Tom Ross: Every second counts for future Olympic racers

Spirit of 2006 Winter Games thrives in Steamboat's local athletic contests

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On a perfect Winter Carnival Sunday in Steamboat Springs, when the blue of the Colorado sky surpassed even that of the Italian Alps, it was a tough call on where to spend the afternoon. I found a good dose of the Olympic spirit at the Steamboat Touring Center, where the Sweetheart cross-country ski race was under way.

Don't Scoff. Future Olympic Nordic combined skier Bryan Fletcher was there. After watching Saturday's Olympic 15-kilometer race, Fletcher wasn't messing around in the 5-kilometer race, despite a field that wasn't exactly of international caliber.

"Every second counts," Fletcher said. "If I was at the Olympics, and this was an Olympic race, I'd be trying to get every second I could. You have to get every second you can, because once you're there, it's too late. If I can gain three seconds this year, then next year when I start out, I'll be three seconds faster."

So, are you going to tell me the stakes aren't high at the annual Sweetheart Race in Steamboat? Fletcher is trying to shave seconds off his time as he thinks about Vancouver in 2010.

Ben Barbier, the 34-year-old winner of Sunday's 14-kilometer race, watched the men's Olympic cross-country pursuit race during the weekend and was reminded of an old rival. Carl Swenson, who is Barbier's age, was competing for the United States.

"I can remember when I was 16 or 17, I was competing against him for a spot on the World Junior team," Barbier recalled. "He came flying by me on a hill and I thought, 'Wow, that guy is at another level.'"

Fast forward 17 years -- Barbier is still racing at an impressive level, while Swenson is defying the odds to compete in the 2006 Olympics.

"It's exciting to see what can happen if you dedicate your life to skiing like most of us didn't," Barbier said.

Barbara Philip, the all-time points leader in the Steamboat Nordic challenge, said she enjoyed watching the Nordic Combined 15-kilometerross-country race Saturday, but had a difficult time drawing parallels between the Olympic action and her own skiing.

"I'm excited that I can relate at all to what they do," she said. "I think Todd Lodwick showed he has a lot of drive."

Greg Burkholder, a veteran of Nordic racing and coaching in Steamboat said he never gets tired of watching Lodwick compete. Burkholder was a course official at the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Utah.

"I like to watch Todd ski," Burkholder said. "To me, he is one of the cleanest around. There's no hack in that guy's stride."

Burkholder said watching elite races on video used to boost his skiing, but no longer. Still, he uses video of great racers to inspire young skiers.

During the recent full moon, Burkholder hosted a moonlight ski, and during a chili dinner before the outing, he played the legendary men's relay from the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway. It features historic gamesmanship between the Norwegian and Italian teams. Burkholder confessed that's one skiing video he never tires of.

Murray Selleck said he is inspired by watching Olympic race films the day before he toes the start line.

"For citizen racers, to watch Olympic or world-class skiers, it gives you a feel of what else you, yourself could do," Selleck said. "Even though you think you've got your technique nailed, there's still a lot to learn. It helps you to keep your eye on the prize."

Fletcher thinks the American Nordic combined team is on the rise and predicts great things for Lodwick. And with every passing second, he keeps his eye on the prize.

The tradition continues.

Tom Ross is a longtime Steamboat resident. His column is published every Monday in Steamboat Today.

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