U.S. Alpine Championships worth the trip to Sugarloaf

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I really don’t need a special event to head for Sugarloaf. The skiing is all the reason I need to visit Maine’s tallest ski mountain, but when the Loaf is hosting the U.S. Alpine Championships, it’s a must. I had a lot of company. The only downside was not getting in enough skiing. I guess that’s my excuse for making the trip again before the season ends.

With the snowless winter we’ve experienced, the folks at Sugarloaf were happy to have the championships to draw attention to skiing. The championships were here in 1996 and 1997, and it was in those 1996 races that Kirsten Clark won her first national title. That combined title, downhill and slalom, was the beginning of the Raymond skier’s 12 years on the U.S. team.

Since then, she has established herself as one of our best. At Jackson Hole in 1998, she won the first of four straight U.S. downhill titles, winning also at Snow Basin in Utah and Big Mountain in Montana. Back at Jackson Hole in 2000, she won both the downhill and super-G, giving her six national crowns coming back to Sugarloaf this year.

When she added No. 7, I wondered if that was the record for women. Tom Kelly, vice president of marketing and communications for the team, did some checking, and we learned that two women share the record. Andrea Mead Lawrence and Tamara McKinney each have 10 national titles. For a few minutes, it looked as if Clark would have eight, but Stacey Cook laid down a fast run and nipped her in the Super-G by 11-one hundredths of a second.

Waiting in the finish area after moving into first place, Kirsten said, “There are still some fast girls to come.” She was obviously thinking of Cook. In the FIS downhill Friday, Clark edged Cook by .06 seconds. And Saturday, when Clark won the national championship downhill, Cook made one of the great runs of the entire week.

While Cook was waiting to start, the skier ahead of her fell. Cook left the starting gate, but was waved off. She had to go back for a rerun, and another DNF forced a hold. After a long wait, she finally got to run and skied her way into third place. To ski that well after the delay tells us that this 21-year-old has the kind of focus to make her one of our top future skiers.

Obviously, the crowd at her home mountain wanted Clark to win, but all appreciated the performance by Cook. Kirsten summed it up: “Stacey’s a great skier and a hard worker. I’m happy for her.”

And knowing Kirsten, she really meant it.

After 12 years on the team and the injuries and setbacks the last two years, many wondered if this would be the CVA grad’s last year. She answered that question directly, “I’ll be back for at least one more year. I owe it to myself to ski at 100 percent. It’s been two years since I’ve been at my best.”

Asked about being at Sugarloaf, she responded, “Just having all these people here, the crowd, it’s awesome.”

We heard that from a number of skiers, all agreeing that this was the biggest crowd they had seen anywhere in the U.S.

When I asked U.S. Ski Team President, Bill Marolt, how it was to have Clark back in form and ready to return next year, he used the same word, “Awesome,” and added, “We have a big investment in these kids, and we want to keep them around as long as possible.”

The crowd split its focus between Clark and fellow CVA product Bode Miller. If there was any question about Miller’s popularity following his controversial Olympics, his greeting removed any doubt where Sugarloaf skiers stand. His victory in the downhill got a loud response, and at the opening ceremonies, it was even louder with kids chanting, “Bo-dee, Bo-dee.”

The locals also kept an eye on other Maine skiers. CVA grad Sam Sweetser from Cumberland got off to a good start with a 12th-place finish in the FIS DH on Friday, and was one of the group just missing a top 10 in the championship DH the next day. Tenth-place time was 1:17.15.

Finishes that close make Bill Marolt’s job really tough. He has some top skiers, including our all time winningest speed skier, Daron Rahlves, retiring. Out of this group of skiers will come their replacements on next year’s team.

When I asked about the team’s plans to achieve this, he replied, “To keep going up, we have to ramp it up at every level, training on dryland and on snow. Make our approach better within the team concept. We have to provide the right environment and the right leadership.”

Dave Irons is a freelance writer who lives in Westbrook

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