Kick it down a notch.

life on the D-Team sometimes feels like this.... oh yeah, sometimes it IS like this! photo: Hannah Dreissigacker.

life on the D-Team sometimes feels like this.... oh yeah, sometimes it IS like this! photo: Hannah Dreissigacker.

After my incredible luck this year with getting called up for carnival races, I had forgotten what it was like to travel with the Development Team.

When I arrived at Dartmouth, I had known that I would be racing with the Development Team, affectionately known as the D-Team. For me, it was one of the major selling points of Dartmouth: I could race even though I hadn’t been a standout high school skier. I guess on some level I hoped to make varsity some day, but I didn’t really expect to improve as much as I have over the last few years; I thought I’d stay there forever.

Exceeding expectations, I’ve traveled with varsity at least part of each season since then. But on the weekends when I don’t make the cut, I go back to the D-Team. In a way it’s like moving back in with your parents when your career doesn’t quite work out; you’re a little embarrassed, but you’re also thankful to have something familiar and comforting to go back to after you’ve been rejected. And the atmosphere is less serious and more fun than on the big-deal varsity bus.

As we drove back from Gilford on Sunday, Courtney Robinson had the shotgun seat in the bus, bantering with our Development Coordinator, Martin Benes. She was eating Ritz cheese bits and gave at least a few to Martin.

Gordon Vermeer was sitting in the first seat, working on a paper for his freshman seminar. Next to him was Sam Marshall, who still sported his green mohawk from the previous weekend. Sam is an Etna native who skied for Gunstock in high school, so he was showing us a shortcut back to Hanover.

“The best thing about this route,” Sam said, “was you don’t go more than 20 minutes without passing a Dunkin Donuts!”

The rest of us looked at each other, unsure if this actually recommended the shortcut or not. Katie Bono and Julie Carson were listening to their iPods, and Audrey Weber slept in the back. Besides passengers, we were loaded down with skis – several pairs per skier since we hadn’t been sure what conditions we would find – a waxing bench, two forms, and two giant wax boxes.

Katie and I had podiumed in the Under-23 division of the Eastern Cup and received prize baskets full of baked goods, which we shared with our teammates.

“I have to stop eating these cookies,” I said at one point. “I’m going to get really hyper from all the sugar and then crash.”

Gordon had a bagel and Courtney had peanut butter and jelly but no bread, so they made open-face PB&J’s and each got half. That’s teamwork.

Our bus has a DVD player, but we never use it. We seldom listen to the radio. On the way to races, we’re all pretty quiet. It’s the shotgun passenger’s responsibility to say something every once in a while so Martin doesn’t get bored, fall asleep, or get lost. It’s not that he would do any of these things, but he deserves some company. D-Team coaches get very meager pay and the hours aren’t the greatest. Oh, and they have to put up with all of us.

At one point, I shared my iPod earbuds with Courtney, saying, “This is for old time’s sake.” In honor of our last Eastern Cup of our Dartmouth careers, we listened to Poison’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.”

The rest of the passengers were confused as to the significance of the song. In between singing the lyrics, we explained that our freshman year, our bus had no radio and no CD player, so we had two cassette tapes which we listened to over and over on every trip. One was Poison’s Greatest Hits, and the other was the Fugees.

I don’t know why, but the bus was always more crowded in those days. I guess we didn’t split among races as often. Especially if we were staying somewhere overnight, our bus would be crammed with bags and there wouldn’t be enough seats. The heater was in the back, and we had to put a piece of plywood over it so it wouldn’t melt our skis. As a result the bus was always cold. Paul Salipante would snuggle up into the bags and sleep on the way home from races.

We played about ten rounds of telephone pictionary on our way back from Rumford that year after we arrived at the race venue to find that it was closed. The drive back to Hanover took 6 hours in the snow. We topped the day off by stopping at a diner for lunch.

Waxing can be especially tricky on the D-Team. Our wax is mostly for, say, less than 10 degrees, or above 35. In other words, it’s all the stuff that never gets used. Our klister collection resides in plastic bags; usually the tubes are covered in the sticky stuff and the names are things we are totally unfamiliar with.

Katie and I discussed another memorable D-Team race, this time from last year. The event was a mass-start 10k classic outside of Montpelier. Tracks were glazed and it was snowing. Nobody could figure out the wax; we even talked about it with Middlebury, which means both of our teams were really freaking out, because we never share waxing info with them. It was a ridiculous race.

We were almost back in Hanover by now, driving along the Ruddsboro Road. Sam directed Martin onto King Road. Katie and I immediately sat up. “Sam! Why are we going this way?”

“It’s a shortcut,” he smiled.

“I have agreed with all of your shortcuts so far,” I said, “but this one is bad. It’s not any shorter. And that hill is really steep and it’s going to be slippery in the snow.” Katie and I frowned at each other.

As we crept down the hill, we saw skid marks from other vehicles. Martin put the bus in a low gear and we made it around the corners, slowly.

Life is always an adventure on the D-Team. Sometimes we get to races with barely enough time to slap some wax on our skis. Sometimes our bus breaks down. But most of the time, everything is fine. I don’t mind being back with my old team. Oh, and you never win baked goods at college races.

Silver Fox Trot success!

I woke up this morning and thought, shit, I am sick. I went through a whole box of kleenex before our bus left at 11:45. I wasn’t sure whether I should race or not, but at this point in the season, it’s not like I’m saving myself for any more carnivals, so I decided to go for it.

I felt surprisingly good in the race, although afterwards I felt really sick – more sniffly, fevery, sick to my stomach, lungs hurting more than from a normal race. So I doubt this was a good move for getting better quickly.

But, I had a ton of fun racing! I made a new discovery about V1 when I was doing speeds on Friday so I got to try it out. On top of that, I felt like I was skiing technically well overall for the first time in weeks. It was a blast to be out there. I finished 8th, which isn’t super impressive (if I was healthy, I would have been gunning for the podium), but to keep it in perspective it IS my best Eastern Cup result of my career …. so I’m very happy with it!

Today I raced in my old Ford Sayre tights with my Dartmouth top. It felt like home to be whizzing around Oak Hill, seeing so many familiar faces – different ones than those that put on our Dartmouth carnival. It was a lot of fun.

Love Story: Dartmouth Carnival

We get our kicks at Oak Hill. Photo: mama Koons.

We get our kicks at Oak Hill. Photo: mama Koons.

This has been a season of second chances. I haven’t been skiing as well as I think I ought to be, but I have somehow still been able to race on the best and deepest women’s team in the East, and perhaps in the country.

How? Luck. And the Flu.

In our four weekends of college action so far, I have been named the alternate every time. Unusually, I’ve gotten to race three of the four weekends as first Rosie Brennan, then Hannah Dreissigacker, then Steph Crocker succumbed to illness.

For four years, I have dreamed of racing for Dartmouth at Oak Hill, my home course ever since I started skiing in 10th grade. My sophomore year, I made the cut, but there wasn’t enough snow in Hanover; we raced in Stowe.

This year, I muddled through the early part of the season and Cami Thompson promised that if there was any way she could get me the start at Dartmouth, she would.

Last weekend at UVM, I completely imploded in some tough waxing conditions. I even tried to drop out of a race for the first time in my life (the spectators wouldn’t let me). I was sure that my chance to race at Oak Hill had disappeared, but Cami named me the alternate anyway.

At 4 o’clock on Thursday afternoon, Steph Crocker decided that she was too sick to race. I ran around Robinson Hall telling anyone I saw, “I’m racing! I’m racing at Oak Hill!”

Never mind that after UVM, I was unsure about how to move forward and hadn’t been planning on starting even a non-college race this weekend. Never mind that I had stayed up until 1 a.m. writing a paper on Wednesday because I figured I wasn’t racing so sleep didn’t matter. Never mind that I hadn’t worked on my skis at all.

I was racing! Even though I had done nothing to deserve it, my dream was coming true.

***

Friday was bright and clear, and the rain had stopped. The Oak Hill trails were covered in sugar snow, the S-Turns in sheet ice. Our development team raked snow over the ice after each racer went by, and then watched it pushed to the edges as nervous skiers snowplowed and slid the corners.

My teammate and captain Courtney Robinson was in the announcing booth with “the voice of American skiing,” Peter Graves. As I inched closer to the starting line, Courtney talked about me over the loudspeaker and I grinned up at her.

I crashed in the first kilometer, narrowly avoiding a tree. And I had serious difficulty with my classic wax, as has been unfortunately usual for me this year. Maybe I just didn’t have enough time to get into race mode after the late notice; excitement only takes you so far. In any case, it didn’t match what I had visualized the night before.

But instead of getting upset and crying as I often do after an unsatisfactory result, I just rolled with it. No matter that my five teammates were all in the top 10 and I had struggled into the top 50, by far my worst carnival finish of the year. I was there. I had raced. I told Ruff Patterson my wax had slipped in case he wanted to adjust it for the men.

Then I walked out on the long, rolling stretch behind the ski jump with my high school teammate Jennie Brentrup. It was sunny; we didn’t get cold. She cheered for her Colby teammates and I cheered for the Dartmouth men, and we urged on anyone else we thought was cute.

After everyone was finished, Mr. O’Brien grilled up burgers and Mrs. Koons ladled out hot cider. I sat alongside my teammates, the freshmen with their neon pink hair (girls) and mohawks (boys), which they had spiked with wood glue and spray-painted green.

With a few exceptions, the men hadn’t raced particularly well, but for them that meant filling in the spots between 10th and 20th. They asked how my race was.

“Oh, I rocked 49th place,” I would reply.

“Nice!” Ben Koons said. “You made the top 50!” And so we joked about it, all understanding that it shouldn’t have gone that poorly, but it did, so what can you do.
***

women's start. Photo: Judy Geer.

women's start. Photo: Judy Geer.

I was more excited for Saturday’s mass start race. The 10k course climbed all the way up Oak Hill. This intimidates a lot of skiers, but I wasn’t scared. Long skate races had been my strength all year.

The men raced first. It was exciting and inspiring. Nils Koons hung with the lead pack the whole time and finished 4th; Eric Packer moved up from bib 23 to finish 5th. Juergen Uhl of UVM lost a ski in the final 300 meters and dropped from podium position to 8th as he scrambled to find it in the ditch.

I have been told that Robinson played Britney Spears’ song “Womanizer” as we sprinted out of the stadium, but I didn’t notice. The sound of sixty pairs of skis on the icy snow was loud. I looked for gaps and had made up a few places by the time we headed down the hill. Chunks of ice flew up in my face as the girls in front of my snowplowed. Two racers crashed in the deep sugar snow, but I managed to get around them.

Then the uphills started and the field slowed down. We came to a standstill at several points as racers tangled up and fell. I relaxed into the pace of the skiers around me, slipping by them when the time was right.

The race course was lined with spectators shouting and screaming, mostly for Dartmouth; I imagine that racing up the Alpe d’Huez in the Tour de France would feel like this. Senior co-captain Hannah Dreissigacker said, “Racing up the Oak Hill switchbacks with a huge crowd of people sprinting up the hill to cheer for us at each one was just really exhilarating.”

By the time we reached the outback loop, I was in contact with the top 20, skiing behind Alice Nelson of Williams and Beth Taylor of Bates, both fellow Ford Sayre alumni.

On the next S-Turn, I fell hard. I guess I was overconfident after too many days of skiing Oak Hill in powder; I forgot that it was sheet ice. My pack was gone and another had passed me as I got up. I couldn’t make up much ground over the last three kilometers because the skiing was fast and most of the terrain was downhill.

***

froshies with pink hair. Photo: mama koons.

froshies with pink hair. Photo: mama koons.

It is tradition for racers to exchange Valentines on the last day of Dartmouth carnival, and we ran around giggling and watching each other’s presentations. And we had the customary barbecue with 26 species of meat. I was a particular fan of the quail Don Cutter had been advertising to me for days.

Saturday was the most fun I’ve had in a ski race in almost two years. The scrambling, the sun, the hint of spring, the crowds shouting my name. Once again, I didn’t mind that my results weren’t as good as I thought they should have been. I soaked it up: my last Dartmouth Carnival, my only college race at Oak Hill, and, excluding any more cases of the flu, possibly my last college race, ever.

As every Dartmouth skier knows, our home carnival is the most special race of the year. Dreissigacker says, “There’s something about racing at Oak Hill that is just awesome.  It’s more than just the fact that it’s our home course. I’m sad that it’s my last Dartmouth Carnival-it’s always been the highlight of my racing season.”

And Robinson said, “standing up in the little announcing shack and watching all of you start, I just wanted to be able to fly over you, encouraging you strong women. I felt so lucky to be able to call this group of green clad racers my friends, teammates, suds buddies. Perhaps it comes a little close to what a parent might feel watching their children out in the world. Not that I am the Mom but I know what it took all of you to be on that starting line, or crossing the finish!”

I have to thank luck, and Cami, for giving me the opportunity to be one of the green-clad racers.

Big Green vs. the World

Cheering for our teammate Ali Crocker at the Silver Star World Cup, 2005.

Cheering for our teammate Ali Crocker at the Silver Star World Cup, 2005.

With Dartmouth Winter Carnival fast approaching, students are hurrying to finish their work so that they can drink and dance at the fraternities.

But many Dartmouth students forget that Winter Carnival was initially founded as a weekend to celebrate outdoor activites, particularly that fledgling college sport: skiing. The first carnival ski races were swept by A.T. Cobb, class of 1912. Since then, Dartmouth skiing has never looked back.

It is no secret that Dartmouth has been very successful in NCAA competition. But what about after these skiers graduate? It turns out that they keep racing. Many of my former teammates are now competing internationally.

This includes Mikey Sinnott and Kristina Trygstad-Saari, both class of 2007, chosen to represent the U.S. in World Cup competition this January; Sam Naney, class of 2006, and older graduates Brayton Osgood and Kate Arduser, who have raced all over the world; 2007 and 2008 captains Sara Studebaker and Susan Dunklee, who just returned from biathlon competition in Europe; and Carolyn Bramante, class of 2006, has already represented the U.S. in one Olympics and is aiming for a second.

There are more Dartmouth grads on the international circuit than alumni from almost any other school. Why? I asked some of these athletes for their opinions.

First there are the details. Day to day life on the Dartmouth Ski Team forces athletes to take responsibility for their own training. While there is a weekly plan, we have to adjust each workout based on what our bodies are telling us. Dunklee said, “I came out of Dartmouth with a firm grasp of the theory behind the training plan and a good feeling for when and when not to push myself hard.”

This doesn’t change on race day. We test our own skis and wax, and contribute to selecting the team’s race wax. We are responsible for finding our own best warm-up routines, making intelligent breakfast choices, and nearly everything else that goes into race preparation.

Junior Katie Bono believes that these small things are what will help her most in her post-collegiate career. “The way the team is set up gives athletes skills to keep skiing after college. The coaches don’t coddle you. You have to be on top of your stuff and strong in your sense of self.”

While Sinnott agrees that the team has always had a culture of “never giving in, and being tougher than the rest,” it’s not all stoicism and responsibility.

Dartmouth also emphasizes love of the sport and even has an annual award for the skier who most embodies “skiing as a way of life.” Dunklee says, “The team has the right attitude: training hard balanced with playing hard.  It keeps people enjoying the sport, and as a result they don’t burn out as easily.”

We are encouraged to run longer than we’ve ever run, to start a race and without being afraid of failure, to experiment. We go ski just for the pure joy of it. Racing is important, but if you don’t love the skiing in its own right, you can’t excel at it. We make sure we have fun.

Says Bramante, “This fosters a love for the sport and others in the sport, which is absolutely important!”

Cami Thompson, the women’s coach, agrees. The focus is never on just a single race result, or just the six-week college season, or even just a collegiate career. “Our mission to develop skiers; we want them to get better while they’re here. It’s just a step along the way in the process. Ruff (Patterson) and I feel strongly that it’s a process. We want people to look at the bigger picture.”

And so, while the program may force athletes to take responsibility for their own training and racing, and it may promote grueling but fun adventures we would never have had the guts to try before we got here, it is perhaps a philosophical difference that separates us from the rest.

Sinnott says, “The most interesting comparison is to the western schools, who have recruiting resources, scholarships, less demanding academic standards, and consistent snow.  Yet they rarely produce an American skier who continues their career.”

Thompson points out that these Western state schools are more interested in recruiting athletes – often from Europe – who are already going fast. They are most concerned with how their program will fare that year, or how that athlete will fare as a college skier. That’s how they spend their money.

Dartmouth is different. Cami and Ruff are willing to work with skiers like me, who didn’t come in with a lot of credentials. They take these skiers and develop them alongside their recruited talent, to the benefit of everyone.

The team focuses not only on NCAA’s, but also races at SuperTours, U.S. Nationals, Spring Series, and, occasionally, Canadian Nationals. Brayton Osgood, class of 2003, says that “Ruff always made sure we were aware of skiing beyond the EISA circuit. College racing was important, but so were US Nationals and international competition.”

One of the first times I was really aware of international racing was in high school. At the 2003 Cross Country World Championships, Dartmouth graduate Carl Swenson, in a 50 kilometer skate race, was skiing well with a shot at the podium when he broke a pole. He skied with a broken pole for a while, got a new one, and eventually ended up 5th.

Swenson is finishing law school now, but, Sinnott points out, “There has always been a Dartmouth skier at the Winter Olympic Games. ” Osgood, Sinnott, Bramante, Studebaker, and Dunklee all state that they hope and plan to ski in Vancouver in 2010, and even beyond.

Thompson says, “After years at Dartmouth, that’s the thing we’re the most proud of, is the number of people who are still involved in skiing.”

The rest of us may be stuck in school, but knowing that our teammates are out there, going for it, gives us the confidence to think that maybe, once we’re done with school, we might be able to do the same thing. In the meantime, we’ll sport the green as part of a team with a proud tradition.

College athletics vs. pro athletics

(author’s note: I feel that I didn’t have enough time to work on this week’s column. As a result it sucks. I am sorry.)

Ruff Patterson.

I swear I'm moving forward and not just standing in a really awkward position. Photo: Ruff Patterson.

I don’t often think of the difference between being a college athlete and a plain-vanilla athlete. I dream about how great it would be to keep competing after college, when I would have more time to train, but these thoughts are purely theoretical.

This weekend, our races were a sprint and a 10k skate. In the sprint, an event I skied decently in December, I just plain wasn’t fast. In the 10k, I had patches of good, aggressive skiing, but when Beth Taylor of Norwich, skiing for Bates, put the hammer down on me on the last uphill, I couldn’t react.

I felt the same way the previous weekend, too. For the last month, my legs have gotten more and more tired, and the speed that was once in them has all but disappeared.

I’m in a bit of a mid-season slump.

Talking to my coaches, I came up with a plan to get things back together for this weekend’s races in Stowe. Take an extra day off. Focus on short, intense sessions rather than long ones that drag out. Jog in the mornings.

But I also needed to approach my problem from a more philosophical standpoint. Shouldn’t I be able to train in between races without ruining my race potential? Isn’t that what every other ski racer does?

Then I realized that yes, every ski racer does it, but it’s a lot easier when you’re not going to school.

This doesn’t explain why I’m more tired and lackluster than my teammates; I’m not going to claim that my biology seminar is setting me at a disadvantage compared to the rest of the college field.

But it reminded me that college skiing presents challenges that professional athletes don’t face. This isn’t the World Cup. We don’t have a team masseuse or even a team doctor, we don’t have bikes to spin the lactic acid out of our legs after races, and we don’t have infinite time to sleep, eat, and recover.

Several weeks ago, I moved into a new apartment for the term. My housemates, who are not varsity athletes, asked how many hours per week the ski team demanded. I considered: 10 or 15 for training in the fall, plus a few more on your own. In the winter, 8 hours of practice plus three days of traveling and racing.

That doesn’t sound like much. But it also only begins to describe the time commitment that we make. That leaves out taking care of our equipment and waxing our skis. It leaves out the team functions, the meetings with coaches, and the hours spent worrying, planning, and preparing for races.

After I ran down this list, my housemate pointed out that I was missing something: sleep. Sleep is a double-edged sword for a college athlete. I need 10 hours every night, which is significantly more than most of my non-athlete friends. But those hours are also hours that I can’t spend doing my homework.

I had another seminal conversation came a few days later, when my friend and former teammate Susan Dunklee asked me how school was going. It was all right, I said. My biology seminar was sometimes a struggle, and I had to stay up later than I’d like to finish the reading for my comparative literature class.

Susan asked about the seminar. Despite the fact that we shared a major, she had never taken a class with the professor. “You’re going to pass, right?”

Yes, of course I’m going to pass (right, Professor McPeek?). But just as I tend to put a lot of pressure on my self to ski phenomenally well, I put a lot of pressure on myself to get A’s in school.

Scholar-athletes are perfectionists. Passing isn’t good enough, and neither is finishing in the middle of the pack. Last year, of our twelve nordic skiers competing at EISA Championships, seven were named Academic All-East. We want our cake and we want to eat it, too; we don’t want to compromise on either scholarship or athletics. This is one reason there was so much press when Dartmouth won the NCAA title for skiing two years ago.

Susan said, “Looking back on Dartmouth, I have no idea how we did it. Keep it up.”

I have no idea how we do it, either. Every once in a while, we feel doubt that we can pull it off. But most of the time, we’re so busy trying that it never occurs to us that what we are doing is improbable.

And even if the college athletic experience presents challenges, let me be clear: none of us would trade it for anything.

So I’ll take the tired legs, thanks, and I’ll take that extra day off and read some ecology papers. This weekend I’m going to put on a green suit and take some names out on the racecourse. Every time I put on that green suit, it’s a privilege, and I plan to keep putting it on all the way through March. My legs don’t have a choice in the matter.