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  • Ready, Set, Go! When to Start Your Little One Ski Racing

    By Suzanne Thys

    Get Pumped!I am not a great skier by anyone's definition. In fact, I did not click into my first pair of skis until I was 26 years old when I migrated from the Midwest to start my new married life in Squaw Valley. Thankfully, I've been able to learn to ski quickly at a solid intermediate level. My motivation? I wanted to be able to do some skiing with my husband, a five year U.S. Ski Team member and a downhill specialist. Throw in a two-time Olympian sister-in-law and nationally ranked Masters skier father-in-law, and the handwriting was in the snow. For me, this process has been fun and often humorous, but when I think of my two year old son racing down the same scary terrain as his father, my face crunches up, and the humor disappears.

    So many people ask me not only when my little son will learn to ski, but when they can expect the Thys racing tradition passed on. Not knowing much about ski racing, I've asked my husband about how our son's future racing career will progress (just assuming the activity was a given), and was met with "when and only if he wants to." I thought there must be more to this issue than such a simple answer, so I decided top asking around to get a feel for introducing a child to ski racing and how the whole thing works.

    For everyone I asked, the answer to my first question pertaining to when was unanimous. For Linda Hager, a Mighty Mite coach and the mother of two U.S. Ski Team racers, the only requirements for her (and Squaw Valley's Mighty Mites) is that they be four years old and exhibit a willingness to ski. She stressed willingness as her experience shows that just Check Me Out!because a child is four doesn't mean they are automatically thrilled at the prospect of skiing off jumps as well as carrying around skis and other equipment. Nobody has any fun when a child cries and is scared to death. Actually, that's a sure-fire way to discourage interest in the sport. It seems that after talking to Linda, willingness is a concept best demonstrated by the child, not by the age.

    I posed the same question to Tamara McKinney, former Olympian and World Cup Champion who is now raising her own child. Tamara said that as long as the racing activities are low pressure and high sociability, that racing at a young age is fine. She did not see any magic age best suited for beginning a racing program. She thought it might be best to always wear a helmet, and to start by just playing around with your child. Fun and safety were the only requirements. Perhaps her most valuable, yet most often overlooked advice, "Question and be honest about the motivation behind racing. Is the child racing to fulfill an adult's need to have a young racer, or does the child truly want to become involved with the sport?" The former motivation is sure to backfire, and the latter seems to work across the board. Even gold medallist Bill Johnson has said that he raced because he wanted to and not because anyone made him do it.

    The common thread appears to be: don't push kids into the sport, let the motivation stem from the love of the sport. It might not be a good idea to enroll a child in a race program without discussing it first. A child might feel undo pressure and be afraid of letting her parents down. After all, gliding around the mountain is one thing. But learning to race through gates and over jumps is quite another; especially in the eyes of a child.

    Assuming that your child loves their beginning program (and most ski areas have some sort of beginning program for young children), what's next? After a child has successfully skied their way through the program of your/their choice, the next step would be to join the U.S. Ski Association. In this program kids (who are now a bit older) compete regionally. Mighty MitesThe commitment is becoming somewhat more substantial at this point, but kids still claim to enjoy the competition and travel. This introduces a whole new set of options including summer dry land training and ski camps. Keep in mind though, there are also high school and college teams that can always keep the love for racing alive.

    In my case, all this will have to wait awhile longer. But for you and your child, keep talking and think about checking out a late season, summer or early season race program. Who knows, if left to their own devises, you might have a potential race prodigy on your hands. . . but that's for your child to decide.

    Suzanne Thys resides in Squaw Valley, CA amidst her ski-racing heritage.

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