Steamboat Springs To most Americans, Alpine ski racing is a once-every-four-years interest. Even to those interested enough in the sport to stand at the bottom of a slalom course at Howelsen Hill, each racer’s run is little more than a flash, a roughly 45-second, top-to-bottom flight.
Deb Armstrong could fill a book with the intricacies of the sport, however, that’s part of what is so fascinated her through the weekend during the Holiday Classic slalom races at Howelsen Hill and Steamboat Ski Area.
There’s so much to know, so much to perfect, so much to endure, that the success her program is realizing ... well, it warms her heart.
“Ski racing takes such a mature person to be successful at it,” she said. "It’s highly technical. There are tactics that take a ton of maturity to learn. There are all sorts of life lessons that come through the sport, and then it takes heart.”
Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club skiers, quite simply, have become awfully hard to miss at the hometown Holiday Classic in recent years. That’s thanks in large part to a powerful group of young skiers — many of them women and many now skiing on collegiate teams around the country — who make the Holiday Classic an annual “must” on their calendar.
A year ago, it was 2009 Steamboat Springs High School grad Mary Rachel Hostetter skiing to victory. This year, Steamboat skier and University of Colorado athlete Shane McLean had two podium finishes in the three races. Behind each woman in each race was a large contingent of local racers logging top finishes, a generation of Steamboat Alpine skiers pursuing excellence.
The unique part: they’re doing it together.
“It’s definitely competition, but we’re friends first,” said Anna Marno, a U.S. Ski Team member who rose through the Steamboat ranks.
“We definitely are really fortunate and had a really strong group to grow up with and train with when we were in high school,” she said. “We still visit each other at school and we’re together a lot on the NorAm circuit. We have sleepovers when we’re home. It’s definitely as much a relationship outside ski racing as it is within it.”
To Armstrong, it’s those bonds as much as the success on the slope that signal to her that things are going well within the program. An Olympic gold medalist herself in Alpine ski racing, she took over as the Winter Sports Club’s Alpine director five years ago.
Her program is built on shepherding ski racers responsibly from their first run through the gates at age 3 onward, however far that may be. Plenty of that comes down to the technical details: how to navigate a slalom course, how to deal with tricky terrain or certain types of snow. Plenty also has to do with putting it all in perspective.
“We have honed in a little more on the start-to-finish mentality and we’ve really tried to educate about the fact that this is a marathon,” Armstrong said. “Ski racing is a marathon, and it takes time. A lot of the time, a 15th or 16th place finish is a win in this culture where everyone else thinks it's win or you lose. That isn’t ski racing.”
The Holiday Classic, which had races Thursday, Friday and Saturday, offered plenty of fine examples, she said, and plenty of evidence of mature, successful racers who have moved on from Steamboat’s program. Whether it was top-10 showings from former Steamboat skiers Hig Roberts and Max Marno, or strong results from Hostetter, Cassady Roberts or Anna Marno on the women’s side, Steamboaters were all over the slopes.
“I’m so proud because they’re all still in the sport and they’re still highly competitive and they love it so much,” Armstrong said. “That tells me the Winter Sports Club did it right because these kids aren’t burnt out.”
Those athletes say that success is poised to build upon itself.
“It’s really cool because there are a lot of alumni here like Shane, and it’s weird to think that she was in my position a while ago,” said Steamboat skier Serina Kidd, a sophomore in high school.
Kidd was the youngest racer in the field last weekend and notched 16th-, 19th- and 22nd-place finishes, a huge accomplishment according to Armstrong.
“It’s great seeing all those girls, getting to watch them,” Kidd said. “Anna Marno, she was giving me tips at the top of the course and they’re all cheering us on. We have such a strong team and that really helps. The older girls encouraging us are great.”
It may seem like a simple thing — high school friends coming back together, encouraging their friends and lending a hand in their hometown. Ask Armstrong, though, and it’s clear: there’s nothing simple about it.