I’ve had the good fortune of competing in and covering back-to-back Nationals events, chasing an elusive podium spot while mirroring the wonderful people that make up the NASTAR experience.
This year nearly 1000 citizen racers, who qualified at public NASTAR courses all over America, came to Aspen/Snowmass with family and friends to celebrate alpine competition and culture. NASTAR operates on a handicap system that places skiers and boarders in categories by age and ability (bronze, silver, gold and platinum), allowing them to know their percentage faster or slower than other competitors and U.S. Ski Team national pacesetters.
For 2014, in addition to sharing the best of Colorado powder and sunshine, we skied and boarded with double Olympic gold medalist and NASTAR Ambassador Ted Ligety, who set the par pace times and hung out with junior racers.
Only weeks after he’d won his giant slalom (GS) gold medal in Sochi, Ted (who did NASTAR in his youth) showed his true commitment to U.S. skiing, standing on the other side of the podium to award medals to junior NASTAR competitors. Ligety’s contribution is another nod to greatness of Nationals, quite possibly the only competition where amateurs can simultaneously compare themselves to their peers and the best in the world, with the chance of receiving awards from Olympic champions.
Ted offered words of encouragement to junior racers: “For those of you who didn’t make it up here or want to go higher, don’t give up. When I was a little kid doing NASTAR I never imagined I’d make it to the Olympic podium, but I did,” he told the crowd.
Ted Ligety with a fan, Camara Photography
While Ligety directed his words toward younger skiers, he also managed to inspire an older-dude like me. I’ve been trying to make the Nationals podium for years in the gold and platinum divisions. On race day, Ted provided extra motivation when he showed up to paceset our course. Watching his line and angles real-time in a GS course is an inspiration -- making Ligety’s other-universe ski talents even more admirable.
Ted forerunning our course wasn’t the only thing that made day one a unique race experience. A vortex like snowstorm hit Snowmass just in time to deliver over a foot of new snow for my division’s two runs. I love to free-ski powder, but don’t have much experience doing it on race-stock skis in a GS course. Spectators saw more than a few crashes. I added my contribution of a head first catapult into a pile of white stuff after an outside ski caught one of the canyon like ridges sculpted by the two-dozen racers before me. Luckily, Nationals division titles are judged by a combined time from the best two runs of four. I put down one good run -– third fastest of the day -– that gave my podium goal a shimmer of light for day two.
As has become the norm, NASTAR Nationals delivers an overwhelming amount of awesome-stuff in and around the racing. U.S. Olympians Stacey Cook, Kaylin Richardson, and Steve Nyman signed autographs and gave race tips. Multiple alpine sponsor tents, like head sponsor Nature Valley, offered product demos and freebies. Technicians from Swix Sport, NASTAR’s official 2014 wax partner, gave free tunes to racers looking to shave every hundredth off their times. NASTAR’s stage showcased entertainment, like headline musician Lukas Nelson. And this year Nationals added a new slalom racing category to the normal GS discipline.
The main attraction and real hosts of NASTAR Nationals are its participants. They serve concurrently as competitors, spectators, and hosts. NASTAR racers come from all different backgrounds and abilities, each with unique goals. Some may be looking to drop several handicap points off last year’s bronze division ranking to make silver. Others may be gunning to win the overall Race of Champions as a platform for future World Cup podiums. Whatever it is, there are plenty of opportunities to reach new alpine highs in the race course, make mountain memories, and meet old and new friends.
I’ve made it a tradition to ski around Nationals with my camera to capture some of NASTAR’s unique culture and personalities. Here are some of the people I met this year in beautiful Aspen/Snowmass, including video of 13 year old Three Track racer Insha Afsar.
Insha’s story was one of the more unique I’d heard covering Nationals. I had the opportunity to shadow her the day she competed in the Race of Champions. From Pakistan, Insha came to the U.S. for medical treatment after losing her leg in a 2005 earthquake. She later learned to ski and race at Okemo Mountain, Vermont, before competing in her first NASTAR Nationals. Insha seems to truly love skiing and racing. She really shreds and carves with her three track set up, pulling away from me many times when we were free skiing. NASTAR’s Race of Champions was a good warm up for Insha’s alpine dream. She hopes to race in the 2018 Paralympics.
As for my NASTAR goal, on day two of competition I must have converted all the positive energy and camaraderie of Nationals into the course, adding one decent run to the day one to finally make the podium. I’ve always had a great time the years I didn’t make it. Still, after many attempts, an alpine medal awarded by Sochi Olympian Steve Nyman on the Aspen/Snowmass stage was definitely a new rocky mountain high for me. Just one of the many great experiences one can have at NASTAR Nationals.
For kids growing up near Minnesota’s famed Buck Hill, skiing is an extension of walking. Or so it would seem, according to John and Cathy Nida, whose children–(L-R) James (8), Lauren (12) and William (10) stepped into bindings shortly after their first steps. “We live near Buck Hill, so right after they learned how to walk the next thing was learn how to ski,” said dad. Lauren and William, doing their second NASTAR championship, were most excited about Nationals for the racing. Younger brother James was in it for the vertical, “I love skiing the gigantic mountains out here,” he said.
Lyta Foulk kicked up her heels at NASTAR Nationals. Not on Snowmass’s performance stage, but on her skis while winning the 2014 Telemark Race of Champions. While taking a break from alpine racing years earlier, the 15 year old Steamboat Springs native took up telemarking for powder and backcountry.
Lyta Foulk, SharpShooter Imaging
“Within a year I was telemark racing. I like to go fast,” she said. Foulk hopes to go even faster. She plans to race in The 2015 Telemark World Junior Championships and has aspirations to one day kick up her heels in the Olympics. Foulk and her family are part of a growing movement lobbying for the sport to be included in the 2018 games.
Ten-year-old Anika Prasad from Massachusetts decided to add snow sport to her soft water racing after receiving an invitation to compete in her first NASTAR Nationals. “My dad got an email on my way back from swim practice that I qualified. We thought if I registered I’d get a good experience.” Anika had run the NASTAR course at Wachusett Mountain and made Nationals for the 10 to 11-year-old bronze-division. She liked meeting the Olympic pacesetters and “the race starts,” where she had a goal to crack 30 seconds in the course. “Even though I didn’t this year, I’ll work at it. I am still happy I tried my best.”
Snowboarders Kaylie Neal (7) and Lilly Woodlief (8) shared friendship and goals of “going fast” and “getting better and better” in their races at NASTAR Nationals. The two, who ride at North Carolina’s Appalachian and Beech Mountains, credit their families for getting into snowboarding. Kaylie started snowboarding on a harness with her parents at 5. Said Lily, “Everyone in my family snowboarded, so I decided I wanted to board too.” Both girls won their divisions.
Kaylie Neal, SharpShooter Imaging
Kaylie, who also competes in USASA, showed how advanced alpine kids are these days. While interviewing the 7-year-old she worked in plugs for her sponsors.
"My NASTAR goals were to show up, race, and have a good time,” said 77-year-old gold-division racer David Hubinger. The Crown Point, Indiana native got into NASTAR 15 years ago, lured in for the challenge of racing. On his favorite part about Nationals, Dave couldn’t limit himself: “I just like the whole thing–all of it.” 2014 was his 5th NASTAR Nationals. And on making a 6th in 2015 “I hope so. If the good lord’s willing and the creeks don’t rise,” Hubinger said.
When Tami Bales gave her husband Gene ski lessons a decade ago, she never guessed it would lead to two Nationals podiums. “She was teaching me how to ski, I took a run alone, saw that NASTAR course and said, ‘Hey, I want to do that,” recalled Gene. “Of course, I could barely turn, crashed about every other gate, but had a blast and knew that I loved it.” This introduced wife Tami to racing, “He came down and said, ‘Guess where I’ve been. I raced in NASTAR,’” she said. “I’d never done that so I tried it. I taught him how to ski, he got me into racing.” The Florrisant, Colorado residents have since completed in 10 Nationals, Tami winning two division medals. Gene and Tami plan to keep racing in the family. Their future NASTAR goals are to coach their young grandsons in the sport next year.
Seven-year-old Aspen Haase, fittingly named for this year’s venue, got her dad into NASTAR. “She talked me into it and we race with each other throughout the season,” said Aaron Haase. The Colorado Springs locals skied as a father and daughter team for this year’s Nationals, where Aspen’s favorite thing was getting tips from Olympian Stacey Cook. She also likes NASTAR for “winning medals” in her 6-7 silver division. Aspen’s future NASTAR goals: “ to win lots of gold medals in the gold division.”