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Flying squirrels on skis

Alan Braunholtz

Here in Vail it’s easy to take the size of the mountain for granted. At least until you take a road trip to some lesser area and realize that not every resort has a choice of back bowls to sample.It’s the same with the events that Vail and Beaver Creek attract and sponsor. World Cup ski racing, snowboarding and free skiing competitions pass through on a regular basis. So much so that we assume we can always catch them at a time more convenient to our busy schedules. Similar to the tourist in London who sees more of the inspiring landmarks and buildings than the local who never bothers. The cars of fans lined up on the Frontage Road to see the U.S. Freeskiing Open clued me in that it’d be worth the extra lift ride to see this event.Like a bull, I feel pretty good when strongly rooted to the ground but useless when airborne. I’m impressed with anyone who has that spatial awareness to corkscrew around up there, and the kids at the open are extremely good at it. Catlike is the cliched comparison, but cats don’t twist in several axes while launching long distances.In springtime, female squirrels lead males on athletic chases of twisting leaps along precarious routes through the treetops. Watching this mating ritual lets you know that squirrels are more than cute-looking rats. Free skiers’ ability to float, perch and spin from jump to rails to jump in a smooth flow reminds me of these competitive spring chases. Add in that many of these young skiers look to weigh about 80 pounds wet and are draped in such generously loose-fitting clothing that they might glide in an uphill breeze and the comparison grows. Flying squirrels would be honored to perform so well in the half pipe.Strange thing, fashion. What looks cool varies so much with time and demographics. But if you’re good enough, you can wear almost anything and it will look good on you. Anyone who floats a high cab 1080 can wear whatever he or she wants, in my eyes. It’s only the lesser talents who risk the label “poser.”As an occasional recreational racer, I have to focus on the functional wind-resistance benefits when wearing a logo-splattered skin suit. Best to ignore the tubular torso perched above chicken legs. No one would say a word to Herman Maier and the Austrian speed team about their speed-suit look, though. Two-hundred-twenty pounds of contoured muscle at 90 mph looks pretty good and it’s a brave man who’d risk the wrath of the Euro equivalent of a mad football linebacker.Hollywood and runway models prove there is a limit to fashion as People Magazine’s “worst dressed” is happy to point out. Even genetically blessed glamour babes can’t pull off some designs. That’s why classic and timeless style is a good choice for the more average among us.It’s kind of strange when different snow-riding styles poke fun at each other, since we all have a lot more in common than other sports. Whether it’s runs down a race course or a linked series of moves in the halfpipe, we’re all really competing against ourselves, trying to make every turn and every jump better than before. It’s a never-ending quest for improvement.Competition sometimes feels secondary to training. It only lets you know where you are on your quest. It’s a zen thing, a samurai’s constant search for the perfect technique. Even the winners in these events act like this. While ecstatic to win, few are totally happy with their run, dwelling instead on where they could have done better. Rarely and with huge smiles do you see someone glow as they say, “Today I stomped it and it felt good!”This elusive pursuit of perfection gets addictive, whether or not you’re good enough to be the best. Ask anyone who plays golf. The athletic skills on display at events rival anything seen on TV, but you don’t go into skiing or snowboarding for money and fame. Individual competition is just not that entertaining and lucrative compared to the head-to-head combat of tennis, basketball, etc.Timers and judges are a step removed from the gladiatorial simplicity of a good NFL battle, which is all about winning or losing. Snow sports tend to be subtler. Sure there’s a winner, but everyone else isn’t a loser. It resembles real life with good days and bad days, and both providing lessons on how to be better. You can sort of win without being first.Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily.Vail, Colorado


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