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.
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.
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.