Happy February! We finally made it to February! Since I started back to school on January 2nd, this month has felt long. Very, very long. But it is in fact February, so it’s time for an adventure post!
Today I’m going to give you a window into the world of ski racing, and especially ski race officiating. I ski raced for fifteen of my twenty-five years, and I’ve been a ski race official for nearly eight years now. Many of the life skills I can claim now I learned from ski racing. But that’s another story.
For those who are not winter sports enthusiasts, I was an alpine ski racer. There are different kinds of alpine racing, depending on how big the turns are. The smallest turns are in an event called slalom. The next biggest turns are in an event called GS (giant slalom), then the next biggest even is called super G (which stands for super giant slalom!). The biggest turns of all, and the highest speeds, create a downhill.
(Even if you knew all of that, click on the videos anyway. I spent way too much time trying to pick out my favorite racers and courses and such. Every single one of those racers is one of my heroes!)
Ski racing was amazing, but while I was racing I never gave a lot of thought to the people who were running the race. It actually takes A LOT of people to make a race happen! At absolute minimum, you need nine certified officials, plus twenty-five-ish volunteers, to make a race happen. So let me walk you through exactly what it takes to put on a ski race.
I’ll start with the volunteers. These are usually the parents helping out, and they’re super awesome! Gate keepers stand on the side of the hill and make sure all the racers go around all the gates. Course crew is in charge of keeping the course from getting too rutty (bumpy) and replacing broken gates.
And then there are the certified officials. The Race Administrator handles all the paperwork required for the race: the athlete entries, the start orders, the official results. The Chief of Timing is in charge of running the clocks and the computer; usually that person has an assistant also. The Chief of Course is the leader of the course crew, and is responsible for all the shovels, extra gates, and protective fencing. Two of my favorite positions are the Start Referee and the Finish Referee. They stand at the start and finish, respectively, and are responsible for ensuring the correct athlete goes out of the start or through the finish at the right time. I love working at the start because I like getting to interact with the racers. Everyone is excited at the start!
Then there are the three jury members: the referee, the chief of race, and the technical delegate. These are the people responsible for making any race-day decisions. The referee is usually also a coach because their job is to represent the athlete. The chief of race is the local hill’s representative and has one of the hardest jobs because they do all of the pre-race work to get everything organized. And the technical delegate, or TD, is the representative of the governing body, either USSA (United States Ski and Snowboard Association, and yes I know there is an S missing) or FIS (Fédération Internationale de Ski, for higher-level races that qualify for international rankings).
The TD is the person responsible for making sure the race is safe and fair and the rules are followed. Normally the chief of race and referee do most of the work, but the TD can step in if the other two jury members miss something or don’t agree. In short, the TD is the top official on the hill.
I’ve been spending some of my time this winter getting certified to be a USSA-level TD. I took a written test in November about the rules of ski racing, and then I’ve completed two shadow-TD assignments. In these, I get to follow the TD around and learn from everything they’re doing on the hill. If you’re an educator, it’s like a classroom observation. I did my first shadow at home in Steamboat at one of my favorite annual races. The Holiday Classic is a series of slalom events at Howelsen Hill (that’s the picture at the top). One of the races is a night race, and the whole town turns out for the party! I did my second shadow at Beaver Creek and got to watch a top-notch race organization do what they did best. It was a very easy assignment in some ways, but it was also really good for me to see how a good race should look.
I’m currently in the middle of my third and final shadow, which is like a practical exam (or student teaching). I have a real certified TD with me, but I’m the acting TD and doing all of the normal TD things. I’m doing this one at Eldora, which is very close to where I live in Boulder. Hooray for getting to sleep in my own bed!
Being a TD is fun because you get to consider all of the things that ALMOST never happen. What do you do if a moose/fox/squirrel/raccoon/elk runs onto the course and interferes with a racer? What do you do if the timing doesn’t work correctly? (The variations on exactly how the timing can fail and what you do to fix it are ENDLESS.) What do you do if an athlete misses their assigned start position? What do you do if it starts snowing half way through the race and you get two feet in two hours? How and why do you disqualify an athlete? What requirements for the spacing between gates? (Every event and age group has their own set of rules, just to keep it exciting!) What equipment are athletes permitted to use? The list of questions goes on. And on. And on. (And yes, all of these are real situations. Including the moose.)
For a different sports analogy, and in honor of the fact that some of you will be watching a game of it tomorrow afternoon, let’s take football. The 2012 Super Bowl was the Giants-Patriots rematch, and the very first points scored in that game went to the Giants. They scored a safety because Tom Brady got called for an intentional grounding penalty in his own end zone. Yeah. Consider that for a moment. These weird things do happen, and the officials have to know it all.
(And then, for a laugh, consider the fact that I remember this vividly only because that was the spring I spent living in Sweden. I was trying to teach football rules to my new friends from Germany and France. We were still trying to figure out what a yard was. It was a very fun night, but it was a little confusing for them!)
I love being around ski racing, and talking about ski racing, and listening to the crack-thwack of hitting slalom gates. I love the first run of the day; we get to go up very early to set the course and I’ve watched sunrises from the tops of many Colorado mountains that way. I love being outside all day and hanging out with the other officials and coaches.
But there is nothing I love more than sharing a race course with my dad. He’s taught me everything I know about being a good official, and we spend hours on the phone swapping stories about crazy situations so if we ever see something similar we have some idea of what to do. I’m really lucky because I’ve spent years listening to my dad tell stories. He became a ski race official when I was racing in middle school. This gives me a lot of second-hand experience to draw on when something weird happens. Because, inevitably, something weird WILL happen.
At the moment I’m sitting here writing this knowing that my face is an interesting combination sunburned and windburned (I swear I put on sunscreen, but at 10,000 some feet it doesn’t matter much), my backpack is full of wet gear and old start lists, and the road up the canyon is windy and icy. Tomorrow I get to go back on the hill for eight hours of standing in ski boots in winter weather conditions, watch over 100 athletes come down the hill, and fill out paperwork at the end. For some people, this makes me completely insane. But ski people will understand when I say I couldn’t be more excited.
Tomorrow’s my last day of TD shadowing; once all the paperwork gets turned in from this race I’ll officially be a certified TD. It’s a wonderful way to give back to a sport I love, to meet new people who also love the mountains, to go outside, and to nerd out about ski racing rules with my dad. It doesn’t get much better than that.
Your homework: What’s one really obscure body of knowledge you know A LOT about? (Like, for example, alpine ski racing rules…) How did you learn about it? How do you maintain ties to the things you loved as a child?
Happy adventuring this February!