“Bring it!” I told myself as my skis accelerated off the first pitch.
The alternating red and blue panels flashed by as I turned left and
right, trying to eke out every ounce of speed from the flattening
terrain. My eyes looked past each consecutive gate, searching for a
critical 90-degree turn onto the steepest section of the giant slalom
course. I needed to nail that one.
But I never made it to the crux turn. One moment I barreled down the
course. The next, white flashes blinded me as I catapulted into some tracked-up powder. I fought to stay upright as clumps of snow grabbed my
legs. When my momentum finally ceased, I slumped to the ground, unable
to breathe. My back screamed as if a whip had cracked against it, while
my brain sorted out what had happened.
Speeding down a giant slalom at 40-plus miles per hour, my hand had
inadvertently gone between the two poles holding up the fabric gate panel. The outer pole instantly snapped around, hitting my back
with such force that it knocked the wind out of me. A course official
skied up as oxygen flooded back into my lungs. “Sei ferito?” he asked,
helping me stand. I don’t speak Italian, but his meaning was obvious. I gave him a
half-hearted thumbs up, wallowing in pain and disappointment as I
watched several other racers zip by. Luckily, it was only December. I
would have more chances to ski as fast as I dared.
The whack on my back happened in Pila, Italy, while I competed in an
early stop on the FIS Masters Cup (FMC). FIS is the French anacronym for
Federation Internationale du Ski, the international governing body for
all Olympic and World Cup disciplines of skiing and snowboarding. The
FMC is the World Cup of masters ski racing. Anyone age 30 and older can
race. Like the regular World Cup—the circuit that athletes like Mikaela
Shiffrin compete on—racers on the FMC chase points all winter in hopes
of garnering a “globe,” the nickname for a crystal trophy for placing in
the top three in one’s age group or a larger globe for earning the top
spot in slalom, giant slalom, or super G (there’s no downhill in FMC
racing), or the largest globe for becoming the overall champion.
An avid masters racer since 1991, I began dabbling at the FMC in the
early 2000s, entering the annual event in the United States in places
like Sun Valley, Heavenly, and Mammoth Mountain, resorts that I wanted
to ski at anyway. In 2017, a friend nudged me to go to Chile and then to
Italy, the Czech Republic, and Austria to race with her. What a chance
to travel to some new places! By the end of the winter, I had garnered
enough points to win my age group and the overall super G title while
enjoying many culinary treats and cultural experiences.
I was hooked. Since then, I’ve gone for a globe every year. Two winters
ago, I unexpectedly got within a point of winning the whole thing, which
motivated me to try again. My crash in Pila was part of that attempt.
Winter Gets Rolling
Racers don’t need to compete in all 40 or so races on the annual FMC
schedule. Only one’s best 12 finishes count. Strategically, when one’s
age group is competitive like mine—the top three women in the world are
in it—it helps to have at least 12 wins before the Finals, which are
always two races in Europe and worth double points. If you want to win a
globe, you have to go to the Finals.
Last winter, my quest started in Bariloche, Argentina, in the Patagonian
Andes, where the race calendar included two super Gs, two GSs, a
slalom, and an alpine combined (one run of super G plus one run of
slalom). For those making the long journey, it would be a point bonanza
due to the small field. However, after five glorious days of training on
perfect snow under sunny skies, a storm covered the slopes in new snow
and reduced visibility to zero. The fog lingered, causing the Super Gs
and the Alpine combined to be canceled. Instead, we raced in three GSs
in a day, then a slalom. We could not see more than five feet down the
slope, but I managed to travel home with four gold medals and a happy
tummy from gorging on Argentine steak.
The next event for me was in Pila. I chose to go there because there
would be another five races in one place, though all the fast women
would show up this time. Located in the vast Mont Blanc skiing region,
Pila is the traditional European start of the FMC season. What a place
to ski race! The starting gate was so magnificent that it was hard to
focus on the course the first time I stood in it. Massive Mont Blanc
dominated the alpine panorama to my left, and the iconic Matterhorn
towered above the snowcapped peaks to my right. Though I flew home with a
sore back, I garnered two more Super G golds, bringing my tally to six
wins. So far, so good.
My European competitors continued to collect points through January
without me, but I had another chance in early February on “home” snow,
at Beaver Creek, Colorado. In fact, I hadn’t skied there in 15 years,
but at least I could understand the language. What’s more, Beaver Creek
was another potential points grab, with two super Gs, two GSs, and a
slalom on the schedule.
I blasted out of the starting gate for the first super G. “Bring it!” my
brain demanded, as it always does, but then it got confused. One
moment, I was barreling down the course. The next, I was out of it.
Where were the gates? Sometimes a racer must make one turn through two
gates. I never saw the second gate and inadvertently turned out of the
course, a rare mental lapse that left me in as much agony as that whack
on the back. I still ponder it two winters later, though the rest of the
series in Beaver Creek gave me another four wins for a total of 10 to
Immediately after Beaver Creek, I flew to Kimberley, British Columbia,
for another five starts. The first GS there was particularly turny, but
sometimes things just click. I posted the third fastest time of the day
for the MEN! The other races went well, too—five more golds. I had my 12
wins and then some.
Back to Europe
The FIS Masters Criterium (World Championships) were scheduled in
Gostling-Hockar, Austria, a ski area that I had never heard of before,
but since it was just before the Finals in Meribel, France, I decided to
go. It would give me time to get over jetlag; it was the world
championships, so the most prestigious event of the winter; and if I
skied well, it might prevent my competition from getting valuable
Ski racing is the national pastime in Austria. The event was huge,
capped at 400 entries, 100 of which were women. In the first race, the
super G, I felt as if I laid down a perfect run, but got edged out of
the gold by an Austrian gal whom I had never heard of and who was not a
regular on the FMC circuit. But I was in Austria, a country of many fast
skiers. Luckily, I won the GS the next day, and then took bronze in the
Each evening after the race, the entire village gathered on the central
square for a parade led by a local um-pah band, speeches, dance
demonstrations, and the medal-giving ceremony. An enormous jumbotron
broadcast the festivities to the enthusiastic crowd. The athletes felt
like rock stars. It was worth going to Gostling for the awards party.
I felt confident going into the Finals—a GS and a slalom. It would be a
rematch with Muriel Jay, a French woman in my age group who had edged me
out of the overall globe the year before. Muriel was nearly unbeatable
in slalom, but I was usually faster in GS. If I could win the GS, four
globes would be mine—the overall globe, the super G globe, which I had
already secured, the GS globe, and my age group.
Call it fate. While flying to Meribel, the airline lost my luggage. A
gracious Spanish racer lent me her training skis, a different brand from
mine and untuned, but at least I could compete. It didn’t go well. I
ended up fifth in the GS. The slalom went even worse, while Muriel skied
My bags finally showed up the night before I flew home. “At least I’ve
got something clean to wear,” I thought, emotionally drained. Then I
reminded myself that it had been a great winter by all other measures. I
skied in new places, met new people, and experienced new things. In
masters-level competition, the joy comes as much from the journey as the
competition. The other day, my 90-year-old father asked me why I keep ski racing.
“You’ve won so many races,” he said. “You don’t need to prove anything.”
Yes, but I love it!