An introduction to ski racing is immediately below and is followed by an overview of adaptive ski racing, a discussion of racing with a guide, old vs. new ski racing technique and a discussion about what makes ski racing a great sport. Hopefully this content will provide a decent overview of able bodied and adaptive ski racing.
Ski Racing Overview
Ski racing consists of five disciplines: downhill, super-G, giant slalom (GS), slalom and super-combined. Downhill and super-G are the speed events and GS and slalom are the technical events. The super-combined is designed to test a racer’s overall ability to ski both the speed and technical events and the super-combined consists of one or two runs of slalom and one run of either super-G or downhill.
Downhill is the prestige race because it is the fastest, longest and most dangerous of the events. A downhill race can last well over two minutes and the best racers are reaching speeds of 96 miles an hour and are flying over 150 feet off jumps.
Below is footage of Bode Miller finishing second in the most prestigious of all downhills, the Hahnenkam in Kitzbuhel, Austria. What is most noteworthy about this run is that Bode had to ski on the safety netting to remain in the course.
Below is footage of Tyler Walker racing downhill. Tyler is the best all-round sitting skier in the world and I expect him to win multiple medals at the 2010 Paralympic games. Sitting skiers are incredibly courageous because they have almost no ability to protect themselves when they fall and their gear generally causes severe falls. The injured legs, backs and other body parts of sitting skiers are very susceptible to injury and minor injuries can cause very severe complications including amputation. The end of this video shows a relatively minor fall that did not cause injury.
Men’s downhill skis are typically 215 cm long and have a side cut radius of 45 meters. By contrast, typical all-mountain free skis run from 172 to 187 cm in length and have side cut radii ranging from 17 to 22 meters. DH skis are long to provide stability at speed. They are also engineered to remain in contact with the snow as the skis bounce and ripple over icy ruts and chatter marks.
Downhill skis are lovingly cared for and are carefully tuned and maintained so that they generate maximum velocity. The fastest downhill skis were and may still be referred to as "smoke wagons". The best downhill racers will have a quiver of DH skis and these skis will have different waxes and base structures (the pattern that is ground into the base) for different temperatures and snow conditions.
Men’s downhill races cover 1,600 to 3.600 vertical feet depending on the age and skill of the racers. Downhill gates are set to follow the run and use the terrain so racers are generally skiing the fastest line on the run except when control gates are set. The Paralympic downhill will closely match last year’s Whistler downhill and this is an enormously fun race course.
Super-G is a little shorter and has tighter turns than downhill but it is still a high-speed event where racers can exceed 70 miles per hour. Super-G races typically contain 35 to 50 gates and descend 1,200 to 1,600 vertical feet. The distance between gates must be a minimum of 80 feet. Mens Super-G skis are usually 205 cm in length with a side cut radius of 33 meters. Super-G skis are very similar to downhill skis but are designed to make tighter turns. Super-G skis would not be sufficiently stable in a downhill and downhill skis would not turn sharply enough to work optimally in a Super-G.
Giant Slalom consists of very round and relatively tight turns. The best giant slalom skiers generally have the best technique. A giant slalom ski race consists of two runs where each run lasts for approximately 60 seconds and has approximately 45 to 55 turns. GS courses must contain a minimum of 45 gates and must descend 1,000 to 1,500 vertical feet. The distance between gates ranges from 30 to 60 feet. By regulation, a giant slalom ski can be no shorter than 185 cm and must have a radius of at least 27 meters.
Below is footage of Ralph Green, one of the most popular races on the Adaptive circuit, racing GS. Single leg skiers must be remarkably strong to complete the race courses. Just imagine making the runs you do today on a single leg. Ralph can leg press 600 pounds (I am not sure what type of machine).
Slalom has the shortest and quickest turns. Forty to sixty turns in sixty plus seconds. Slalom is very much like a boxing match where you throw forty to sixty punches at gates and make forty to sixty leg lunges. In other words, slalom is a lung burner where racers turn, react and recover as quickly as they are able. Slalom skis can be no shorter than 165 cm and there is no regulation mandating the side cut radius. World cup slalom skis typically have a side cut radius of 12 m. A slalom ski race consists of two runs where each run lasts for approximately 60 seconds, has 40 to 65 turns and descends 500 to 750 vertical feet. The distance between gates ranges from 10 to 20 feet with a maximum of 29 feet.
Below is footage of Alyson Jones racing slalom. Alyson is one of the best ‘three track’ (single leg) skiers in the world and she has flawless technique. Single leg skiers are very fast in slalom because they can run an incredibly tight line. Sitting skiers are faster than single leg skiers in downhill and Super-G but single leg skiers are definitely the fastest group in slalom.
Racers wear skin tight speed suits for all events. Racers wear no pads in downhill and super-G to increase aerodynamics and because we generally try to avoid hitting gates at 70+ mph because doing so can knock a racer off balance or cause a fall. Racers wear arm, lat, back, hip and thigh pads in GS. Shin and hand guards are used in slalom. Speed suit material has been regulated for at least 20 years so, unlike swimming, racers do not obtain an advantage via their suit. Suits are regulated primarily to ensure that the suits provide sufficient friction to slow a fallen racer.
Four different skis are needed because each of the four race skis are precisely optimized for their specific race. For example, a super-G ski would be too unstable to use on a downhill course at 90 miles per hour and a downhill ski would not turn tight enough to be effective on a super G. course. The same is true for Super-G, GS and slalom skis. A GS ski would be too unstable and too ‘turny’ in a Super-G and a Super-G ski would not turn quickly enough in a GS course.
Adaptive Ski Racing
This video is 10 minutes long but gives you a good idea of what a day of adaptive racing is like. It is enormously fulfilling for the participants. Intend to blog on this in more detail.
Adaptive ski racing consists of three categories: sitting, standing and visually impaired. Paralympic medals are awarded in each of these categories. The three main adaptive categories each have multiple subcategories as outlined below. Each subcategory has a time handicap that, like a golf handicap, is designed to enable competitors within a subcategory to compete with racers from the other subcategories. I am still researching the handicap system but it may intentionally be kept a mystery as none of the longtime coaches or competitors knows how the time adjustments are made.
I compete in the VI category because I have an eye disease named Retinitis Pigmentosa. RP is most commonly characterized as tunnel vision from the loss of peripheral vision. Macular Degeneration is the better known retinal disease that causes the loss of central vision. RP is a family of retinal diseases. At last count there are 47 known genetic defects that cause RP which means there are at least 47 kinds of RP. Essentially all forms of RP share the characteristic loss of peripheral vision. Most people with RP are legally blind by the age of 40 but many forms of RP cause blindness in children.
Please see the Retinitis Pigmentosa blog entry for more info.
Below is an overview of the adaptive racing categories. A typical Noram or World Cup ski race will consist of 80 to 120 racers. The visually impaired (VI) category has the fewest participants and I expect 15 competitors in the speed events and up to 50 competitors in the tech events at the Paralympics.
Visually Impaired Category
B1 - Totally blind. Racers are required to wear blackout goggles. B1's receive a 100% handicap (e.g. a B1 has 120 seconds to complete a course that a B3 completes in 60 seconds)
B2 - 20/60 acuity or <=5 degrees of peripheral vision. B2's receive a 10% handicap10% (e.g. a B2 racers has 66 seconds to complete a course that a B3 completes in 60 seconds)
B3 - 20/60 to 6/60 visual acuity or <=20% of peripheral vision. 0% handicap. I compete in this sub-category
LW 1 - double above knee amputation
LW 2 - single above knee amputation
LW 3 - double below knee amputation / cerebral palsy
LW 4 - single below knee amputation
LW 5/7 - double arm amputation
LW 6/8 - amputation or other disabilities in one arm
LW 9 - one upper limb and one lower limb disability
LW 10 - no functional sitting balance
- Class LW 10-1
1. Athletes with disabilities in the lower limbs, no upper abdominal function and no functional sitting balance. This is normally due to a spinal cord lesion around the level T 5/6
2. Cerebral Palsy with disabilities in all four limbs (functional classification) comparable to LW 10-1 a. (CP 7)
- Class LW 10-2
1. Athletes with disabilities in the lower limbs, some upper abdominal function and no functional sitting balance. This is normally due to a spinal cord lesion at the levels of T 7/10
2. Cerebral Palsy with disabilities in all four limbs (functional classification)
3. Comparable to LW 10-2 a. (CP 7)
4. Board testing point score 0 - 8 points (guide-line)
LW 11 - fair sitting balance
- Athletes with disabilities in the lower limbs and a fair sitting balance. This is normally due to a spinal cord lesion at the levels of T11 / L1
- Cerebral Palsy with disabilities in lower extremities
- Board testing point score 9 - 15 points (guide-line)
LW 12 - good sitting balance, incomplete paraplegic / amputation of the lower limb/s
- Class LW 12-1
1. Athletes with a spinal cord lesion or other disabilities with some function in the lower limbs and a good sitting balance
2. Board testing point score 16 - 18 points (guide-line)
- Class LW 12-2
1. Athletes with amputation of one or both lower limbs
2. Athletes with congenital absence or dysmelia of lower limbs
3. Amputation as described for LW4
4. Muscle weakness or paralysis in one lower limb with a maximum of 20 points (normal 40)
Racing with a Guide (written in 2010 so this is a little dated)
By rule, I must follow a guide on the race course. Given my limited experience following a guide, this is the number one skill I need to improve. My competitors have been skiing and training with their guides anywhere from 3 to 10 years. I, on the other hand, have not trained a single day with my guide. All I have done is race with them. Hopefully I’ll be able to dedicate dozens of days to training with my guide prior to the Paralympics.
Visually impaired racing is a team event and having a great guide and partner is essential to success. A guide sets the line through the course and makes speed adjustments to maintain the correct distance between us. It is also very beneficial for my guide to ski with great technique because I subconsciously mimic almost everything my guide does including errors.
My sight is now to the point where it is much safer to race downhill and super-G with a guide. The gates in downhill are far enough apart that it is unsafe for me to be searching for the gate by scanning the hill at 60mph to 75mph. What’s more threatening is my inability to see the small bumps, rolls and ripples in the snow. When in a tuck at 70mph, a modestly sharp 1" to 3" bump can lift my knees into my chest with sufficient force to knock me out of position or onto my back. Large rolls and jumps are easy to spot but the medium size rollers are hard to see and these can send me airborne, throw me out of position or cause me to crash. Following a guide is very helpful in these situations because I will subconsciously adjust my position as I see them absorb the terrain.
My first and guide for the 2009/2010 season was Slater Storey of Sun Valley, Idaho. Slater is an outstanding 24 year old racer who was working his way towards the US Ski Team when injuries interrupted his ascent. Slater took time from his multiple jobs to guide me at the final race of the 2007/2008 season and at the first races of the 2008//2009 season. Slater could only guide the first races of the 2008/2009 season because he is managing multiple careers at any given time including building ultra high end homes with his dad, serving on the Sun Valley/Ketchum fire department, cutting firewood with giant custom saws, making snow on Baldy (Sun Valley) and more.
I raced most of the 2008/2009 season with Megan Leirfallom. Megan was an excellent junior racer, is now a full time race coach in Colorado and is a coach for the National Alpine Ski Camp at Mt. Hood during the summer. Megan and I raced together at Winter Park, CO, Kimberley, British Columbia and at Whistler, BC and had good results.
The first thing I learned about following a guide is – not surprisingly – that I must follow the guide. Sounds obvious but, because I am accustomed to following the gates, I had to change my mindset, instincts and habit to focus on following the guide.
During my first race with Slater, I concentrated on the gates and line as if I were racing without a guide. This caused much difficulty because in one instant Slater would be in my line of sight on the race line and then in the next millisecond he would be out of my view as he swung wide to start a turn and then he would slash through my sight for a millisecond as he completed his turn. Sighting, losing and then reacquiring Slater was more than distracting, it actually caused the flight or fight adrenaline rush we all experience when a car unexpectedly cuts us off in traffic. Additionally, sighting and losing my guide caused me to not concentrate on the course but to instead consciously think of things like ‘where is he’, ‘am I on the wrong line?’ and ‘following a guide is tricky and harder than I thought’.
The second thing I learned about skiing with a guide is that continuous communication is imperative to good performance. And though continuous communication is critical to our performance, I learned in the first races that I can’t shout commands for more than about 30 seconds during a race at high elevation before my lungs catch fire. And 30 seconds before lung ignition might be generous.
To avoid the lung and leg burn experienced at the season opening races, I purchased Bluetooth headsets that are designed to enable motorcycle riders to speak to one another. These radios are remarkable and enable Slater and me to communicate very conversationally while racing.
Continuous communication while skiing has proven to be a surprisingly easy and natural skill to acquire. I do periodically forget to communicate when concentrating on the course, my turns and technique but I'm quick to use the radio when I need to communicate some sort of corrective adjustment. Somewhat surprisingly, learning to communicate with the guide is so natural that I have had the presence of mind to communicate that I am falling in the middle of a fall.
My instructions to the guide are rudimentary and essentially consist of “slower”, “faster”, “I'm in trouble”, and, hopefully the most frequent command, “good”. We have also had success when I communicate the distance at which I am trailing the guide.
Due to my lack of peripheral vision, I don’t have the course and hill awareness needed to know what gates are approaching. Slater will, therefore, inform me of special gates such as delays, flushes and rhythm changes. Without his instructions it is very easy to miss a gate or take a slow line. Slater also informs me of terrain changes and keeps me apprised of our course location. We name or number certain gates, knolls, compressions, direction changes, jumps and we establish a plan for how we will ski each of these special sections. Communicating as we approach these gates enables me to ski our planned line.
It will be critical to master the last thing I learned about following a guide if I am to beat my international competitors. I learned from watching the Canadians and Europeans last season that the optimal distance between guide and racer appears to be about half a gate length. I originally allowed Megan and Slater to ski a full gate length ahead. This is suboptimal because at one gate length I must regularly look away from Slater to check my position relative to the nearest gate and then I must reacquire Slater and find their line.
A half gate separation creates its own challenges because I must follow my guide by 6’ to 8’ in slalom and by 30’ to 40’ in downhill (which is much less than a half gate but is the optimal distance). In downhill where we are skiing at 60 to 80 miles per hour, we are traveling at approximately 100’ or more per second. Assuming I am trailing Slater by 30’ to 40’, I have most 3/10ths to 4/10ths of a second to react to their movements.
What Makes Ski Racing a Great Sport?
Why do people love skiing? Is it because they like driving two hours in the snow? Or because the sport is so inexpensive? Or because they love the comfort of their ski boots? The lodge food?
I think people endure the hassle and love the sport because few sports can match skiing for any of the individual characteristic below and none come close to matching skiing for this combination of characteristics:
• Sense of flying
• Sense of freedom
• Combination of grace and power
• Anaerobic max in less than 60 seconds
• Recovery with clean oxygen in a beautiful setting
• Social interaction with family and friends
As much as I like free skiing, I love ski racing even more. For me, ski racing is two to three times more exciting, rewarding and fun than free skiing. Ski racing is a steroid boosted thrill ride because the exciting aspects of free skiing are amplified and because ski racing adds: 1) pure, on the edge, eat nails, full-body aggression, 2) acceleration that throws you from gate to gate and 3) the fight or flight adrenaline rush of skiing on edge of crashing.
I love ski racing because I must attack the race course with full aggression. I must physically hit every steep, icy turn just like a linebacker hits a running back. Every course must be skied with ferocity or I will sit back and react to the course. I believe all racers feel this aggression but it does not display well on video; even the most aggressive racers looks smooth and in control.
For the speed events of downhill and super-G, exhilaration, adrenaline and fear can be amplified by another factor of two or three because ski racing may be the only (human powered) sport where helicopters are used several times per year to transport injured racers from the crash site to the hospital. Ski racers can exceed 90 mph and can fly over 200’ in a downhill and can exceed 65 mph in super-G. I haven’t watched either of these videos and will not do until after the Paralympics but they show the result of making an error in downhill:
Daniel Albrecht emerged from a coma approximately three months after this crash at the famous Hahnenkahm downhill in Kitzbuhel, Austria: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yqQUtJY_BVE
The Thin Line is a movie on downhill racing: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sDVOzSv-dAc&feature=PlayList&p=D215FE4CEB234571&index=99&playnext=2&playnext_from=PL
Modern Racing Technique versus the 1970's Racing Technique
To be competitive in the Paralympics, I will need to become more adept at the modern ski racing turn. The racing turn I learned in the 70's is not as fast as the modern turn for the reasons noted below. My competitors are much younger than me and they all ski the modern technique with varying skill.
Below are photos of Phil Mahre making slalom and GS turns towards the end of his career in the mid-80’s. For comparison, photos of Benjamin Raich are shown from 2009. In slalom, the most obvious change is that the breakaway gates permit racers to ski much closer – essentially over – the gates. Gates were made of bamboo in the 70’s and 80’s and racers had to brush the gates aside with their inside arm. If racers clipped a bamboo gate at the boot top as done today, the gate would frequently splinter and wrap around the racers boot and get dragged down the hill. The gate would eventually dislodge or the racer would fall.
As can be seen below, modern racers angulate more and run the course much straighter by keeping their upper body well inside the breakaway slalom gates and extending just their feet outside the gate.
Phil and Steve Mahre are considered by many to have pioneered the modern GS race turn and, as can be seen below, the differences between Phil and Benjamin Raich are relatively subtle. In the older GS turn, the upper body is kept in-line with the skis. This was largely done because skis in the 70's needed much tip pressure to be turned and because you frequently needed to skid the tails a little to sharpen the turn; both of which are a little easier to do when the upper body is 'square' with the skis . In the modern turn the upper body is counter-rotated and kept more in the fall-line. The inside ski is also not as far forward and is used more in the turn. Having the upper body in the fall line enables racers to angulate more and to initiate turns more quickly by rolling their upper body down the fall line.
For more discussion of the modern ski technique, please visit this website: http://www.youcanski.com/en/coaching/modern_technique.htm