Friday, February 17, 2012

Masters of our universe


Watching Anna Droege run a giant slalom course is a lesson in flawless technique and rhythm. Weight forward, edges perfect and arms soft, she navigates the gates set on Baldy's Cozy ski run with ease, grace, power and speed.

As a decorated member of the Sun Valley Ski Club race Masters, Droege trains three days a week, free skis on the off days and competes on weekends, all alongside husband John. But according to Droege, she still has a lot to learn.

"I was 42 before I saw my first gate, but once I started I just loved it," she said. "It's a daily challenge to learn better technique. When you're free skiing you turn wherever you want, you slide and slip around. When you're running gates you have to make every turn as perfect as possible."

Dedicated and slightly compulsive racers are hardly a rare sight on Baldy. So what sets the Droeges and their cohorts apart? Life experience. Anna is in her early 70s. John will be 90 this summer. The Ski Club Masters range in age from the young pups in their 50s up through senior statesman John. But age is hardly slowing down this core group of 40 racers who have trained together for more than 20 years.

"With this group you have older racers with the competitive drive of 20-year-olds," said coach Christian Pravda with a laugh. "They like the technical aspect of racing, they like the equipment and fiddling with their boots. They bring a real passion to the sport."

That passion is evident in Anna Droege's sparkling eyes and John's wide smile when they talk about ski racing.

"We started with the Polebangers (local adult racing group) in 1983," Anna said. "At that time, there was a long wait list for adults wanting to get into race clinic. There was a real need for it. Pete and Susie Patterson were our coaches. Dick Dorworth started the program. I loved it immediately."

When they fell in love with racing, they made a commitment to the sport that still gets the Droeges to the hill nearly every day. And yes, you could say they are competitive.

"Our house is built with broad beams," said Anna. "When our children were young and racing with the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation we put their plaques and medals up on the beams. Then we started adding John's and mine. There are quite a few. We are going to have to go into the downstairs soon. All the space is taken."

They take their equipment as seriously as their training.

"I wax the skis," Anna said. "John tunes."

Added John with a smile, "We are very, very particular about our equipment."

Being on the podium is important to the Ski Club Masters. And they work extremely hard to win all that hardware.

"Sun Valley arguably has the best and most successful Masters race program in the world," said Nick Maricich, a Sun Valley SnowSports program director and coach. "The participants make it successful. They train year-round to stay fit. They watch videos of their runs and go to ski camps to train. Anna, John and others in the group are the best ski racers in the world for their age classes. It's an amazing group. Their enthusiasm on the hill transfers to all that they do."

"It's a challenge to learn better technique," Anna said. "Our lift rides after runs are spent dissecting each turn. We trust each other implicitly and are happy to hear constructive criticism."

During the season, they compete on weekends in Montana, Wyoming and Utah. They go to regional, national and world competitions and earn more than their share of medals. In contrast to teams of younger shredders, they don't travel on buses and their hotels are generally nicer than those the students stay in. Masters racers share meals and stories on these trips. But it always comes back to analyzing every run.

Maricich said, "What they are chasing is that perfect run, where mind, body and environment are all one, when everything aligns as if by magic. It keeps them alive, keeps them young at heart and makes them happy. What else is there?"

"I wouldn't want to miss a day of training," said Anna. "Training is good for the mind. On each run, I have to think about what I'm doing. It is a passion."

Forget whiling away your golden years in warmth and comfort. To this group of amazing skiers, the ultimate way to spend a winter day is carving a perfect turn around a gate and feeling that magic moment when the world is just right.

Feeling inspired yet?

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