| AspenTimes.com

On the last day of NASTAR national championships, it was a family affair

The National Standard Racing (NASTAR) national championships Platinum division finals were a family affair at Snowmass Ski Area on Saturday.

Siblings appeared on the start lists for the head-to-head, bracketed finals. Families linked up to form intergenerational cheer squads. And NASTAR director Bill Madsen’s mother, Martha, won Pauline’s Cup, an award to the fastest senior female racer of the year in memory of Pauline Arias.

But it’s not just blood relatives who contribute to the familial feeling. For some NASTAR competitors, the grassroots race organization forms bonds of its own.

“That’s what it’s all about — it’s like a big family,” said Kevin Blagys, a 46-year-old snowboarder from Bridgeport, Connecticut, who made it to the second round of finals.

Blagys was among the top contenders in some World Cup races back in the early 2000s with an eye on the 2002 Olympics but soon after fell away from the sport. This is his third year racing with NASTAR and his first national championships with the grassroots public alpine racing organization.

“NASTAR brought me back on the hill,” Blagys said. Competing in NASTAR races has also helped him reconnect with old friends from his earlier racing days, he said.

Madsen calls it “NASTAR nation,” a community of mostly amateur alpine racers joined together by a love of the sport.

“They look out for each other, they help each other out, they’re competitive,” Madsen said.

He’s right, if the finish line vibe on a sunny Saturday morning was any indication. There were plenty of high-fives and pole-taps to go around as duo after duo tucked across twin finish lines in tight race after tight race.

That camaraderie applied across age groups and disciplines: skiers dueled snowbikers and snowboarders. Many finished in their head-to-head races within just hundredths of a second of one another, despite handicapped head starts that gave some racers several seconds of lead time on the course.

Racers who qualified for the finals were as young as 6 and as old as 70; participants were regularly bested by competitors half their height and vice versa as juniors toed the line with masters. On the men’s side, overall winner Chris Berns — a 61-year-old adaptive skier from Litiz, Pennsylvania — narrowly won the final race against 10-year-old skier Alexander Campian, of St. Louis. Aspenite Patrick Hurley, an 8-year-old skier, was third.

Platinum division overall winners on the men’s and women’s sides both received a $750 cash prize with their medals, second place scored $500 and third took home $250.

Sure, there were some tears and disappointment too — one young racer just wanted to keep racing after a rough run in an early round of finals. But it didn’t take long for those bumped out of the bracket to rally around their friends and competitors, posting up near the finish corral to make some noise and root for the racers.

Sophia Carlson was one of those eager to join in on the support-squad fun. The 8-year-old Aspen skier got bumped up to the Platinum division and successfully qualified for the finals after a speedy day in the Gold division races; she lost in the first round of Platinum finals to Elise Carson, a 12-year-old from North Carolina who ultimately won the overall title.

But Carlson was plenty excited just to see some of her friends at the top of the ranks, like 10-year-old Snowmass skier Sienna Fuller, who scored the silver medal — especially in a field that included many older and more experienced racers.

All three female medalists were junior racers; 12-year-old Carson and 10-year-old Fuller were joined by bronze medalist Isabelle Taylor, a 7-year-old from Big Sky, Montana.

“It feels crazy, and it feels like they worked really hard for it,” Carlson said.

Fuller, for her part, didn’t even think she would make it as far as she did in the finals races.

“It feels really cool and awesome,” Fuller said. “It’s heart-racing.”

As for the $500 cash prize she took home with her medal, some of it might be split with friends, she said. She and a gaggle of young racers who joined her in celebration were already eyeing the Fuxi Racing tent in the finish area hawking race suits and other alpine goodies.

Community kudos to Bill Madsen

There was no shortage of gratitude for Madsen’s efforts to produce a national event in a pandemic year, many NASTAR community members said in interviews.

“Bill Madsen — he’s a stud,” said Platinum-division Aspen skier Brad Hahn, 51, after the slalom warm-up race on Monday. Snowbiker Mike Sparkman said Madsen was “the greatest;” Sparkman appreciated the chance to bring his unique sport to the national state. Challenge Aspen’s Deb Sullivan said she wanted to thank Madsen for his flexibility in meeting the needs of adaptive racers on the course.

Masden’s mother, Martha, had high praise for her son too.

“It’s amazing that you’ve pulled it off so well,” she told him near the finish line Saturday afternoon.

kwilliams@aspentimes.com

NASTAR’s snowbike racers find joy, freedom on the Snowmass hill

Snowbiker Mike Sparkman slides to a stop in the finish area after competing in the slalom warm-up race at NASTAR national championships in Snowmass on April 5, 2021.
Kaya Williams/The Aspen Times

There’s something about the muscle memory of riding a snowbike that makes the sport especially beginner-friendly, according to Mike Sparkman.

“For us, it’s been easy, it’s fun, it’s inclusive and retentive,” Sparkman said Monday after a warm-up slalom run at the National Standard Racing (NASTAR) national championships at Snowmass.

In other words, it’s a lot like riding a bike. Their gear includes two super-short skis with bindings for either ski or snowboard boots, plus a sit-down rig in which the “wheels” are two more short skis.

The “easy, fun, inclusive, retentive” tagline is almost a catchphrase for Sparkman, who competes at national championships this week with his wife, Donna Abner-Sparkman, and two other snowbikers, Anne Fields and Chris Marriott. Fields and the Sparkmans are based in Durango; Marriott hails from Dillon.

“He’s a real ham for the sport,” Abner-Sparkman said. She discovered snow biking two decades ago; as the sole non-skier in her family, she found in the sport a lasting way to join in on the fun of mountain recreation.

“It opened up a whole new world to me. … I wanted to see the view from the top of the hill, not down where I was always having to wait for them,” Abner-Sparkman said. “This is just miraculous.”

The couple see themselves as ambassadors for a niche sport that has started to gain traction in recent years, Sparkman said; they run a website dedicated to snowbiking (durangosnowbike.com) and work most winters as instructors at Purgatory Mountain Resort near Durango.

NASTAR has welcomed snowbikers to the course for over half a decade. The couple has competed in four NASTAR national championships including this year, according to NASTAR’s online database. This is their first year back at nationals after a three-year hiatus: Squaw Valley, the host in 2018 and 2019, doesn’t allow snowbikes on the mountain and championships were canceled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think as far as here, in my head, if it feels good — I feel like I’m back in the way I want to be,” Abner-Sparkman said.

The visibility of NASTAR national championships is something Sparkman views as a perk in their mission to get more people involved in snow biking. The grassroots racing program’s scoring system that gives alpine racers of all abilities and disciplines the opportunity to win aligns well with the inclusive ideology of snow biking, according to Sparkman.

“It hits at the heart of NASTAR,” Sparkman said.

He recognizes that there are high barriers to entry in alpine sports — learning to ski or snowboard is associated not only with a high cost but a steep learning curve, significant time investment and physical impact that can deter some people from getting on the mountain.

“These folks were left behind,” he said. Snowbiking allows them to quickly and easily join their families and friends on the slopes, according to Sparkman, because most people are already familiar with the motion, and the seated position places less strain on the body.

The low-impact nature of the sport is in part what drew Anne Fields to snow biking; she skied for years, but a chronic illness that affects her strength and stamina made it difficult to take the hits of the discipline. Snow biking gave her the freedom to continue recreating in the mountains, and at a higher caliber, too — she wasn’t an expert skier but considers herself a “double-black-diamond” snowbiker.

“For me it’s the only time I can escape my body. … It provides me with, literally, the nectar I need to be energized,” she said.

Plus, as Sparkman noted, it’s a heck of a lot of fun.

“It’s a visceral remembrance of when we were kids,” he said. “Everybody has a very visceral good time.”

Marriott, who has been snow biking for more than 20 years, agrees: “It is, hands-down, a blast. … It’s magical”

He ventured into the discipline after knee problems made it difficult to ski or snowboard. This is his third time attending national championships, according to NASTAR’s database.

For those curious about the sport, Marriott has a few words of advice paraphrased from ski movie legend Warren Miller.

“If you don’t try this year, you’ll be a year older when you do,” Marriott said.

kwilliams@aspentimes.com

Town Talk: Ski racing not your thing? Try axe-throwing instead.

Ski racing not your thing?

Maybe axe-throwing is a bit more your beat.

It’s one of several upcoming events in the Bud Light Mountain Games, a series of free competitions designed to add a bit of fun, little-to-no-experience-necessary programming to the spring skiing season, said Aspen Skiing Co. Director of Event Development Deric Gunshor.

Programming begins with the “Beers and Gears” fat tire banked slalom race on Fanny Hill on Friday.

All it takes is some gumption to enter. Participants should bring their own bikes if they can, as there will be a very limited supply available at the race, according to Gunshor.

Also on deck this weekend: a “Shoot and Scoot” ski mountaineering-style biathlon that combines skiing and paintball guns on Assay Hill on Sunday.

“We’ve had a lot of success with different participation-(oriented) things,” like the “Game of Stones” curling series in Base Village, Gunshor said. That event also was presented by Bud Light; the springtime games continue the momentum from that winter programming.

The programming picks up speed as the end of the season approaches, too: the “Bad Axe” axe-throwing competition is slated for April 16, followed by an on-mountain snow golf course for “Grip it and Sip it” on April 18.

Then comes the last weekend of the season, with two events that are not for the faint of heart or stomach.

The Gelande Quaffing Rocky Mountain championships bring a high-octane beer-sliding-and-catching competition to Base Village on April 23, when participants will work in teams to send beers sliding across a 10-foot-long bar top, catch the brews mid flight and guzzle them before sending another back the other way.

On closing day, “Scrambled Legs” will send competitors barreling down a mogul course, running up back up the hill and skiing down to a 30-foot-tall finishing platform in a dash to the finish line.

“All these things go so well with spring skiing,” Gunshor said. “It was the perfect fit.”

As with curling, none of these events require an elite level of athleticism to participate, Gunshor said; that’s was part of the point of hosting events focused on participation alongside a hearty schedule of national-level alpine racing and freestyle competitions across Skico’s four mountains.

But for some events, like “Beers and Gears” and “Scrambled Legs,” it doesn’t hurt to have some experience in on-snow sports. Anyone and everyone can sign up for most programs; participants must be 21 or older to partake in the alcohol component of some events.

Gunshor’s advice for those interested in signing up: “Bring your fun shoes.”

“It’s lighthearted, and just a fun way to celebrate the end to a successful season,” he said.

BUD LIGHT MOUNTAIN GAMES SCHEDULE OF EVENTS

April 9: “Beers and Geers,” a fat-tire bike banked slalom race on Fanny Hill from 2 to 4 p.m. Register on Daly Lane.

April 11: “Shoot and Scoot,” a ski mountaineering-style paintball biathlon on Assay Hill from 2 to 4 p.m. Register at the Bud Light tent near the base of the Village Express.

April 16: “Bad Axe,” an axe-throwing competition in Base Village from 2 to 4 p.m. Register near the Guest Services ski check in Base Village.

April 18: “Grip it and Sip it,” an on-mountain nine-hole ski golfing course that begins at the midway station of the Village Express from 2 to 4 p.m. Register at the Bud Light tent near the base of the Village Express.

April 23: Gelande Quaffing Rocky Mountain Championships, a beer-sliding-and-catching (and drinking) competition in Base Village from 2 to 4 p.m. Register on the snow near the base of the Village Express chairlift.

April 25: “Scrambled Legs,” a race to complete a mogul ski course, run up the hill and ski down again to a 30-foot-high finishing platform in the Spider Sabich racing area from 2 to 4 p.m. Register at the Bud Light tent near the base of the Village Express.

All events are free; registration is available on the day of the event. Participants should bring their own skis, snowboards or fat tire bikes (for “Beers and Gears”), but specialty equipment will be provided. This schedule is subject to change due to COVID-19 restrictions.

kwilliams@aspentimes.com

Snowmass Briefs: Spring trail closures approaching

Snowmass Village Police Department community resource officers Lauren Martenson, left, and Tina White place a sign on the Seven Star trail to mark its seasonal closure in Snowmass on Monday, Nov. 30, 2020. The two officers fill many roles including animal services and trail rangers.
Snowmass Sun file photo

SPRING TRAIL OPENINGS AND CLOSURES IN APRIL

Snowmass Village hikers have three weeks left to explore trails in the Burnt Mountain area between Buttermilk and Snowmass before several trails close April 25 for elk calving season.

The Tom Blake Trail, Sequel Trail and other trails in the Elk Camp and Two Creeks vicinity will close April 25 through June 20; Anaerobic Nightmare and surrounding lands will close April 25 through June 27. The Government Trail and Sugarbowl area will close later this spring, from May 15 through June 27.

The South Rim Trail, as well as the Highline and Lowline trails in Sky Mountain Park, remain open year-round. The North Rim Trail, Seven Star Trail and all other trails in Sky Mountain Park reopen May 16 after season-long closures implemented to protect local wildlife seeking winter refuge before the calving season.

The full length of the Brush Creek Trail connecting Highway 82 to Snowmass Village reopened April 1 to human users. No dogs are permitted on the trail until May 16.

PLANTER BOX GIVEAWAY FROM TOWN OF SNOWMASS VILLAGE

The town of Snowmass Village is holding a community giveaway for leftover planter boxes from a Snowmass Tourism initiative to augment winter outdoor spaces for local businesses.

The planters are 48 inches long, 30 inches high and 18 inches wide and are made from PVC plastic. Each planter retails for more than $500; the town will raffle off several for free.

Complete the form at bit.ly/TOSV-flowerbox-giveaway by the end of the day Friday to enter the giveaway. Winners will be notified next week and must pick up the boxes in town the week of April 26.

THE COLLECTIVE HOSTS “THE BEAUTIFUL BIPOLAR EXPERIENCE”

The Collective in Snowmass Base Village will host “The Beautiful Bipolar Experience” on Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. Courtney Sanders leads a live presentation and Q&A to share her experience living with bipolar disorder. A reservation is required; email info@thecollectivesnowmass.com to sign up.

TOWN ICE RINKS CLOSED FOR THE SEASON

The ice skating rink in Snomwass Base Village, as well as the rink located near Town Park, have closed for the season.

Submit listings for our community briefs to Kaya Williams at kwilliams@aspentimes.com.

Snowmass Town Council extends mask mandate until June

Skiers wearing masks walk into Snowmass Base Village after skiing Fanny Hill on Tuesday, April 6, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Keep those masks on when walking outside in one of Snowmass Village’s three commercial hubs: Town Council voted April 5 on second reading to extend an ordinance designating mandatory mask zones in Base Village, the Snowmass Center and the Snowmass Mall through June 7.

Council members Tom Fridstein, Tom Goode, Alyssa Shenk and Bob Sirkus voted in favor of the extension at the regular meeting; Mayor Bill Madsen was the dissenting vote.

That’s sooner than the extension originally specified — it would otherwise have been scheduled to sunset Sept. 30 if council had approved it as-is, according to a copy of the ordinance included with the agenda packet — but later than the staff-recommended expiration date of April 20.

The staff recommendation suggested that the town allow the current Snowmass Village-specific mask mandate to expire April 20; the ordinance requires masks at all times (indoors and outdoors) except when eating or drinking in Snowmass Mall, Base Village and the Snowmass Center.

Instead, staff proposed the town should align with current county, state and federal guidance that mostly requires face coverings indoors and on public transit but not outdoors where 6 feet of distancing is possible.

Consistency was the goal with the staff recommendation, according to Town Manager Clint Kinney and Police Chief Brian Olson.

“The confusion, the difficulty of enforcement, the inconsistencies — I’ll let Brian speak to some of that — just knowing all of that, it just becomes difficult for enforcement,” Kinney said. “Because we put those important rules in place, … we still believe it’s a good idea as quickly as we put them in place to be open-minded about lifting these restrictions.”

Aligning with Pitkin County’s guidance (masks only required outside when 6-foot distancing isn’t possible) could help with enforcement of face covering rules, Olson said. It can be difficult to explain to someone in a parking lot in the Snowmass Center, for instance, that they must wear a mask even though they are far more than 6 feet away from others.

“From an enforcement standpoint we have to be able to defend the practicality and the reasonableness of the law, and to be in compliance from the public,” Olson said. “And it’s a lot easier done when we understand where we are right now and that distancing is the best way to go and the fresh air and masking up when you’re not around anybody else is not as practical as perhaps it was at one time.”

Madsen, who voted to let the mandate expire April 20, also expressed concerns about the consistency and practicality of the current requirements. Under the ordinance, anyone walking outside in the Snowmass Mall, Snowmass Center or Base Village must be masked, but anyone sitting outside dining right next to the sidewalk is exempt.

“The consistency of it just doesn’t really make sense. … It just doesn’t make sense if you’re wearing a mask walking down the mall, but once you’re seated, it’s OK (not to wear one),” Madsen said.

“I just don’t think we’re getting the effect out of it,” he said. “If we wanted to really ensure people’s safety and health, we should tighten up where people are in closer proximity.”

But for several council members, consistency also was an argument against letting the ordinance expire.

“It is really important, as we saw early in the pandemic, to be consistent with what Aspen’s doing, because like I said before, if you’re coming to Aspen, you’re coming to Snowmass, and vice versa,” Councilwoman Alyssa Shenk said. “If they’re keeping their mask zones and then you come to Snowmass and it’s all bets off and you can do whatever you want, I just think that’s even more confusing.”

Aligning with Aspen’s mask policy was in part what led the Snowmass council to approve the extension on first reading March 15. Council members OK’d the first reading while still unsure what Aspen would decide to ensure the second reading would take place before the Snowmass ordinance expired.

Aspen City Council members expressed an interest in extending the city mandate beyond May 1 when they met last month and will consider an extension on first reading at a meeting Tuesday.

Plus, Councilman Bob Sirkus noted, even state guidance is no longer as consistent as it once was.

Gov. Jared Polis extended the statewide mask mandate April 3 — it now lasts through May 2 — but also relaxed face-covering requirements under that mandate.

Counties on the Green level of the state’s COVID-19 dial are exempt from mask requirements in many businesses and stores, and for counties that fall into the Blue level or above on the COVID-19 dial, mask requirements in most indoor public spaces apply only if there are 10 or more unvaccinated people in the room. (There are some exceptions where the mandate still universally applies, like schools, hospitals and personal facilities. Businesses can still set their own mask requirements.)

“The state seems to be going in the opposite direction from my perspective,” Sirkus said. “It actually gave me a lot of anxiety when Polis came out last month and said we’re going to drop outdoor masking and the only thing we’re going to care about is indoors and public transportation. I was really worried about that.”

Sirkus expressed concerns about the spikes in local COVID-19 cases that have occurred after most major holidays and vacation periods when the area sees an uptick in visitors; removing the outdoor mask requirement in designated mask zones would be unlikely to help that situation, he said.

However small a difference mask-wearing makes in outdoor spaces, it would still be worthwhile to continue to implement an indoor and outdoor mask mandate in Snowmass Village’s three busiest hubs, Sirkus said.

“It’s low, low risk — but it’s still risk,” Sirkus said.

kwilliams@aspentimes.com

Roger Marolt: Nine miles and a galaxy away

Roger Marolt for the Snowmass Sun
Kelsey Brunner/Snowmass Sun

This is going to be interesting. I don’t remember Snowmass being the most powerful of our four mountains when it comes to endurance, but it’s staying open the longest this year, all by itself. Highlands and Buttermilk closed Sunday. Aspen Mountain shuts down next week. For one week after that, we ski Snowmass or nothing at all.

If you’re a skier, you go skiing on the last day of the season. It doesn’t matter if you are sick of winter. It’s of no consequence that suddenly yard work seems more alluring that gearing up to swish the tails of your skis through slush served too runny. Golf in the afternoon, if you must. Plan on washing the car Monday after the lifts stop running. Everyone skis the last day of the season, or spends it at home percolating regret and thinking up excuses for not being seen at the end of the last day, toasting the winter that always overstays its welcome.

This poses a bigger dilemma for Aspenites than you imagine. They know we exist out here, but they don’t quite know exactly where, much less what, our town is. They rarely visit. They hear about us, mostly from tourists who go to Aspen for dinner and shopping after a day of skiing “out there.” We are a concept to Aspenites, an alternative ski area that theoretically honors their ski passes, a place they might go for a cheap staycation, if life in the city becomes temporarily burdensome. Perhaps someday.

Many Aspenites pride themselves on never driving past the roundabout. And they adhere to accommodating that code of prideful self-isolation until they need a trip to Moab before the single-tracks open here or a resupply of household staples in bulk from Walmart or Target “downvalley,” the general description of a slightly less novel geographic location providing an ironic form of entertainment for those willing to take off their own sneakers and dip their toes into this reasonably accessible ho-hum pool of “real world” life.

Thursday evening concerts in the summer are exempt from their omertà of avoidance toward the “family oriented” piece of Aspen Skiing Co.’s amalgamation of guest choices. They get around it by keeping their eyes and minds on the drinks they smuggled onto the free bus that serves as a hermetically sealed capsule temporarily launching Aspenites into orbit around the center of their universe for a time before delivering them safely back home a few hours later. The rodeo is technically, if only by their way of thinking, not even in Snowmass Village, so their bi-annual visits to check it out don’t really count as a threat to tarnish their “local” status that they continually polish to reflect Aspen’s high-intensity glitter radiation so that it can’t be mistaken for anything but a trophy.

While there is an inherit cultural clash in the undertaking to claim superiority between Aspenites and Village People, I think we can agree that there are good people on both sides. The wall separating the towns is an ideological one constructed from concrete notions that each place is a philosophically foreign land to the other. The haphazard design has resulted in a largely unscaleable obstacle, becoming more insurmountable the longer one resides on either side.

In the end, I think the diehard Aspen Mountain and Highlands skiers will venture here for the final week of this ski season. I also am confident the steadfast villagers hosting this annual rite of passage will prove to be cordial ambassadors representing the town that always gets its eight hours of sleep. It’s time to tear down that invisible wall. In that no-man’s land traversed by Owl Creek Road, we need to assure people making the attempt to get here on their own without the aid of RFTA that it is perfectly fine to stop along the way to look at the elk and horses grazing in the meadows, even if they can’t distinguish which is which at first glance.

That visitors don’t really take to pedestrian malls terraced into the side of ski mountains not withstanding, that axiom of “build it and they will come” holds true out here. We’ve put together a good place to ski and just be who you are in Snowmass Village. Aspenites will come, conquer and maybe visit a little more often in the future after they see what a great thing we have. Hopefully there will be some snow left.

Roger Marolt is the Village Person wearing two hats, one a faded Patagonia cap and the other a lampshade. Email him at roger@maroltllp.com.

Snowmass history: What’s in a name?

A winter panoramic photograph of Sam's Knob and Big Burn at Snowmass Ski Area in the winter captures some of the ski trails on the mountain, photographed by Margaret Durrance circa 1969.
Aspen Historical Society Durrance Collection/Courtesy image

“What’s in a Name?” the Snowmass Affairs magazine asked in an April 1977 article.

“The Big Burn, Pipeline, Fanny Hill and Bear Bottom are only a few of the 85 trails at Snowmass, but did you ever stop to think about how they got their names? There are several areas at Snowmass with which most skiers are familiar,” the article stated.

“Perhaps the most popular is the Big Burn. It takes its name from a large fire in the 1880s which burned across the present ski trails. The fire’s origin is still a point of controversy. Some say it was the result of lightning. … Alpine Springs received its label from the numerous springs found at the top of (the) #8 lift. Elk Camp was an old elk calving area and many elk are found here in the spring. If you look closely, you may discover some. … Slot Falls was a typographical error on the 1974-75 trail map. It should have been Slot Flats for the long, wide and relatively gentle meadow portion at the middle of Slot trail. There is a beautiful, twisted old tree on it which looks like a giant bonsai tree. This was quickly misunderstood and corrupted to banzai tree, and from there to Banzai Ridge to all skiers.”

Challenge Aspen athletes seek medals, fun at NASTAR national championships

Challenge Aspen athlete Danielle Coulter and guide Zander Higbie race on the giant slalom course at Snowmass during NASTAR national championships on April 6, 2021. Kaya Williams/The Aspen Times

After taking a run Tuesday on the giant slalom course at Snowmass, Challenge Aspen athlete and alpine racer Chris Guay made a keen observation: “It’s not too often that you have professionals cheering you on.”

But that’s exactly the case at this week’s National Standard Racing (NASTAR) national championships, 41-year-old Guay said.

Along with a sizeable crew of Challenge Aspen staffers ringing cowbells at the finish line, Guay said he also felt support from U.S. Ski Team members Laurenne Ross and Paula Moltzan, who were on the course as pacesetters Tuesday morning.

Guay is racing in the cognitive adaptive division this week, one of eight athletes repping the Snowmass Village-based adaptive sports nonprofit Challenge Aspen on the course. (Nine qualified this year, but one, “Big Air” Max Grange, won’t be competing due to recent surgery.)

“It’s pretty cool” — especially so after national championships were canceled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Guay said. This is the Special Olympics hall-of-famer’s third NASTAR national championships and fourth time qualifying; he has spent nearly two decades alpine skiing, about seven of them with Challenge Aspen.

He isn’t the only one appreciating the return of national championships after a one-year hiatus.

“The level of excitement is really high because of the cancellation last year,” said Deb Sullivan, the program director for Challenge Aspen’s Recreational, Educational and Cultural program.

News of the cancellation hit hard last year, just weeks after seven athletes qualified for nationals, which were supposed to be held at Snowmass, Sullivan said in a phone call last week: “I don’t think I’ve ever seen them so upset.”

When this year’s championships were announced, the athletes were “over the moon,” Sullivan said.

That the national championships are on home turf this year does make it a bit easier to get more athletes — and more staffers — out on the snow to race and support, Sullivan said.

Athletes also benefited from race-specific coaching that helped them pick up new skills to show off this year on the course.

A “very generous” donor supported two full-day lessons with Aspen Skiing Co. instructors and two weeks training with ski instructor and former racer Emilie Tait-Jamieson to prepare for the state and national NASTAR championships, Sullivan said. Tait-Jamieson offered racing-specific tips to competitors gearing up for the big day, from carving and developing their lines to making up time at the start, finish and other key spots on the course.

“Probably what it did more than anything was confidence-building with them,” Sullivan said.

That confidence has perhaps contributed to a bit of a friendly rivalry among some competitors, with a field of five cognitive adaptive racers in the male 21-29 age group. “That’s going to be some tight racing,” Sullivan said.

One of those racers is Tanner Jadwin, a 28-year-old cognitive adaptive skier; he learned how to ski through Challenge Aspen and has been racing since around his third season.

“It is kind of funny because I started this and I didn’t know what to expect at first,” he said. He found he had a skill for the sport — one he proved on the course Tuesday, when his lightning-fast time placed him in the caliber of Platinum-division racers.

Fellow Challenge Aspen athlete Justin Jolley followed close behind, eager to compare his times with his teammate Jadwin (both are in the male 21-29 cognitive adaptive division). There’s a bit of a friendly rivalry between the two, according to Jolley — but it’s one Jolley largely perpetuates on his own, Jadwin joked.

“I don’t do it as much for the medals as I do for the fun,” Jadwin said.

There’s a thrill that comes with skiing and competing too, according to some Challenge Aspen athletes.

“When I ski, I feel like I’m gliding. … I just love it,” said Jen Arkin, who competed in the visually impaired division with her guide, Wendy Hazard. This is Arkin’s third year qualifying for nationals. The 52-year-old has been skiing since she was 8 and joined Challenge Aspen in 2012; she decided to start racing after Sullivan recommended it several years back.

“It’s addictive,” Arkin said of the sport.

Danielle Coulter is likewise hooked — she hit the course seven times Tuesday for lap after lap out of the start gate. (Racers are scored based on the best of two runs but can take more as time and conditions allow.)

The 29-year-old adaptive snowboarder has been shredding on snow for nearly two decades using a custom rig with an upright bar that she uses to carve around the gates; guide Zander Higbie with Aspen Skiing Co. follows close behind. What keeps her coming back out on the mountain?

“The speed, the freedom,” Coulter said.

kwilliams@aspentimes.com

At day one of NASTAR nationals in Snowmass, camaraderie is king

Tom Kennedy is something of a legend around these parts: The 69-year-old Aspen local is a regular at the long-running Aspen-Snowmass Town Race Series and has been competing in ski racing for nearly 50 years, he said at the base of the slalom warm-up course during the National Standard Racing (NASTAR) alpine racing national championships Monday morning.

“I just love competing,” Kennedy said. (The “legend” status isn’t one he claimed for himself; fellow competitor Brad Hahn bestowed that title in an interview shortly before joining Kennedy for a picnic lunch.)

But for all his experience in ski racing, Kennedy is still logging “firsts” on the mountain: This year is the first time he has ever competed in NASTAR nationals in the current format, he said.

Snowmass hosts this year for the fifth time in program history; other recent racing venues include Squaw Valley, California, and Steamboat Springs, but racers can qualify on any NASTAR course at one of more than 80 participating resorts in 25 states.

Kennedy will race again in the gold division giant slalom race on Thursday; NASTAR’s national championship competition runs daily through Saturday on the Upper Blue Grouse run at Snowmass this year, with giant slalom courses for divisional races after Monday’s slalom.

A skier approaches the finish line during the slalom warm-up race at NASTAR national championships at Snowmass on April 5, 2021.
Kaya Williams/The Aspen Times

So why this year to compete in national championships?

“It was convenient,” Kennedy said.

Plus, there’s “the camaraderie, competing with a bunch of people” Kennedy likes, he said. Racers get to know each other after so many times at the same start gate; same goes for staffers on the course.

“They become friends, too,” Kennedy said of race officials.

The post-event scene at Monday’s slalom warm-up race featured picnicking competitors and folks spotting familiar faces at rows of tables outside the Lynn Britt Cabin. It’s not uncommon for racers to recognize names in competition from the online NASTAR rankings, NASTAR director Bill Madsen previously told The Aspen Times.

Hahn, also an Aspenite, Town Race Series regular and NASTAR nationals first-timer, decided to get back into the competitive spirit this year after a nearly three-decade hiatus from racing. (He competed back in high school and college.) The 51-year-old’s scores in his age group have qualified him for the top-ranked platinum division, but it doesn’t take a record-setting speedster to earn a spot on the podium.

“Everybody can do it,” Hahn said.

Qualifying for nationals this year required just one run meeting at least the bronze-level standard; NASTAR’s points-based scoring system allows competitors of all ages and abilities to compare their scores apples-to-apples.

“We have a 4-year-old and an 82-year-old skiing every (week),” Hahn said.

For those who spot the course from the Village Express chairlift and wonder whether they should join in next year, Hahn encourages seizing the opportunity.

“Get up on the hill — it’s awesome,” Hahn said.

The list of registered competitors at this week’s nationals includes more than 450 participants in every age group — from groms in the 1-4 grouping to senior racers in the 90-94 bracket —and from coast to coast and everywhere in between.

For some, like 13-year-old Kelly Shaw of Ohio, coming to NASTAR nationals is a chance not only to compete but to ski bigger mountains at hosting ski areas. Shaw’s home resort at Mad River Mountain (“It should be called Mad River Hill,” he joked) logs 300 vertical feet from top to bottom; Snowmass totals more than 4,400.

“It’s so much fun to come out here and ski these big mountains in Colorado,” Shaw said.

Shaw competes in the platinum division this week and will be aiming for a podium spot among racers in the male 12-13 age group. And he keeps an eye on those overall online rankings, too.

“Even to see yourself as top 100 is like, ‘Oh my gosh.’”

kwilliams@aspentimes.com

A race for all ages at NASTAR national championships this week in Snowmass

A skier competes in the 2019 Liberty Mutual NASTAR Nationals at Squaw Valley in California.
Dave Camara/Courtesy photo

“Everybody has an opportunity to win” at the National Standard Racing (NASTAR) alpine racing championships Monday through Friday at Snowmass, according to organization director Bill Madsen.

And when Madsen says “everybody,” he means it: The largest grassroots alpine racing program in the world uses a points-based system that allows competitors of all ages and abilities to compare their scores apples-to-apples and compete on the same courses for the same prizes. More than 450 participants from across the country are registered to compete.

BREAK OUT THE CALCULATORS

Racers qualify for the national championships by earning a medal on one run on any NASTAR course on one or more race days this season.

But how they earn that medal isn’t based on the three fastest times on race day. NASTAR’s points-based system determines who earns which designation (bronze, silver, gold or platinum) based on a racer’s time compared to that of a pacesetter.

Think of it a bit like a game of golf: A pacesetter at the hosting resort sets a “par time” for a given NASTAR course. Racers aim to meet that par time, or get as close to it as they can. Their “handicap” is the percent increase in time spent on the course compared to the pacesetter.

If the par time is 25 seconds, and a racer completes the course in 30 seconds, then that racer’s handicap is 20, since they spent 20% more time on the course than the pacesetter. Snowboarders, telemark skiers, snow bikers and adaptive athletes get handicap discounts ranging from 15 to 75 percentage points. A snowboarder (with a 20-percentage-point discount) who spends 25% more time on the course only logs a 5% handicap.

Telemark skiers are penalized one second per turn any time they do not execute a tele turn.

At next week’s national championships, U.S. Ski Team members Laurenne Ross, Paula Moltzan, River Radamus and Luke Winters will help set the par time.

All racers can score between one and 10 NASTAR team points based on their handicap. A handicap chart determines how many team points a racer earns based on their handicap, age and gender.

Male ski racers between the ages of 18 and 29 must complete the course just as fast as the pace-setter (earning a handicap of zero) to earn a perfect 10 points. Other racers have more leeway: A 95-year-old female skier could spend up to 80% more time on the course and still earn 10 points, while a 30-year-old male skier must get within 1% of the par time for a perfect 10.

Racers with 9.01 to 10 team points earn the platinum medal designation, racers with 7.01 to 9 points earn gold, racers with 4.01 to 7 points earn silver and racers with 1.01 to 4 points earn bronze.

EYES ON THE PRIZE

NASTAR’s points-based system means competitors of all disciplines and ages could end up at the top of their ranks. Racers at nationals will compete by division: bronze, silver, gold or platinum, based on qualifying races on any NASTAR course.

Participants log the best of two runs, with the opportunity to take additional runs as time and conditions allow on raced day.

The top 32 male and top 32 female point-getters in each division will advance to the finals the next day. (There is no second-day finals for the slalom warm-up race on Monday.) In the platinum group, that’s the 32 competitors who score closest to 10 team points; in gold, nine points; in silver, seven points; in bronze, four points.

The finals seed those 32 racers from each division into a bracket to race head-to-head, single-elimination style. Racers carry their handicap to the start line, so the racer with the larger handicap will get a head start; handicaps will be updated during the finals.

“It’s a really fun format, and it’s a way to level out the field of play so that everybody has an opportunity to win,” Madsen said. “The key is to just keep skiing faster and faster all the time and just keep winning.”

And winning — and winning: The multi-day race format allows a bronze-level athlete who scores enough points to level up to the next division the next day. In theory, a bronze athlete with a speedy streak could compete in all four divisions at nationals.

“We really want people to improve their skills, and if they ski fast, they get to race more,” Madsen said.

Leveling up also gives racers a chance to earn more prize money: the overall male and female winners in the bronze division will nab $200; purses increase by division, up to $750 for the platinum winners. (Leveling up does preclude racers from competing in the lower-division finals; competitors are only eligible for prize money in the fastest division they compete in during nationals.)

This is the first time NASTAR has offered prize money for winners across all four divisions, according to Madsen.

“I like the whole theory of being able to give back,” he said.

A SOCIAL NETWORK

The national championships aren’t just a way for racers to earn glory and prizes. It’s also a chance for them to compete against and get to know their peers, many of whom they’ve only seen on the rankings and results pages of the NASTAR website.

“The most interesting part of the event are the people that show up — it’s quite the cast of characters,” Madsen said. “They meet people that they see online, like they’re checking their rankings out, they see all these names, … and then they see them at the start.”

“It’s a social network, so it’s a fun way to connect people who are excited about ski racing,” he said.

Schedule of Events

April 5: Slalom Warm-Up Race (all divisions).

April 6: Bronze Division Racing

April 7: Bronze Division Head-to-Head Finals; Silver Division Racing

April 8: Silver Division Head-to-Head Finals; Gold Division Racing

April 9: Gold Division Head-to-Head Finals; Platinum Division Racing

April 10: Platinum Division Head-to-Head Finals

In an effort to reduce gatherings, there will be no awards ceremonies after the divisional finals, according to an emailed update from NASTAR Director Bill Madsen. Winners can pick up their medals in the registration room located at the Base Village Conference Center. For a complete schedule, visit nastar.com/news/2021-national-championship-event-schedule.

kwilliams@aspentimes.com

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct the date of the slalom warm-up race on Monday.