Local high school ski racers embrace opportunity to compete
MT. ASHLAND — One of the most attractive aspects of living in Southern Oregon is that this area offers up a myriad of options for those who enjoy outdoor sports.
That beauty was on full display Friday and Saturday at Mt. Ashland Ski Area, with local high school athletes getting a chance to do something few have been able to do for quite a while during the COVID-19 pandemic, and that’s compete.
Ski racing is not a sanctioned sport through the Oregon School Activities Association so the recreational sport operates under the umbrella of the Oregon Interscholastic Ski Racing Association (OISRA).
“I’m super stoked that we’re finally getting back into it,” said 18-year-old North Medford senior Nolan Morris. “It’s been a long time for me.”
Tyler Dunlevy, another North Medford senior and fellow captain with Morris, most definitely agreed that this weekend offered a welcomed opportunity after the season opener in the Southern League ski racing season had been canceled two weeks ago.
“It’s really special because we didn’t know if we were going to have races,” said Dunlevy, who turns 18 in April. “I’m just glad we get to do something.”
That’s been part of the attraction to what has become a tremendous turnout this season for coach Gary King, who is in his 15th season and guides athletes from North Medford, South Medford, Ashland, Crater, St. Mary’s, Grants Pass and Klamath Union. Previous years have included skiers from Phoenix and Cascade Christian as well.
“Not only have I had the best attendance of kids this year in dryland training,” said King, “our program grew because it’s one of the few things you can do these days with COVID, and the kids are being very good about all the COVID policies we have in place.”
Although perspectives from the bottom of the mountain can play tricks on things visually, King assures that the skiers are well-spaced while getting lessons and not taking any chances of sending the wrong messages while following protocols.
“I’ve even noticed it riding the chair,” said King. “I’ll see some of my kids from one perception with a line that it looks like they’re close together but then as you go up the chair a little further you can see that they’re 10 feet apart.”
“This year we’re not having people come up to gather and watch or anything,” he added, “we have to be careful how many people we have in the arena at one time. We have coaches that will have a certain number of kids and they’ll go through and then another number of kids will go through, that type of thing. That’s how we’re able to have a race.”
In truth, said Morris and Dunlevy, the COVID safety protocols really aren’t unreasonably different from what they were already used to on the mountain.
“It’s not bad at all because when you’re skiing, you’re social distanced in the first place,” said Dunlevy, one of the top slalom and giant slalom skiers in the state. “It’s not like you have 11 people on a field hitting each other, so it’s no big deal.”
“Even when we didn’t have COVID we wore masks most of the time,” he added, “so it’s not something that we need to work on normalizing because we do it a lot anyway. It’s all been pretty adaptable.”
King, who is also in his sixth year as OISRA director, said team numbers are typically in the upper 30s but this year that total stands at 45. A cross between fewer conflicts for athletes who had their OSAA seasons pushed back until at least March and more exposure to what the sport has to offer has helped raise participation.
“Skiing or snowboarding kind of sells itself, whatever it may be,” said King. “It’s so much fun, people want to go up there and they like to do it. Now you’ve got some kids that might be doing other sports that would normally restrict them from going skiing and now they can go skiing so I am seeing way more teenagers up there this year than I have in the last 15 years. I love it. That’s one reason that I coach, I like to see the youth be able to get out there and have fun.”
King said he even noticed a change throughout the group’s intense dryland training, which occurred with the same rigorous COVID safety protocols as any sport. With so many high schools involved, King held the group to a standard that fit the criteria from each school, as well as Oregon Health Authority and county regulations.
Through all the sweat, hard work and insistence on adhering to safety measures, King said there were few, if any, complaints.
“This year I think I’ve seen better attitudes than almost ever because kids are so glad that they can be there,” he said. “The kids are just loving it, they love being up there.”
That all spilled over to when they could get up on the mountain. With the Mt. Ashland lodge closed this year, each participant had to pack a lunch as they trained from 8:30 a.m-1:30 p.m., and King said even then they didn’t want to go home.
“In the old days, when everybody took it for granted, everybody would whine and complain and want to go to lunch and hang out in the lodge real early,” he said with a laugh. “That doesn’t happen anymore. It’s just exhilarating to be out there.”
Count Morris as someone who can’t get enough. A standout in football for the Black Tornado with hopes of playing collegiately, he said there’s just something special about hitting the slopes.
“For me, it’s just one of those sports that you can do forever,” said Morris, “it’s not going to be over after high school. With football you have to have a whole season planned out and do it, but with skiing you can do it with whoever you want and whenever you want for the rest of your life.”
King said he didn’t take up skiing until he was out of high school. Morris began skiing when he was 3 and joined the Southern League program as an eighth grader. Dunlevy didn’t start skiing until he was in seventh grade, and his first experiences involved “scooting my butt down” the slopes before he really dived in and immediately took to his training.
“Once you get the ropes, it’s pretty easy going from there,” said Dunlevy, whose younger sister Hadley is one of the top female skiers in the area. “As far as racing mechanics and getting better technique, yeah that’s pretty hard, just because it’s technical. Whether you’re going fast or slow, it’s still something that’s enjoyable.”
Morris and Dunlevy served as forerunners at the state championships as eighth graders, scouting out the track with runs prior to the official competition to assure everything was set up safely, and King said that only served to fuel the fire for the future captains’ love of competition in the sport.
“Both Tyler and Nolan are two of my best pure athletes and they charge it hard,” said King. “Tyler plays baseball and golf and Nolan is an all-state football player so it’s kind of cool. We really do have great athletes out here.”
That said, King said ski racing offers a tremendous opportunity for growth, regardless of whether you’re the top athlete in your class.
“Every year we get brand new ski racers, and some kids have barely skied maybe a half dozen times,” he said. “It’s kind of cool to take a kid like that one year and then three or four years later he’s vying for a state championship. That’s one great thing about our program is it has really allowed accessibility, for almost anybody that really wants to, that they can become a ski racer.”
In a unique year, be it in athletics or overall, King said his group is doing all it can to provide a season for its skiers.
“This is just kind of one of those years where you just adapt and improvise to make things happen, and that’s what we did,” he said.
Snow permitting, the group will continue racing Fridays (giant slalom) and Saturdays (slalom) until the first week of March, which is typically reserved for the state championships but there’s no way of quite knowing what that will look like this year.
“I definitely enjoy the competition of there being a bunch of different teams from around the state,” said Morris of the state championships, “that’s definitely one of the most fun parts of the year for me. But just being able to be up there and skiing and racing and competing and stuff like that is more than I thought I’d be doing with all this stuff going on so I’m perfectly happy with it.”
“The chances of us having state this year are pretty slim just because of COVID and what-not,” he said, “but I’m just glad we get to get out there and have some races here and there. This year should be pretty fun.”
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