Long overdue post: The average athlete

The average athlete enjoys getting food as prizes. left to right: Julie Carson, me, Courtney Robinson, and Katie Bono at the Wonalancet Wander.

The average athlete enjoys getting food as prizes. left to right: Julie Carson, me, Courtney Robinson, and Katie Bono at the Wonalancet Wander.

When I began writing these columns, my idea was to show readers in the Upper Valley what life was really like for a college athlete.

The Valley News does a great job reporting scores and describing games. They even have fantastic human interest stories about athletes of all ages. But the purpose of these stories is to show something exceptional: the athletes who are chosen as subjects are noticed because they are outstanding or unusual in some way. What about the average athlete? Doesn’t anyone want to know what our life is like?

In general, I’m not sure they would. College is four years long. It’s a discrete phase of our lives, to be lived and enjoyed before we go and accomplish something in the real world. A lot of people aren’t even interested in sports; of those who are, many aren’t interested in skiing. And athletics are by definition frivolous, especially in times like these.

But as I’ve written these columns, reflecting every week on what has been going on with the team, I have realized that skiing has been by far one of the most important parts of my college experience, on par only with the research opportunities I took advantage of with my advisor at a first-class field station in Colorado.

I often grimace at the ridiculous salaries of famous baseball players – how could their skills possibly be so important that they deserve such compensation? – and occasionally laugh at friends who are rabid fans of their hometown football teams. So it has been an interesting revelation: athletics are far more than something I do. Skiing is part of who I am.

In a way, although I hadn’t said it so plainly before, I guess I must have known that when I set out to write the columns.

In showing the daily life of a college athlete, I wanted to dispel some of the stereotypes that people have about us.

For example, there’s the dumb athlete stereotype. People ask me if I got recruited (then they ask me if I’m a legacy). When I say no, they often act surprised. Until people get to know us, a lot of them assume that we can’t compete with the intellects of our non-athlete friends, and wouldn’t have gotten into Dartmouth without a push from our coaches.

While I’ve only written about schoolwork in one column, that’s because I don’t think it’s a big issue. Yes: we do work. No: we’re not dumb, As I mentioned in that column, 60% of the Dartmouth women who raced at Eastern Championships were named Academic All East. Of the senior men and women, more than a third wrote theses. The notion that we take easier classes than the rest of the campus is false.

Another stereotype that I wanted to dispel was that we’re all rich and spoiled. We’re spoiled because we get to go to a beautiful school with incredible academics, and we’re spoiled because we get to spend a lot of time doing a sport that we really love. Are a few of my teammates spoiled by their parents? Yes (sorry, guys). But for the most part, we have to work for what we have.

Skiing is expensive, that’s not something I’m going to deny. And for the majority of the team, racing is not something Dartmouth bankrolls: if you’re not one of the top six on a given weekend, you have to pay your own entry into college races – a system that we’d all like to see changed, but it probably never will be. What other sport takes only six athletes to each varsity competition?

A lot us are on financial aid, so skiing expenses aren’t exactly something that our parents can afford to help us with. My roommate and I both hold steady jobs to pay for race entries, equipment, and travel expenses (not to mention regular college expenses such as rent).

Finally, I had wanted to show that athletes aren’t boring or one-dimensional. Just because we spend a lot of time training, and a lot of the rest of our time studying, doesn’t mean that we never do anything else.

We have lots of adventures: I’ve written about hikes, bike races, potluck breakfasts and dinners, and a trip to Tuckerman Ravine. I’ve written about how much we joke around on the bus, and about watching fireworks outside when the thermometer drops below zero and we’re trapped in a hotel.

I guess I haven’t written about is how my teammates drive up to Thetford Elementary School every week to mentor younger students, or how they are involved in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, or any of the other community activities they’re involved in. But that’s because, like doing homework, it seems unexceptional to me. This is my team. It is filled with good people. Why is it surprising that they do good things?

Back to my original point, because you must have been wondering how “I just realized that skiing is who I am” and “athletes are not dumb, rich, and boring” are related. This is the link: I am an athlete, and I am not dumb, rich and boring. I wanted to show how great our team was, and how it was filled with wonderful people.

I wanted to show how even when the going got tough – whether in long rollerski workouts on bad pavement in the rain, or when I had a really bad race and needed someone to console me – our team was there for each other.

I wanted to show how when we had problems, with boys, or schoolwork, or family, or just life, we’d all go for a really long ski until we’d run out of emotions for a little while, and then make dinner together.

I wanted to show how when we have ideas of fun things we want to do, we almost always turn to each other: “Hey, you know what I want to do? You should come!”

I wanted to show how much we laugh.

And I wanted to show how, even though we are each other’s best friends, we’re also each other’s competition, and that’s okay. For us, competition is a part of life. In every race, there can only be one winner: you’ll almost always be better than someone and less strong than someone else. We know each other so well that we can be happy when our friends have breakout races.

I had realized that this was an essential part of my makeup, being an athlete. And I didn’t feel like I fit any of the stereotypes that people have of athletes. When I looked around at my friends and teammates, I didn’t think that they did, either. This is what I wanted to show.

We’re people, too. Just like all of you.

Keep that in mind next time you read the scores.

Sideline champion

Every other year, the NCAA Championships for skiing take place in the East and we can watch it. This year, NCAA’s were hosted by Bates College at Black Mountain, a place where most of us had already raced at least twice if not three times this season.

On Thursday, eight Dartmouth skiers left campus in a bus at 6 a.m. Despite having traveled to Rumford so many times, we got lost and arrived just before the 10 a.m. race start. We cheered voraciously, ate soup with the racers after they finished, and then we went home to study for exams and write papers.

Saturday was a different story. While there were a few team members who didn’t come because they had exams, almost everyone was on that 6 a.m. bus. Every seat was filled and a few students, exhausted from all-night studying, slept on the floor in their sleeping bags. We didn’t get lost, either.

Before the race, I skied the course with Katie Bono, Audrey Weber, and Sarah Van Dyke. It was sunny and warm, but the snow was still cold from the previous night, hard-packed and very fast. It was great skiing and we got even more excited for our teammates.

These races were long and mass-start, which meant exciting. After seeing the women’s off to a clean start, we ran along the trail until we reached the biggest climb on the course.

Nobody had started a watch, so we didn’t know when the race would come through. We could hear yelling as they went by the loops that passed close to us further down the hill, but it wasn’t until we could hear the sound of their skis and poles on the snow – which came long before we could see the racers – that we knew they were coming.

I barely ever go to races just to cheer. Sure, I see the men race when I’m warming up or cooling down, but when you go to a race for the sole purpose of cheering, you feel like you better do a darn good job.

There was cowbell. There was screaming, the kind when you aren’t sure how your voice is going to sound because you’ve never tried to yell so loud before.

And after two of the 5k laps, there was worry. Did you see that Colorado girl? She was blocking Rosie Brennan so badly! She was slowing down, but she wouldn’t let Rosie by! And Hannah Dreissigacker, it looked like she was stuck behind that pack!

But on the third (last) lap, our girls were looking great. Rosie was in the lead pack and looked strong. Sophie Caldwell wasn’t far behind, and Hannah was in the top 10 and passed a girl as she went by us. We knew we couldn’t beat them to the finish, so we just trusted that their sprinting skills would serve them well. Without even needing a pencil and paper, we knew that they would win the day; no other team had all three skiers in the top 10.

I stuck around until the whole field went by. As my friend Natalie Ruppertsberger, a Plainfield native who skied for Ford Sayre, went by in her Bates uniform, I screamed especially loudly. She had told be she didn’t want pity-cheering: no “good job, you’re doing great.” So I told her she HAD to pick it up, she HAD to pass these girls, she had to GET UP THIS HILL. I ran along beside her yelling until a coach from Alaska admonished me: “Dartmouth, you can’t run with racers like that.” Oops.

As we walked back to the stadium, Audrey and I discussed how great if felt to see our teammates kick some butt. For those of us who feel like it’s a battle to get one of the six varsity spots each weekend, it’s reassuring to know that it’s because our teammates are the best in the country, not because we’re bad skiers.

After congratulating Rosie – who had swiped a podium spot with her 3rd place finish – and Sophie (5th) and Hannah (10th), I headed out to ski again. The snow was holding up well. Before the men’s race, we found a green sharpie and wrote the boys’ names on our bellies. I ran to the start, where Nils Koons was jogging around, and showed him the big “N. Koons” which Courtney had lettered in. “I have your name on my stomach, so you’d better have a good one!” I think he rolled his eyes.

The men’s start was more exciting. Compared to his fellow NCAA champions, 2008 winner Glenn Randall is probably the worst starter of them all, and he was in the bottom five leaving the stadium.

As the men came up the hill the first time, our skiers were clustered in the teens, still in contact with the leaders. Glenn had already made up a lot of spots. We yelled, rang our cowbells, and pulled our shirts up (no, not that far) so the boys could see their names.

Unlike in the women’s race, which had a small lead pack the whole time and boiled down to a sprint finish, the men’s race had a single leader. Vregard Kjoelhamar of Colorado broke early on the second lap. Pat O’Brien and Nils Koons were in the chase pack, but Glenn was nowhere to be seen, and we left one intersection for another before he came through.

When we finally saw Glenn on the hill, he had a large hole in his spandex and was bleeding. Glenn has never been a strong downhill skier and one of the slopes on the course had sent him off the trail. He was making the best of it and passing people, but it was tough to watch. He had already worked himself through the pack once, and it was a lot harder this time around, now that the race was strung out.

As the laps went by, Pat and Nils were still in the chase pack. The last time I saw them, Pat was in a group of maybe eight skiers, three of whom were from Alaska-Anchorage, undoubtedly using team tactics. I hoped that he could hang on going up the big hill, and skied to the finish – this was going to be an exciting one.

After Kjoelhamar (no, he’s not American) came through, we held our breaths. The UAA boys battled to the line against a New Mexico skier, with a Denver racer trailing. Then came Pat! Beating out a Michigan Tech skier in a sprint finish! Pat, who has never won a carnival, had the race of his life and was the first eastern skier. Nils was 14th and Glenn 18th after surviving a hard and doubtless disappointing race. The boys were 3rd on the day, which was pretty great.

Despite these excellent performances, Dartmouth ended up 7th in the overall championship, which combines two days each of nordic and alpine racing. It was not the finish we had been looking for when we entered undefeated. I’ll admit it even if the press release won’t. But I can’t criticize – I couldn’t have skied at NCAA’s, and the athletes who represented us did a great job.

To me, the championships mean something else. I’m meant to be on the sidelines cheering – and that is quite a fun place to be, watching my teammates beat the crap out of the other teams, sprinting to see them as many times as possible, covering myself in green, and yelling for them until I don’t have a voice left to yell with.

And lucky for me, spectating is different from racing – graduation doesn’t mean that next time NCAA’s are in the east, I won’t be out there cheering!

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.

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.

On College Racing

unh-carnival1

Hanging out at the UNH carnival with (l-r) Kristina Trygstad-Saari, Elsa Sargent, and Susan Dunklee, 2007.

Thursday. 1 pm. Bus leaves for Carnival.

This is how it is every week. We come from all over campus, six women: some running from a class which finished 10 minutes ago, some ambling from the ski room where we have been packing up all morning.

We are flustered, we are relieved, we are excited. We are probably forgetting something.

We are on the bus.

***

This week I had been named the alternate for the Bates Carnival. Being the alternate is usually a formality, and sometimes there isn’t even one named. But then, all of a sudden on Thursday morning, Rosie Brennan, who had just returned from the World Cup, was sick.

Before I had time to think “I have some big skiboots to fill,” I was frantically packing my ski clothes, pajamas, toothbrush, race-day snacks, and homework into my duffel.

I brought my giant bag on the Advance Transit bus from my apartment to Robinson Hall, where threw my skis and poles into my skibag and made a quick guess at what wax I would need for the weekend. Various fluorinated glidewaxes, kickwaxes, brushes, and scrapers, along with a cork and a putty knife, were haphazardly crammed into my bag.

I had class from 10 to 12:50, and I must have looked funny powerwalking from Baker Library to Collis, where I grabbed lunch to go.

My teammates had loaded my bags since they knew I would be in a rush.

I was on the bus. The weekend could only get better from here.

***

College racing is familiar to me now. Sometimes I’m one of the six women on the bus and sometimes I’m not, but I know what to expect and our routine is comfortable.

We leave Thursday, then ski at the race venue or somewhere on the way. We check into our hotel, divide space with our roommates, and start working on our skis. We have dinner together, followed by a brief team meeting to go over details for the next day. Before bed we put our chosen pair of race skis on the bus so our coaches, Cami and Ruff, can add the last topcoat of race wax early the next morning.

Friday, we wake up early and eat breakfast. There’s usually not a lot of talking at the table, and breakfast routines can vary widely. The women’s team has good eaters, though; ironically, the men’s team seems to have more unusual relationships with food.

Our captain, Hannah Dreissigacker, drives our bus to the race site if Cami is already gone. We play the radio, but don’t sing along. When we arrive we check in with Ruff and Cami, pick up our bibs, and stake out a spot in the lodge. We listen to our iPonds and then put on our skiboots, grab our warm-up skis, and hit the trails.

After skiing the course and doing some hard pieces to get thoroughly warm, we pick up our race skis from Ruff and Cami and head to the stadium. There, we run back and forth with our poles in an organized chaos of nervous racers. A minute before our start we strap on our skis and try to stay loose.

Then it’s go time.

Friday afternoons are spent sleeping, doing homework, and working on skis. Then the whole routine starts again in preparation for Saturday’s race.

***

Regardless of how my race goes – and of course life is better all around when it goes well – one of my favorite things about Carnivals is the atmosphere.

Every weekend, ten schools bring six women, and we see each other over and over again. Our interactions could be summed up by 2008 captain Elsa Sargent, who said, “Always be nice to Middlebury, you know they hate that.” Rivalries are friendly.

I get to see former high school teammates every weekend: Alice Nelson from Williams, Natalie Ruppertsberger and now Beth Taylor from Bates, and Jennie Brentrup from Colby. Our reunions, whether they are in the lodge before racing, in line at the start, or watching the men’s race, are always gleeful. We exchange congratulations or sympathy, depending on how the day has gone, and gossip.

Regardless of who I’m competing against, we joke on the start line, we wish each other good luck, and we chat even though we’ve only met at races. We know each other’s names. When we get in each other’s way on the course, we often ask nicely before barking for the other girl to move, and we usually apologize if we step on each other’s skis.

During races, there is never a shortage of familiar on the side of the trail. My teammate Ida Sargent’s mother Lindy has come up with such encouragement as “Rage!” and “You’re rocking around the clock!” or, my personal favorite, “You look great and you’re smiling!” when I am not, in fact, smiling. Deb and Dan Nelson are great at cheering, and Knut Joslin, a former teammate who is now coaching at Saint Lawrence, always says something.

Of course, sometimes the cordial attitude disappears momentarily. Natalie stepped on my pole this weekend and I fell, shouting a bad four-letter word as five skiers surged past me. But as soon as we finished, we were hugging and apologizing a million times for tripping each other up.

After the race, Dartmouth parents provide a lavish food table. At Bates this weekend, it was courtesy of the Koons’, the O’Briens, the Sargents, and the Schulz’s.  There was hot stew, macaroni and cheese, hot chocolate and warm cider, burgers, and a huge variety of baked goods. When the men race first, they pilfer a lot of the good stuff before we’re done. Luckily, on this weekend the women raced first.

On Saturday afternoon we drive back to Hanover, exhausted from two days or racing and the consumption of too much good food.

***

It was good to be on the bus. Now that I’m on, I hope I can stay a while.