Ask the general public about telemark racing and they’ll look at you and wonder if you’re talking about some new competitive form of telemarketing. Ask many skiers about telemark racing and they give you: “Huh? I know about telemark. But telemark racing? I’ve never heard of that.” While telemark racing might be a fairly new concept, say about 30 years young, telemark skiing is the oldest form of skiing. It predates twin tips, fat skis, 210cm K2’s, the pro mogul bump tour, Alberta Tomba, Suzy Chapstick, Stein Erickson, the 10th Mountain Division, any sort of neon clothing from either the 80s or now, or Spread Eagles–skiing first began with a free heel.
Folks in winter climes have been sliding on snow on skis for a good 4000 years or so. It’s a good method of travel. In the 1870s a Norwegian named Sondre Norheim from Morgedal, Telemark, revolutionized the telemark turn. Instead of using skis as a method of travel, skiing became a sport and Sondre led the way with his curved skis, his telemark turn down a slope, his new approach to telemark bindings, and his enthusiasm for the sport. Essentially, telemark skiing is taking a pair of cross-country skis and applying them down a ski hill. Like a cross-country or Nordic ski set up, the heels are free to move. The technology with telemark skiing has a changed a bit–the bindings aren’t made of willow and people don’t typically wear leather boots any more–but the movement of the turn is still the same: the lunge down the hill. Some people say telemark skiing is like a dance down the mountain, and although personally it doesn’t always look like I’m dancing (I’m not that graceful) down the hill, telemark skiing does involve a fair amount of skill, technique and balance.
Telemark racing is kinda like its alpine counterpart with some major exceptions: while we ski around gates just like those alpine racers do with their fixed heels, our sport combines two other disciplines aimed at the heart of skiing–nordic jumping and skating. I’m hoping most of you have seen a ski race–either in person or televised, like during an Olympic year. So, alpine racers turn around gates and are timed on their runs. The fastest person down the mountain is the winner. For us crazy telemark competitors, we not only have to be the fastest down the mountain, we also have to (IN THE SAME COURSE) clear a set distance line on the Nordic style jump, land in telemark position (the back heel is lifted), continue to ski around the Giant Slalom gates, ski a 360 degree banked turn, AND end the race with a skate section. We do all of this in one race. Ski, jump, skate. On the World Cup level, there are these disciplines as well but they are their own, individual sport. There’s Nordic jumping. And there’s Alpine racing. Nordic skating is its own sport too. But with our free heels, it allows us to experiment a bit and truly test the most athletic limits by combining all three.
And that bit about being the fastest down the race course? Well that’s important but telemark racing is also a judged sport. Since the heel is free there tends to be some variances with the telemark turn and position and to make up for these variances, judges are assigned to watch each racer down the course to ensure proper technique. If you fail to make a turn in telemark position you’re assigned a penalty. The penalty? One second is added to your total time per penalty. There’s also a penalty if you fail to make the distance line on the jump (which can be, at the World Cup level, for the women a distance of 30 meters) you’re given a 3 second reward for your mistake. And, if you don’t land your jump in telemark position, add another second to your time. Races, in the world of telemark, aren’t always won by fastest (or “raw” time in telemark speak) but how clean you can ski your run. Conceivably you can earn a penalty for each gate and the jump. Ouch.
Sounds a bit complicated, doesn’t it?
It does and at times, a bit silly. But let me tell you that it is one of the best sports in the entire world. The competitors have to be strong, balanced, and fearless. Not only does a racer have to be well-versed in the art of racing around gates at high speeds, the racer also has to be physically strong to launch off a jump and then have some lung power left to charge through the skate section. Its demanding, very challenging and is a sport that truly demonstrates the athleticism of the racer.
So, its an Olympic event right? There are major corporate sponsors funding teams and athletes, right? Everyone in the world knows who Eirik Rykhus, Amelie Reymond, and the Lau brothers are, right?
No. No. And unless you’re involved in telemark racing you wouldn’t know that the telemark world is dominated by one tall Norwegian, an unbeatable Swiss woman and three French brothers.
To date, telemark skiing is not an Olympic event. For years, all of the countries involved in telemark racing have been making great efforts to bend the ears of the IOC with no avail. Our sport is not always spectator friendly (I don’t agree with this opinion) and apparently, we’re not television friendly because we’re too nice.
Yep, telemark racers are too nice of competitors and instead of demonstrating fierce rivalries between different nations, we actually cheer each other on at the finish, train together, offer advice and insight, eat meals together and have one hell of a party after each World Cup race series.
I once believed that the Olympics were staged as an international event bringing together athletes from all over the globe not only in athletic competition but also to demonstrate sportsmanship and unity. Telemark racing doesn’t need the Olympics to prove these qualities. The racers, without the hopes of an Olympic gold medal, still continue to pursue their dreams on the World Cup level. Telemark racing is an FIS World Cup sport and races take part in Europe and America (maybe Japan someday soon too!).
Stateside, telemark racing is actually run by a non-profit organization, the United States Telemark Ski Association. The US Telemark team doesn’t boast any major corporate sponsor (although our main sponsor is Montana’s Big Sky Brewery and that ain’t too shabby of a sponsor!), athletes aren’t fully funded nor is there a large cash purse or shiny new sports car waiting for them at the finish line. Our sport is run by a group of dedicated (and I mean dedicated) parents, volunteers, ex-racers and athletes: young and old. Our European counterparts do receive a bit more attention and funding but because our racers make their own path to the World Cup races, we also command a lot of respect within the global telemark community. Oh and back in the early part of the decade, we had a guy, a really nice and humble guy from Whitefish named Reid Sabin and he was the World Champion. Twice. We’ve had several other men and women compete on the World Cup level and have delivered podium and top ten results. We’re an impressive group and no one really knows about us.
I discovered telemark skiing three years ago and found myself racing at last year’s US National Championships all because a certain 5-time National Champion named Kelsey told me I could do it and it’d be fun. I believed her and it was fun. A year later, I’ve raced in three countries including Sondre’s Norway and I’m really proud to say that I claimed the bronze at this year’s National Championships in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. The racing was extremely tough and I sat in last place a few times in Germany and Austria. But, for those of you who haven’t been a part of this extremely nice community, you’d be amazed how tightly knit this group of competitors are. Telemark racing takes sportsmanship and camaraderie and elevates it to another level. The top racers in the world share tips with the newcomers. The competitors can be found at early hours before a race helping to set up the course and then at the end of the day, rolling up the orange safety net. At the end of the Classic race, the most difficult and enduring race, the previous racers wait in the finish area and help the next racer out of their skis because they are utterly fatigued to do so themselves. During the skate section, other competitors line up and ring cowbells and cheer loudly for their teammates, their competitors–the fastest and the slowest.
Perhaps soon, now that I can focus a bit more on writing as the racing business has come to an end, I can really put forth into words how incredible this sport is. It has changed my life. Sure, there’s tough competition everywhere you look and we all want to be winners in this sport but we all know that to keep the sport alive we truly have to act like Olympians, even if that means our sport will never receive the invitation to the official Winter Games.