Trip to Andes an experience of a lifetime for skiers
October 4, 2009
Steamboat Springs — Rob Zehner moved with his family to Steamboat Springs when he was 16 years old, hoping to fulfill his ski racing dreams by training on the slopes of Mount Werner.
A decade later, he did achieve his goals, but only after burning out on the sport and coming back to it in a much more informal manner.
Still, his dream always was to make the U.S. Ski Team, and thanks to his championship NASTAR race last spring in Steamboat, he got that opportunity last month in Chile.
Neither Zehner nor Steamboat’s Kersten Scherer, the women’s NASTAR champion, came away from five days in Chile necessarily rededicated to someday compete in the Olympic games. Both, however, came away convinced that their skills had earned them a trip of a lifetime and at least a taste of their childhood ambition.
“It was an amazing, phenomenal experience,” Zehner said. “I basically got to walk in their shoes and do everything they do to prepare for the World Cup and Olympic season.”
Some of the week’s activities weren’t anything new to racing vets Zehner and Scherer.
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At one time, Zehner was one of the top dogs in Alpine skiing. When it came time to head to college or pursue a skier’s dream, though, he opted for college and skied on the University of Colorado’s Alpine club team instead of its varsity squad.
“If I had taken a couple years off (school) to get my (FIS) points down, I would have been close,” he said.
At 26, Zehner said he’s probably too old to start chasing the goal now, but that doesn’t mean he lollygags it down groomers, either.
He won the trip by recording the fastest time in NASTAR’s Race of Champions, which pitted divisional winners from four days of racing against one another for one winner-takes-all dash down See Me at Steamboat Ski Area.
He won for the second year in a row, taking the 2009 crown by nearly a second.
He also was a regular at Rocky Mountain Masters Alpine races and was one of the top finishers in that series, too.
When he snapped on his skis for the first time this season in Chile, getting at least a month jump on everyone else in Colorado, he said he knocked off one easy run and immediately headed for the hard stuff.
“Colorado has its steep parts, but just the consistency of the extreme terrain down there is unparalleled,” he said. “There was some gnarly stuff. Everything is above tree line, and the bowls are five times larger than they actually appear.”
‘How skiing should be’
Scherer, too, has a long background in skiing and racing. She moved from Minnesota to train with the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, and now the 19-year-old hopes to race as a part of the Colorado Mountain College Alpine team in Steamboat.
She, too, found the Chilean mountains everything she’d dreamed of.
“It was spring skiing there, but unlike here in Steamboat, it’s not spring snow,” Scherer said. “It got warm, but the snow stayed frozen and wasn’t slushy at all. It was super good.”
Zehner attended camp with the U.S. Ski Team’s downhill and super G racers at Portillo, Chile, a small resort buried several hours’ drive north of Santiago, along the Argentine border and in the Andes mountains.
“They limit the number of people that are on the mountain at the same time, so there was never a lift line, and the runs were never crowded,” he said. “A lot of the time, I was all by myself.
“That’s how skiing should be.”
Scherer, meanwhile, was with the more technical slalom and giant slalom racers in Valle Nevado, Chile.
She said it took her all of three hours to start absorbing tips from America’s top skiers and the coaches who guide them.
“I learned a lot better technique from them,” she said. “We just went free skiing on our first day, and even after that I could tell my stance was wider, I was more forward with my body and just had better technique.”
Zehner and Scherer said they were welcomed in by and quickly became friends with the U.S. team members.
A volleyball game in which Zehner blocked Marco Sullivan and formed the nucleus of a strong bump-set-spike routine with 2006 Olympic gold medalist Ted Ligety and B-teamer Jake Zamansky stood out as one trip highlight.
Still, what impressed him most was watching the team work.
“They were just so disciplined,” Zehner said. “They treat every training like on every training day as a race opportunity. They might only get four laps in, but they’re all Olympic caliber.”
Both Scherer and Zehner came back recharged and rededicated to new goals For Scherer, it was all about improving.
“Every run we would take, I would listen to their pointers, and it helped a lot,” she said. “We did a lot of drills and didn’t ever do a whole course, but I know I would have been able to handle that speed with all the new techniques and everything I acquired.”
Zehner, now a personal trainer in Arvada, found something else to dream about.
“Now my aspirations are to work with the team as a coach or a physiologist,” he said. “It was all fun. When I left, after the last meal we all had together, they all stood up and shook my hand and wished me luck. I left, and I felt like a part of the team.”