Adult ski racing melds camaraderie and competition.
Artfully linking turns down a snow-covered slope is the challenge that motivates expert skiers to improve their technique. For some, additional demands make the pursuit even more pleasurable: obstacles in the form of poles to direct turns, and a contest with fellow skiers to see who can navigate the course most quickly. Adult ski racers in the Gallatin Valley (and elsewhere in the country) test their mettle in masters competitions sanctioned by U.S. Ski & Snowboard—the same body that channels racers through junior levels and onto the U.S. National Team that races in World Cup and Olympic competitions. In ski-racing parlance, “masters” refers to anyone over 18 years old. From there, divisions consist of five-year age increments (e.g., a 61-year-old competes only against 60- to 64-year-olds).
Ken Williams, a lifelong Bozeman resident, started ski racing at Bozeman Senior High in the 1960s (ski racing was formerly a high-school sport in Montana). A nasty crash curtailed his teenage racing, but he returned to competition in masters events at age 24. He skis all four masters events: slalom, giant slalom, super-G, and downhill. “Downhill is my favorite. I love the glide and the speed. It’s exciting and a little bit dangerous.” At age 71, he isn’t about to slow down. In 2021, Ken was ranked second in the nation for men in his age class in the masters National Speed Series, which combines points from a number of super-G and downhill races around the country.
There’s a bond one develops with competitors when shivering together before the start—whether due to the cold or the anticipation of a fast, challenging run.
Williams is also a regular participant in the masters race program at Big Sky. “It’s a fantastic training venue. The coaching is really good and the terrain, snow conditions, and grooming are to die for if you’re a racer.”
The camaraderie and friendships he’s developed locally and across the nation are among the things Williams values most. There’s a bond one develops with competitors when shivering together before the start—whether due to the cold or the anticipation of a fast, challenging run. Successfully navigating a super-G at speeds exceeding 55mph is a shared experience that creates lasting social relationships among the racers.
The masters training group at Bridger Bowl includes Jennifer Higgins, who started ski racing in early grade-school in western New York. Jennifer skied for Middlebury College in Vermont, one of the collegiate ski-racing powerhouses. After completing her training as a veterinarian, she jumped on the opportunity to move to Bozeman and join a practice.
The technical skills that increase a skier’s speed on a race course can be transferred to skiing anywhere on the mountain.
“Racing gives me something to work toward and improve myself,” she says. “I think it’s easy to lose that focus as an adult, and I really like the challenge.” At age 31, it’s a challenge she’s mastering quite well. Last season, Higgins won both the slalom and giant slalom races over all competitors (men and women) at Discovery Ski Area. In addition to competing at masters events, Higgins sometimes jumps into the popular community races at Bridger Bowl.
“Masters ski racing is really cool because there’s this interesting mix of people who raced in college or earlier in life along with skiers who are just getting into it,” she says. That’s exactly the cross-section of people who are part of the masters training programs at Bridger and Big Sky. She adds, “It’s really nice to work with other skiers who have a shared goal of getting faster.”
And there’s a side benefit. The technical skills that increase a skier’s speed on a race course can be transferred to skiing anywhere on the mountain. In fact, a good number of masters racers initially join training programs for exactly that purpose. Maybe it’s time you join them.
Jack Ballard coaches masters ski racing at Red Lodge Mountain and race camps at Big Sky and other resorts all across the country. For more info on the local Bozeman masters program, visit bridgerskifoundation.org/alpine/masters.