Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Fast learners — Kids conquer the trails in youth skiing program

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Eight-year-old Oliva Botirius’ stream-of-consciousness play-by-play was going as fast as her skies were Saturday as she launched herself down an incline at Tsalteshi Trails.

“Yeah, a hill!”

“Look out below!”

“Hey, no cuts!”

“Woah, don’t fall, don’t fall, don’t fall!”

She didn’t, making it to the bottom in a blur of matching purple snow gear, hardly any ski pole flailing, and brown curls flopping in the breeze. Once she coasted to a stop at the bottom of the hill, she plopped down to her knees, but made sure everyone in her learn-to-ski group knew it wasn’t an accident.

“I didn’t fall. I did this on purpose. ’Cus I can do this,” she announced, as she started scooting herself backward.

A few loops over on the trail system behind Skyview High School, the mighty Snow Leopards were sizing up a hill of their own. The kids had been at Tsalteshi Trails Associations’ learn-to-ski program long enough that their first reaction to hills — “We have to go down that?” — had been largely replaced with the desire to see how much momentum their 4-foot-tall bodies could accumulate.

Coach Robin Nyce was waiting a little ways down, calling out encouragement to try to snowplow — point the tips of their skis together to slow descent — or some other technique.

They dutifully followed instructions, whether it was a snowplow or hunching over their feet and grabbing the tips of their skis as they slid down the hill. But some were mystified about the point of maneuvers that made them go slower.

“Why did we do that? I could have gone down that way faster on my own,” said 6-year-old Tyle Owens.

That’s a far cry from the beginning of January, when the kids’ ski program started.

“We had a couple of little, little ones like, ‘I don’t know. I don’t want to go uphill,’ and, ‘I don’t want to go down hills,’ but now they’re doing it. The ones who have never even skied before are cruising. It just takes getting kids out moving on skies and they figure a lot out on their own,” said Laura Pillifant, with the trails association board.

For older or more experienced skiers, the program is a chance to get instruction and practice with their peers, instead of just their parents.

“We take them out skiing, you know, with us, and they kind of complain a lot and they don’t really want to go,” Pillifant said. “Being in the program, they haven’t complained once. They’re out there skiing hard and having fun and coming along really well.”

Marc Johnson, a parent volunteer, said he was excited when he heard about the program. Not only does it teach kids a new skill and gets them to enjoy the outdoors, but it’s helpful for school ski programs, as well.

“It gets kids started at a young age, like they do with kids in Anchorage,” he said. “They have a pool of talent when they get into middle school and high school there.”

He said the instructors have been doing a great job of tailoring the program to the kids and their ability levels, even coming up with games they can play to keep it interesting — like sharks and minnows and a scavenger hunt.

“They make it fun for the kids to get them excited about skiing so they want to keep doing it,” he said. “They’re having a great time. Even when they crash they get right up and they’re laughing.”

Johnson’s daughter, Leah, 8, is hooked. She said she plans on being on the Kenai Central High School Kardinals ski team when she’s old enough.

“I think the trails are the funnest part,” she said. “The hills are really fun because you go so fast.”

This is the first year for the program, which was scheduled for Tuesday and Thursday nights, plus four Saturdays, from Jan. 6 through March 7. The trails association got a grant to buy 30 pairs of combination skis — waxable skis that can be used for classic or skate skiing — for kids to rent out. Next year it hopes to add poles to its stock of rental gear.

Kids start with the basics of how to wax skis, put on the boots, skis and poles, and the all-important tricks for how to stand back up once you succumb to the unavoidable combination of gravity and slippery, awkward footwear. Kids are grouped by ability level, so the more experienced skiers can work on higher-level techniques, like step turning around corners, while others practice the basics of just get getting going.

Originally, the plan was to teach four weeks of classic skiing and four weeks of skating, Pillifant said, but weather, trail conditions and ability levels have dictated the program’s progression more than initial planning.

“The younger, 6- to 8-year-olds, the beginner beginners, if they can get standing on their skies and moving any way they can, they don’t distinguish between the skate and the classic,” Pillifant said. “The older ones, they know skating is faster so they’re kind of starting to press coaches, ‘Come on, let’s go to skating.’ But the classic is just a lot of fun and they need to know that, that’s for sure, if they’re going to continue on.”

Pillifant said she’s thrilled with the response to the program, with 43 skiers ages 6 to 12 signed up (plus one 13-year-old with two younger siblings in the program). Along with the kids came a platoon of volunteers, which has been crucial in wrangling, much less teaching, so many kids.

“It’s been overwhelming the response from people and the help that we’re getting. It takes a lot of people not to leave someone on the trail or take a skier back to warm them up or help with cookies and hot chocolate,” she said.

Organizers conscripted a group of coaches — David Michael, Adam Reimer, Gigi Banas, Pillifant, Sara Hepner, Nyce and Denise Harro — and have had even more people step up every week to help, including Bill Holt keeping the trails groomed, Kelly Keating bringing a lighting system, Dr. Justin Moore and SoHi skier Jordann Nelson helping coach, parents and Skyview High School coaches and skiers helping wax, and Mary Helminski bringing cookies, cleaning up and helping with whatever else is needed. The community has also pitched in with donations when needed, Pillifant said.

“Everybody is just going crazy with helping us,” she said. “You think ahead of time, ‘Oh dear, I’ve got a lot of places to be already,’ but it’s just way different than most things that you have to be at. It’s a lot of fun, and it’s going very fast.”

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