by J.D. Downing
Earlier this season, several incidents in the Pacific Northwest caused me to reflect on how many times each ski season Masters skiers have the chance to either move our sport forward or take it several steps back. Increasingly, I have to admit I'm worried that we are seeing far too much of the latter and not enough of the former. I'd like to help change that.
Last year, I dedicated an entire column to Masters becoming proactive instead of complacent when it comes to big-picture issues such as climate change and cross-country-ski resiliency in an increasingly complex world. I still firmly believe we all need to become really creative and very involved in these way-bigger-than-just-cross-country issues so as to have a chance to prevent our sport from muddling on through the coming years. But this season, I'd like to also advocate that Masters become much more knowledgeable about things closer to home.
Let's start with ski areas. There are many Masters skiers around the world who do not bother to learn much, if anything, about the actual management or operations at the places they ski. I'm not just talking about casual skiers who go out a couple times a winter; I'm talking about hardcore Masters who ski triple-digit days each winter.
You get into a conversation about, say, grooming, and all you tend to hear is how horrible the grooming is at one place and how wonderful the grooming is somewhere else. But what you almost never hear is an objective evaluation of the particular challenges versus opportunities that different ski areas face. Snow and weather, economic realities, management control, and so on all play a vital role in the daily end product we see as skiers.
What I'd like to see is more Masters actually taking the time to learn something about the unique equation their local ski areas face each winter. Buy your local ski-area manager a hot or cold beverage and just sit down to chat – preferably in the late season when skiing activity has quieted down. Or better yet, suggest that the ski area offer a late-fall public presentation overview on its operations. Quite recently, I've seen a couple of talks about cross-country grooming very well attended, proving that Masters are interested in these topics.
Developing a broader understanding goes beyond ski areas to ski retailers, ski-education programs, race organizations and regional/national/international associations. I'm not saying every Masters skier needs to be a 365/24/7 expert on all things cross-country. But I do believe that taking the time to learn even just a little bit more about everything we can in our sport makes a powerful difference to the good.
Regarding retailers, as a customer, it can really help if you understand the paper-thin margins of cross-country sales worldwide. Everyone loves a good deal, but a knowledgeable Masters skier understands that the only way to can get a great price on new skis is actively helping the cross-country industry to sell more new skis to new customers. If we take the position that it's someone else's problem to sell ski gear, then we'll get the continuing contraction and consolidation of the industry that hurts grassroots development and product innovation worldwide. Conversely, when I just occasionally talk up the benefits I see with this or that piece of gear, I'll help people and businesses from the local to international level that ultimately pay my efforts forward by making our sport stronger.
In the same vein, if we take the time to really understand local, regional and national ski-education organizations, we can much better decide where, when, and how our time, money and other resources are best allocated. I'm on roughly 100 ski-related mailing lists, and in the last couple months of each year, I am urged to donate money to literally every one of these entities. In my case, what's particularly funny is that I'm also out there, hat in hand, for several ski organizations myself!
Taking the time and making the effort to become more knowledgeable allow more Masters to make a grounded decision when it comes to how to allocate resources. You'll make better decisions regarding which battles to pick when issues come up. Knowledge also allows you to become actively involved when consolidation and greater cooperation with different groups is the smart thing to do.
With race organization, basic knowledge that provides constructive feedback is the gold-medal standard for a racer, versus a scenario where a racer just whines and complains. Once again, if you take the time and make the effort, you'll learn why decisions are being made. You'll also discover the areas where your input will produce better outcomes in the future. When it comes to racing, volunteering is often the best way to become educated. With winter as short as it is, sometimes you just need ask some questions and obtain some background before you launch into your latest “this is what they should be doing” thesis.
Finally, regional/national/international associations unquestionably need more Masters to care enough to find out more. Since I'm leading both entities now, I'd like to think that both the U.S.A. Masters association – American XC Skiers – and the World Masters XC Ski Association do at least a decent job at providing good information to any skier who pays attention. But it always helps when skiers themselves are actively seeking more knowledge about what their representative groups are doing on their behalf.
We have a wonderful sport, yet it can only stay that way if every Masters skier makes even a small effort to keep our future bright and snowy.