By Bill McCollom
Let’s face it: NASTAR racers live in an alternate universe every winter. Ski racing, as well as nearly any other sport, can entrap us, make us slaves, inflate our egos, and decimate our brain cells. Before you know it, we are just hollow shells of our former selves with a 20-word vocabulary consisting of words such as base bevel, sidecut, powpow, rippin’, and dude. As our friends and spouses with other interests drift away, we soon find ourselves surrounded by quivers of skis in the basement, smelly socks in the corner and raccoon-eyed friends, who will cast their next presidential vote for Bode Miller. It may take a ton of TNT to loosen the grip of our respective sports, but as I discovered in a recent trip to “equine-world” and a North Carolina barbershop, it could be worth the effort.
Back in the days of college ski racing, I always appreciated the profound ignorance of the sport that so many of my classmates displayed. Most were dimly aware that the ski team was away somewhere racing over any given winter weekend, and the usual question upon return was, “So, how’d you do? Didja win?” I could have been second in the World Cup Finals, but if I didn’t win, the inevitable reply was, “Oh, that’s too bad. Let’s round up some girls and go down to the pub tonight.” It was the perfect perspective alignment device, the purest form of catharsis. If I’d done well, my soaring ego would be grounded in a flash, and if I had crashed and burned, I’d be instantly reminded that the scars will heal.
And so it was with a brief sojourn to visit my wife in North Carolina, where she winters with the horses that she is competing, training and purportedly “selling.” Southern Pines is a complete equine theme park and the entire horse world is present. Eventers, drivers, DQs (dressage queens), trainers, breeders, racers — it’s a horse-heaven for those with an interest in large, furry, four-legged mammals, who seem bent on self-destruction.
As with any community focused entirely on a special interest, there is a thin line between culture and cult. For example, I’ve long been aware that the equine world has its own language that’s indecipherable to all others and it’s spoken exclusively in equine-world. I have even mastered a few words and phrases; it’s called equi-babble. But in this milieu, I could very well have been in Kazakhstan for all I understood at dinners and social gatherings. Occasional equine-persons would see me staring off into space with eyes glazed and break into conventional English to inquire how the U.S. Ski Team was doing this year. But if my answer contained more words than fine, their eyes would shift as they looked for an escape, just as I’d be ready to eagerly explain the World Cup point system. Inevitably, I’d be left with my glass of wine, browsing the pictures in the eclectic variety of magazines on the table — The Chronicle of the Horse, The Practical Horseman, and Eventing Magazine.
This scene seemed vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on where I’d seen this type of obsessive behavior before, besides I was too busy searching for ski magazines to worry about it.
Shortly thereafter, with my hair looking a bit like Bob Dylan’s circa 1966, I bounced into a random Southern Pines barbershop and took a seat. But when I looked up, I noticed that the clientele were all talking basketball. I didn’t worry about the fate of my hair until my hair cutter stood for the longest time staring at the chaos on the top of my head with nothing but clippers in hand and a wide-toothed comb. But he proceeded to the task, making conversation along the way. All the surrounding chatter of Duke’s chances for the Final Four made it hard to hear, but when he asked me what I did, and I replied, “I write about ski racing,” the room immediately fell silent and everybody turned and stared, as if I were from an alien planet.
It suddenly dawned on me. I was witnessing parallel universes. With my all-consuming obsession with my sport, I had failed to recognize that planet-ski racing was just one of a million other planets out there with intelligent life. This particular trip had been an awakening of the type undergone by Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. And just like Scrooge, I found myself pleading, “Spirit, show me no more. I’ll change. I’ll no longer assume everyone cares about ski racing. I will no longer rehash my race runs to the disinterested in agonizing detail. I will see movies other than just those made by Warren Miller. I promise I will put away my copy of Ski Racing to engage in meaningful dialogue, and regularly associate with those who don’t own skis.”
Upon return home to planet ski racing, I was profoundly moved and I felt the urge to expand my limited horizons. I thought about signing up for a poetry discussion group at the library, maybe taking a class in step-dancing, and yes, I’ll learn to play the fiddle.
Yes, I thought about it, but decided it’d be much more fun to have the skiing gang over for a few beers and catch up on the skiing conditions. Hey, I’ve been away an entire week and there’s probably new powpow out there. And I’ll show them my new race stock skis, and we’ll talk about Bode Miller’s comeback. It’ll be awesome, and I can also explain what happened to my hair.
(This “Finish Line” column originally appeared in Ski Racing in 2004. For more of Bill McCollom’s views, find “The View From the Finish Line” on amazon.com. For more exclusive insights on courage and other athletic attributes, visit the Premium section of SkiRacing.com.)