On Skiing: U.S. Nationals returns to a familiar place

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There is a saying around Sugarloaf: “The road to the U.S. Ski Team runs down Narrow Gauge.”

That can be taken in two ways. One is the many championships that have been held at Sugarloaf. The very origins of the resort can be found in the desire for the Maine ski council to find a mountain suitable for building a racing trail that would rival Nose Dive at Stowe and the Taft at Cannon.

It happened that in the late-1940s, the Bigelow boys, who had been skiing that mountain, were looking for a new place to ski after Long Falls Dam and the resulting Flagstaff Lake cut off their access to Bigelow. Together they cut Winter’s Way, and by the mid-1950s, tandem T-bars accessed the original trail along with Sluice, Narrow Gauge and Tote Road. Narrow Gauge became the main race trail and has been for 60 years.

Every level of competition has been run on Gauge — regional races, junior nationals, U.S. Alpine Championships, World Junior Championships and World Cup. Just about every top racer on the U.S. Ski Team has raced on the Narrow Gauge. This will be the sixth time our national Alpine championships have been held at Sugarloaf.

I remember talking with Bill Marolt, then the executive director of the team, several years ago at that year’s championships. He told me that with the mountain and the team in place at the resort, he could see the event returning to the ‘Loaf every other year. That’s quite a tribute to the staff and volunteers at this mountain that has such a history of racing.

One local ski racer who grew up skiing Sugarloaf and racing down Narrow Gauge is Forest Carey, now a coach with the U.S. Ski Team. I caught up with Forest as he was preparing to leave for Aspen and the World Cup Finals. He won’t be at the nationals because he has birthday party to attend. His parents, Chip and Nancy are celebrating their 70th birthday, so Forest will be with them. Everyone at Sugarloaf remembers Chip for the years he spent as VP Marketing at the Resort and will be wishing the couple a happy birthday.

Forest noted, “This time of year, with a full season under their belts, they are all in good shape and ready for the races.”

On handling the Narrow Gauge for Super-G he said, “The key is building speed in the Snowbowl and the Headwall so they can carry it over Kangaroo Pitch and onto the flats.”

The skiers who handle Kangaroo without getting a lot of air will carry more speed onto the long flat to the finish, which makes viewing at the top of Double Runner Chair a good place to compare runs during the Super-G.

Chip Cochrane is a Carrabassett Valley Academy with great memories of the racing on Narrow Gauge. As a 15-year-old racer from Greenville, Cochrane flew down the course to a 15th-place finish in a Can-Am (now Nor-Am) Downhill in 1975. That performance led to Europa Cup the next year, a spot on the development team in 1980 and a place on World Cup in 1981.

After some injuries it was on to coaching, and he has coached the best at CVA, including Carey, Bode Miller and Kirsten Clark. One of his charges, Sam Morse, is coming home with some momentum, having won the World Junior Downhill title in Are, Sweden, and finishing fifth in a recent Super-G.

Last weekend, seven members of the U.S. Team were at Sunday River for the revival of pro ski racing, accompanied by team coach Parker Gray, who hails from Newry. His skiers swept the podium, with David Chodounski edging A.J. Ginnis for the win, and Michael Ankeny beating out Canadian skier Phil Brown for third.

Now that U.S. Team skiers can race pro races (calling these skiers amateurs was always a myth, but now the top skiers at the nationals will receive checks), these racers were rewarded with $10,000 for Chodounski, $5,000 for Ginnis and $2500 for Ankeny. That along with the momentum from winning has these racers in good shape heading for Sugarloaf.

Gray, who worked with current U.S. Team head coach Sasha Rearich while at Gould Academy, told me, “It’s great to have the nationals on home turf. I can help familiarize the racers with the Gauge.”

Cochrane emphasized how important it was to CVA to have the nationals at Sugarloaf.

“This brings excitement and enthusiasm to the school, everyone will be there,” he said. “Some kids will get to forerun, and the rest will get to see what they aspire to, the U.S. Ski Team.”

Cochrane also related how CVA gets some supremely gifted athletes, kids with raw talent. Bode Miller is in that group. But there are a lot more who make it through determination and a work ethic. Chip described the CVA environment of study and skiing, “There are not many winners, we set up kids for the real world. They are not afraid to work hard, and they use the mountain to their advantage.”

Next weekend, CVA students will join the Sugarloaf community in welcoming the best U.S. ski racers and some Canadians. They will join the crowd at the opening ceremonies and parade of athletes Saturday night on the beach in front of the base lodge, at the finish and along the courses, and at the awards ceremonies where the winners will receives duplicates of the commemorative axes presented at the 1971 Tall Timber Classic World Cup.

This enthusiasm is one of the reasons the U.S. Ski Team returns to Sugarloaf for the National Alpine Championships. See you there.

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