When the snow is as good as it was at Sugarloaf last weekend, it wasn’t easy to come off the mountain after three runs, but listening to Seth Wescott tell his story of Olympic Gold to a press gathering was worth it. The snow was perfect mid winter packed powder and the cloudless ski and the warm sun made things even better. By now the story of how this Farmington snowboarder won his final race has been retold countless times, so I won’t go into that here. But there are some important additions and observations about our other skiing overachievers.
Over many years, I have watched Sugarloafers greet their skiers who have succeeded on the national and world stage. I have joined the crowds gathered in the base area called the “Beach.” For the uninitiated, ski areas are typically on the North side of the mountain, which means the area immediately in front of the base lodge faces south. With the sun high this time of year, those patios, protected from the wind, are filled with skiers and riders sunning themselves, much as they would do on any beach, hence the name of Sugarloaf’s patio. The upper deck, which extends out to the slopes, makes a great place for dignitaries such as the governor to introduce the heroes — in this case Seth Wescott.
Of all the gatherings in this spot, World Junior championships, Nor Ams and national championships, I have never seen as many people on the Beach. They not only filled the Beach, they spilled out in all directions and more than 100 yards up the slope. When Seth rode down followed by a hundred or more kids on skis and boards, the crowd shouted their welcomes and everyone waved the little paper, “Welcome Seth” flags.
This is something special about Sugarloaf and their skiers. The support is unmatched. I have heard this from Bill Marolt, head of the U.S. Ski Team at the last U.S. National Alpines held there. They showed it again last weekend and it was the whole town. The crowd, skiers and non skiers, parked their cars wherever they could find an open space, legal or not. The Carrabassett Valley Police, recognizing the significance of the day, decided not to ticket the illegally parked vehicles unless they constituted a safety hazard, such as blocking a hydrant or fire lane.
They gathered in similar numbers at the awards ceremony when Kirsten Clark won her final U.S. National Downhill title on her home mountain. At the finish that day, they were loud in their cheers as she crossed the finish line. That’s Sugarloaf and Sugarloafers.
And that brings us another important point. Much has been made of Wescott’s down to earth demeanor, his accommodating manner with the press and autograph seekers. And it is every bit deserved. Few athletes at any level are as friendly to their fans. It happens to be a common trait among Maine’s top skiers. Kirsten Clark was a favorite, not only with the press, but with coaches and teammates. When I wanted to find out how things were going on the World Cup for this space, my e-mails were always returned in a matter of hours, not easy when she was usually in Europe with a five-to-six-hour time difference. In 13 years on the World Cup, she was always the kid from Raymond and Sugarloaf.
Julie Parisien was another example. I remember not only her first World Cup win at Waterville Valley in 1990, but later her coaching kids at Lost Valley. Those kids idolized her and she loved every minute of leading them down the hill. She made countless appearances for Winterkids, encouraging them to get outdoors in winter. Maine’s skiers have been giving back for years while competing on a world stage.
Wescott has taken it to a new and higher level, both in his success and his handling of that success. We may have had skiers in every Winter Olympics since 1948, but Seth had the first gold medal and the repeat is the finest example of hard work and dedication that it takes to come back from injury. Four years after his win in Italy, he won over a new crop of younger and highly skilled boarders. He did it with skill and experience as he thought his way down that final run, making the right moves at the perfect time. As a result, he is a national hero and he is doing Maine proud as we all knew he would. And nowhere is he a bigger hero than at Sugarloaf. It was pleasure to be there for his homecoming, even if I did miss out on a full day of skiing some of the best conditions of the season. There will be other ski days.
There was one other event at the games that brought back some memories and reminded me of how our skiers and riders are ignored between Olympics. The success of our Nordic Combined Team was heralded as a first ever as announcers pointed to this as the biggest success ever for any of our Nordic Competitors. Not quite! Maine skiers remember well, the news that Auburn’s John Bower had won the Holmenkollen. That was in 1968 when Bower was presented the trophy by the King of Norway for winning the most prestigious Nordic Combined competition in the World. It wasn’t the Olympics so the U.S. press hardly noticed, but all of Europe did. An American had won a prize that was the exclusive property of their side of the Atlantic. Let’s not forget our winter athletes until 2016.
Dave Irons is a freelance writer who lives in Westbrook.