By: Grace Tolla
On Tuesday, March 8th, the Westhill-Stamford High alpine ski racing team ended their season of amazing success, team building and high level competition against other schools in Connecticut. The team celebrated the season with senior night, a group trip to Catamount Ski Resort, and a banquet where a series of awards were presented to the hard-working athletes. Team captains are seniors Brandon Shapiro and Cassie Culhane for Westhill, and senior Matan Coll, as well as juniors Alex Butler and Lucia Kempton for Stamford High. All of the team leaders, including captains and coaches DiAngelo from Westhill and Kelley from Stamford High, did an amazing job of creating a supportive environment for all racers, despite varying experience, times, and scores.
“The program is an incredible opportunity and the skiing is super fun. The team itself is very supportive. Though we race alone, we train together. All in all, I am very proud to be a part of such an amazing program,” Lucia Kempton (‘23) said.
Alpine ski racing is a sport where athletes must ski between gates with tight turns, and make it downhill as fast as possible, as they are ranked on their times. The best racers will complete the course in less than 25 seconds, while others may do the same course in 45 seconds at the most. For the Connecticut high school league, every racer receives a number that determines the order they will race in, and either begins with the junior varsity or varsity course, which do not vary in difficulty, only in start times. There is a JV and varsity course for both female and male racers. Each racer completes both courses, and the sum of their times determines their ranking against all other racers of the same gender from across the state. Races start around 4:30pm, meaning most racers compete in the dark, with only the course lights to assist them with spotting ice and inconsistent snow. The league that the Westhill-Stamford High team competes in uses Mount Southington as their course.
In terms of equipment, all racers wear “race suits”, which are skin-tight spandex suits used to increase speeds and aerodynamics. Racers are required to wear helmets certified by FIS, Federation of International Skiing. These helmets have hard plastic over the ears, which can make it difficult to hear. Goggles are also required when racing, to prevent eye injury, even though many regular skiers choose not to wear them because of the lack of visibility. All ski racers race with poles, as they are necessary to get up from a fall and are used to help yourself skate across the flattest parts of the course as fast as possible.
To prepare for the races, the team holds nearly daily workouts for all of December to get in the best shape possible, which, for ski racing, means flexibility, strong lower body and cardiovascular endurance. By January, we reserve spots at Mount Southington to practice by running drills chosen by the team captains, often divided into groups by gender and school. Drills include activities like practicing turning every 3 seconds, going down without pulls to ensure a deeper tuck, and practicing hockey stops. Overall, free-skiing the most difficult parts of the mountain was the most common practice task. Additionally, right before the race, every team in the league participates in something called “slipping the course”. This is when the racers line up, and slowly slip down the course in order to get a feel for how far apart the gates are, and where the biggest drops are, so you aren’t going into it blind.
All racers meet at the top of the course about fifteen minutes before the first racers, the best in varsity and JV in both the male and female categories, are instructed to start. The team cheers on their team mates from top edges of the course, and watches carefully for their turn, as other racers line up by number. Once you complete your first race, either varsity or JV, you immediately get back on the chair lift and return to the starting area. Times are available on a screen at the bottom of the course just a few minutes after finishing, but it is best to wait and check online to make sure you don’t miss your second race.
In order for your score to remain in contention, you must descend the course without hitting or missing any of the gates, falling, or dropping any of your equipment. This year, the team learned this the hard way, with many falls and several occasions where ski poles got stuck in the snow and couldn’t be removed fast enough. Although many people in New England know how to ski, considering the environment, ski racing is an entirely different sport. The courses used for racing are black diamond level, and carved by the maintenance on the mountain to be steep and smooth. However, as hundreds of racers go down the course in the same pattern of turns, trenches are carved out in the snow, with tall walls of build-up on the edges, that make intentional movement varying from the pattern nearly impossible. Racers truly do have to be fearless, as there is no room in your times for hesitation. The most dedicated racers tuck as low as possible to be more aerodynamic, even though this makes it difficult to see and control your speed.
“Ski team is so fun! I love how it mixes both of the schools in Stamford and how many new people you get to meet in the workouts, practices and races. I’m so excited for next season,” Samantha Culhane (‘24) said.
There were many notable fun events and adventures throughout our 2021-2022 season, including various silly injuries and what we call “yard sales” (dropping all your equipment during a fall). On more than one occasion, we almost left team members at the mountain when they weren’t back on the bus in time to leave at night. As the weeks of racing go on, most racers generally improve, celebrating together as they drop seconds off their times, securing a higher spot in the ranking for future competition. At our final race in early February, both Alex Butler and Lucia Kempton (SHS 2023) shattered the school record for female racing, completing the varsity course in just 23 seconds each. It was a great season, and we look forward to doing it again next year, and continuing to push ourselves to the best of our abilities.