Ski Touring Center finds success in women-only programs

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— Every Tuesday, several women strap on their skis to build relationships as well as their skiing abilities.

The Steamboat Ski Touring Center offers women the opportunity to cross country ski with other women under the instruction of women.

The success of its first Women's Ski Day program last winter prompted the center to offer two five-week programs this year, said Birgitta Lindgren, owner and director of the Touring Center.

"It's a whole different idea," Lindgren said. "It's a social affair."

The concept of clinics geared specifically for women often surfaced in her conversations with women who suggested that a class by women and for women be offered, she said.

The idea, however, never took off until recently.

The Touring Center provides enough female instructors at each of the five lessons to keep the class ratio small, she added.

Emily McWatters, an instructor at the Touring Center for seven years, led a group of three women last Tuesday in the classic style of cross country skiing.

Many women begin with instruction in the classic style and switch to skate skiing after they gain confidence in their abilities, McWatters said.

"If you're good at classic skiing, skate skiing will come much easier," she said.

McWatters said the all-female class allows women to worry less about how they look to other people in the class and concentrate more on the pleasure of cross country skiing.

"It definitely helps women because they relax, and they are not so tense," she said.

The comfortable atmosphere helps to bolster women's confidence, so they can easily make small gains in their technique, she said.

Many women who enroll in the program often come to the first day of class with little or no experience in cross country skiing, McWatters said.

But in the company of other women with similar misgivings about their inexperience, she added, they can put aside their concerns and just ski.

"They realize that cross country skiing isn't that hard," she said.

Victoria Mertz, whose lesson Tuesday with McWatters marked only her third time on cross country skis, said the class offered her a chance to experience a sport she wanted to try for a long time.

Her husband enrolled her in the class in December as an early Christmas present.

"I had been talking about wanting to learn for a while," Mertz said.

The all-inclusive series of clinics provide free rentals with each lesson, a deal that suits women with no equipment, she said.

A class comprised completely of women removed the intimidation of learning to cross country ski for the first time, Mertz said.

The two other women in McWatters' class, Cathy Gero and Corinne Cilli, agreed they felt less pressure to perform in an environment without men.

"Men are more competitive," Cilli said. "They take the fun out of it."

During the two-hour lesson, the women casually chatted with their instructor while they tried out their newfound skills on skis.

Cilli said she appreciated the chance to converse with women as she exercised.

"The social part of it is great," she said.

The trio said they felt comfortable enough to ask McWatters any question about technique or to explain a concept more than once.

A large group setting with men might have discouraged her from asking for help as often, Mertz said.

Instructor Marty Irish led Jill Strauss over several kilometers of terrain at the Touring Center Tuesday. Strauss, the fourth woman enrolled in the program, wanted to try skate skiing.

The women enrolled in the Women's Ski Days at the Touring Center learn the same techniques as men and receive much of the same advice and suggestions, Irish said.

"We just take it at their pace," she said.

From pretending to push a child uphill while skiing without poles to discussing different types of poling, Strauss learned to ski confidently and correctly under Irish's instruction.

"I want her to build her confidence so she knows how to ski according to the terrain," Irish said.

Irish, McWatters and Lindgren take turns teaching the two different styles of cross country skiing.

Spending time with the same women for several weeks allows them to teach on a more personal level, McWatters said.

The instructors want the women to feel good about themselves at the end of each lesson, Irish added.

"We want to make sure that no one feels threatened," she said.

Lindgren said the Touring Center welcomes any woman who missed the first session, which began Dec. 11, but still wants to learn how to cross country ski, to participate in the second session that begins Jan. 29.

The women have two more 10 a.m. to noon lessons at the Touring Center, always followed by a gourmet lunch and some more conversation.

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