for a lifetime.”

At a lower level, there really is not a lot of time dedicated in comparison to more traditional sports. In New York racing begins at the U8 level and continues up to U21 and after that is Masters which is 21 and over. The lifeblood of the sport is the U12 age level; this is where you see the highest number of participants with the lowest level of commitment. HoliMont Race Team parent Ken Priestman said, “It was an easy decision to choose the HoliMont Race Program. We were told the next step after lessons, to continue to improve my daughters’ skiing, was the race program. It has a charm and sense of family with a great community of parents and kids.”

Holiday Valley Ski School Director Allie Doro told me she frequently is asked if she raced growing up. It has a distinct style and as Doro puts, “It is a privilege to work with racers because they have such a strong ski performance knowledge.” As a race coach myself and recent ski school instructor, the parallels between PSIA and the race world are extremely similar. PSIA and lessons build the foundation and framing while racing adds the finishing touches to your skiing. “Studying how basic ski fundamentals work together as a whole package is ski racing,” Doro stated.

Now don’t think that you have to be a kid to get into this sport. Holiday Valley has one family that got sucked in just two seasons ago. “My daughter Brooke, 15 years old, was skiing with her school group and someone noticed she liked to go fast and suggested she race. As the school’s club advisor, I asked customer service and they said I should call some guy named Miguel.” Needless to say that summer that parent called Miguel Azcarate, the Alpine Race Director at Holiday Valley and he got them onboard and rocking. “There were so many parents who helped us get into the swing of things, offering tips and tricks at every turn. There is such a sense of belonging in the Holiday Valley program.”

When considering higher levels of ski racing, Okoniewski advised, “Most of our elite athletes all started in a club environment (most of them small, not to be confused with small mountain) and then went on to a more High Performance program and then on to the National Team, (except for Trisha Mangan, who came right out of an Ellicottville small club!) Over time, those same athletes grow up and eventually repeat the cycle with their own children. And as I have heard time and time again, they want their children to experience the same awesome world of ski club ski racing that they did. What hometown clubs do best - they create passion and life-long love for the sport ... (and some pretty great skiers too!)”

This year the U14 Mud, Sweat n’ Gears State Championship is being held at HoliMont March 5th-8th. In talking with Travis Widger, Director of all Snowsports Departments at HoliMont, he tells me, “It is huge for our Ski Area and Region to host this event. We have a great venue and a giant love for winter sports in our area.  To bring this event here will showcase our venue, town, and county to athletes from across the state.” This is Widger’s first year overseeing the ski school and his 8th season as Director of Racing. I asked Widger what made him choose ski racing for a career and his answer only reinforced my concept that ski racing chooses you. “I didn’t really choose to make it my career.  My passion for skiing has led me to so many different places in my life and  it also led me to my career.” Ski racing has a way of taking you where you need to be; the network of people you meet from outside your immediate location only opens more doors for you in life. It also gives athletes a camaraderie unlike any other.

If you are interested in joining the HoliMont Race Team call 716-699-2320, or 716-699-2345 for the Holiday Valley Race Team. Ski racing gives you skills that can be applied both on and off the snow ... so what are you waiting for?