When Harrison Romney was a freshman trying to work his way onto Ashland High School’s ski-racing team three years ago, he assured the coaches he could handle the steep slopes of Mt. Ashland.
“I thought I was better than what I was,” Romney recalls. “I said I could ski blue diamonds, whatever those are.”
Blue triangles are slope ratings for intermediate skiers, while black diamonds are for experts. Blue diamonds are nothing, much like Romney’s skiing experience when he signed up for the sport.
Now a 17-year-old senior, Romney is one of Ashland High’s better skiers and is prepping to make a name for himself in the state championships in March on Mount Hood.
He’s one of 56 teen racers in the Medford Ski Education Foundation hurtling between the slalom gates in a club sport that is back on Mt. Ashland after last year’s ski season was wounded by of a dearth of snow.
There was just enough snow Jan. 11-12 this year to stage the first of four two-day meets in which racers compete first in the giant slalom and then the slalom the following day.
The slalom is a tight course where skiers attack the gates, leaning into them with padded legs, arms and even face bars to protect themselves from the whipping poles. The giant slalom has gates farther apart, and the skiing is smoother.
The athletes race two runs in each event, with the combined times ranked on the leader board for each event.
Miss a gate and you’re toast for that race, but those who do miss one will painstakingly hike back up the hill to get around the missed gate because, in these races, you finish what you start.
“Part of what we’re teaching is character-building through skiing technique,” head coach Gary King says. “And we teach tactics. We’ve taken on kids who’ve been doing this for 10 years, and we’ve taken on some kids who’ve never raced before — even barely skied before.”
One of those true newbies this year is Mariah Kinney, a 15-year-old Crater Lake High School sophomore long-distance runner who hit the slopes all of two weeks ago.
“You’re never too old to try something new,” Kinney says.
But with new comes nerves.
Friday’s giant slalom run was her first time through the gates, and Mariah the athlete took over Mariah the jittery rookie shortly after she left the starting gate on Mt. Ashland’s Winter run.
“It felt really good,” she says. “I was really nervous at first, but as soon as I got down to the first gate it was amazing. It’s like running a race. I love it.”
When Romney started as a freshman, he really didn’t know what he was up against.
His mother, Stacey Romney, took Harrison — who didn’t participate much in extracurriculars while in middle school — to an activities night highlighting the different clubs and organizations for Ashland High kids.
There’s like 300 different things he could chose from,” says Stacey Romney. “I said, I don’t care what you choose. Just choose something. He chose skiing.”
That led to a brief meeting with coaches and the blue-diamond gaffe.
“He kind of fibbed his way onto the team,” King laughs.
Romney participated in dry-land training prior to the ski season with no one the wiser, King says. After two hard training months, Romney hit the slopes with the other team members and the ruse was revealed.
“He had worked so hard that when it came to the time we realized he’d never skied before, we said, ‘You know what? He wanted it so bad, let’s teach him.’
“Now, he’s one of Ashland’s better skiers,” King says.
He’s also a better Harrison Romney, his mother says.
“It’s been life-changing for him,” she says. “Having all the camaraderie of all the team members — and the coaches have been great mentors for him — it’s given him a social circle with really, really good people.”
Even with good people around him, getting good at skiing took time and effort.
“I basically didn’t know how to ski,” he says. “I had to learn from the bottom.”
Over time, he learned he was drawn to the crispness of the winter air, the rush at the top of the mountain and the adrenalin racing through him while skiing.
“I just love the snow and the outdoors,” he says. “And I love the adrenalin.
“It’s a really, really good feeling. There’s nothing else around you. You’re just going down the course. It’s pretty high speed, you have a lot of wind going at you, and you’re going 40 mph. It’s a lot. And it’s great.”
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MTwriterFreeman.