John Russell's sports column appears Tuesdays in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 871-4209 or email jrussell@SteamboatToday.com.
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As a child, I used to try to imagine what it would be like to be a downhill racer speeding on the steep pitches of a downhill course, on the edge of control.
But as I grew up in Denver, skiing wasn’t something I got to do every day — truth is, I was lucky if I got to go a couple of times each winter. So I watched World Cup skiing on television and idolized guys like Bill Johnson, Phil Mahre and his brother Steve.
Today, children growing up in places like Denver and adults who want to give ski racing a try don’t have to live life through the black box and imagine what it feels like to be an Olympic ski racer.
Thanks to NASTAR, many of them can put on their skis and give ski racing a try on the weekends or during their ski vacations. If they are good enough, they might even get the chance to ski at the Nature Valley NASTAR National Championships, which wrapped up a couple of weeks ago in Winter Park.
It’s a place where young Olympic hopefuls build their confidence for the future, and where aging Olympic wannabes can feel like they are Lindsey Vonn, Ted Ligety or, in my case, just like a young, unstoppable Bill Johnson.
I’m not a regular at the NASTAR racecourse in Steamboat these days, but I’ve tried it in the past. I’ve always liked NASTAR because it brings the sport of ski racing to the people. It gives racers who might never run a gate a chance to race the clock, and thanks to a handicap system, they can compare their times with those of current World Cup and Olympic ski racers.
More than 1,000 ski racers came together in Winter Park this year for the NASTAR National Championships. More than 20 Steamboat racers participated, and more than a few returned with titles.
One of those racers was Connor Bernard, who won the platinum division for skiers ages 15 and 16. Bernard doesn’t dream about what it feels like to be a top-level athlete: He is one. The young man probably has run more gates this winter than he cares to count. But he wanted to go to the NASTAR finals to find something that he had lost in the hectic world of junior ski racing. He wanted to find his love for the sport.
He is not alone. The love of ski racing is shared by most of the people who travel to the championships.
Many of the racers are top-notch athletes, but there are divisions for every level of ski racer, and for most ages.
But NASTAR is also a place for middle-aged skiers who enjoy going fast. They can’t compete against Bernard in a head-to-head race, but thanks to the format of the event and the handicap system, they don’t have to.
The system must work because there seems to be a shared respect among the racers. Most come for the atmosphere, not to make a run at the U.S. Ski Team. However, most top skiers have raced NASTAR, and many stars also come back to the national event to act as course pace setters — and to inspire the next generation of athletes.