By Chris Rueli
Coach A.J. Kitt (right) stands on the podium with women winners at NASTAR Eastern Championships held this past week at Okemo Mountain Resort.
By Karen D. Lorentz
A.J. Kitt, a four-time Olympic downhiller who helped bring recognition to the U.S. Men’s Team with his World Cup downhill, Super G, and Combined finishes in the late 1980s and 1990s, was at Okemo Mountain this past weekend as a pacesetter and coach for the NASTAR Eastern Championships.
NASTAR stands for National Standard Race. It was conceived in 1967 as a way for anyone (all ages, males and females) to compare their time to the best skiers in the world by employing a handicap system based on percentages (of differences in times posted) and the times of pacesetters. Most NASTAR races use a GS format but some have incorporated slalom in recent years so the dual format course depends on the resort hosting the race.
Having grown up in Rochester, N.Y., Kitt learned to ski at age 2 and raced NASTAR as a kid starting at age 6. He graduated from the Green Mountain Valley School, a top ski academy, in Waitsfield, Vt., in 1986.
“NASTAR is about having fun and improvement; for young racers it’s a way to get introduced to ski racing and move up in programs and Junior racing,” Kitt told The Mountain Times.
For Kitt himself, those racing programs inspired dreams to compete at the national and international levels.
At a time when Europeans dominated the racing circuit, Kitt became the first American male after Bill Johnson (Olympic Downhill Gold 1984) to win a World Cup Downhill. Kitt skied in his first Olympics at age 19 (Calgary, 1988) and took a 9th at the 1992 Albertville Olympics. He raced on four FIS Alpine World Ski Championships teams and competed on the World Cup circuit for 11 seasons. He won Bronze at the World Championships in 1993, took six World Cup podiums, and 21 World Cup top-ten finishes, marking an era when the U.S. Men’s Ski Team proclaimed its presence as a threat in Downhill.
NASTAR pacesetter and coach
Kitt has been a NASTAR pacesetter since 1999.
“A pacesetter sets the par time in a scoring system that is based loosely off golf and its par scoring system. Our system is similar; the par time at any course is established by a pacesetter who has a handicap based on racing the best in the world,” Kitt explained.
For 16 years, Kitt was the traveling pacesetter who raced at each resort. Now there are regional pacesetters who get together in the fall at Copper Mountain, Colo., and race against U.S. Ski Team members to establish their own individual handicaps. They then set a par time at NASTAR Regional Trials with each NASTAR host resort sending a minimum of two pacesetters who receive certified handicaps.
In addition to races at hosting areas nationwide, there are Midwest and Eastern regional contests, with national finals held annually in the West. This year the championships are at Steamboat from March 24-27, with clinics starting March 22.
Prior to the Eastern finals, Kitt ran a clinic at Okemo. “We had a five-hour race clinic with about 20 participants. We ran gates and in the afternoon did free-skiing drills and ran gates again,” he said.
Kitt noted that NASTAR clinics are offered at regional events and at pacesetter trials. Anyone can participate in the clinics which can be found on NASTAR’s website along with areas that host NASTAR races.
Asked what he likes about his NASTAR job, Kitt said, “I like teaching how to go faster and enjoy the interaction and communication with an athlete which is key to good coaching. I like to see an athlete get excited and try things I suggest and see them improve,” he added.
In addition to coaching and pacesetting with NASTAR, Kitt, who has three children back home in Hood River, Ore., coaches their race program.
Tips for racing gates
While Kitt noted that as a coach he watches “an individual and then offers suggestions specific to their skiing,” he shared these three tips:
- “A good start is crucial and racers should push off hard as it is key to going fast. Practicing the start is important and taking a lesson or getting some coaching can help.
- “Don’t sacrifice turn for tuck. This means don’t try to be in a low tuck all the time because you can’t really make good turns that way. It is more important to make a good turn. A good turn means you start your turn before the gate and ski tight to the gate.
- “Third, practice, practice, practice.”