On February 23, 2022

Camaraderie: a lot has changed in the culture of ski racing

By Merisa Sherman

I don’t know where memories of the U.S. Pro Tour came from in my mind. I guess I’m just stuck on ski racing these past few weeks. Even though I freaking hate ski racing. Maybe I’m changing my mind?

But the memory was unshakable: These guys were absolutely nuts and so ridiculously aggressive that I think they were literally growling at each other. There was no other way to describe it. These were some of the biggest men in ski racing and they were here, in Killington, to take on the Outer Limits trail at Killington. I mean, they were physically huge. They weren’t the spry young guys whipping through the slalom course on the World Cup.

This was the 1992 U.S. Men’s Pro Ski Tour and these were men out for blood — and money.

It was like Nascar on skis, with sponsorship badges everywhere, autograph signings and more smack talk than I had ever heard before in ski racing. The classic padded slalom pants and slalom sweaters, replete with classic Spyder webs, were covered with ads for cars and beer companies. You wondered if the fencing was there to protect the athletes or just to hold the sponsorship banners. It was a made for television madhouse.

And the madness didn’t stop there. There weren’t any friendships being preserved here or supportive hugs at the finish line. I remember my dad telling me that one of the Mahre brothers even came out and said “I am a Has-Been. These other guys on the tour …they’re never will be’s.” This was the ski racing I grew up with. This was war.

From the round of 32, the men would ride the BMQ over and over again and race a dual panel slalom with two pro style jumps until there was only one man left standing. Unlike the rest of the stops on the tour, this one would be classic East Coast: steep, icy and a true testament of who was rugged enough to survive the dog fight of head to head ski racing. If you thought a Great Eastern Downhill was aggressive, you were in for a big surprise.

We watched some amazing skiers get absolutely wrecked on the steep icy terrain of the East Coast. You didn’t ski out of this course, you went cartwheeling into the air after hooking a tip on one of those unforgiving panel gates — one guy snapped his forearm in half and another sliced his calf open and had to get stitched back together. We watched guys fly into the other lane, taking out their opponent. There was no love lost here between the men on the tour. This was ski racing at its core.

I stood in line to get Bernhard Knauss’ signature on a poster even though I had absolutely no idea who he was, but neither did he because he spelled my name wrong. He was a Slovakian who had DNF’d in Giant Slalom, his one event at the 1988 Olympics in Calgary. Like many of the other skiers on the tour, his World Cup Career generally sucked but he would go on to be a multiple champion of the Pro Tour. I don’t know if he was actually ginormous, but it felt that way to me. He was absolutely terrifying.

The real excitement was the winner: ”native” Vermonter Felix McGrath. He fit Mahre’s comment perfectly: A five-time U.S. National Champion, he was probably more famous for his 1988 Super Bowl commercial for Alka Seltzer Plus. He had one podium during his entire World Cup racing career, but having grown up in Vermont he was more than familiar with the icy slopes of Killington. That win, plus a few other strong finishes, would get him named Rookie of the Year for 1992 and top American for several after that.

It was definitely an event to remember — even though the internet doesn’t seem to. Try googling the U.S. Men’s Pro Tour and see what you can come up with. Having been disbanded in 1999 (one can only imagine why), it was rebooted in 2017 with a more made-for-TV-Olympians-on-Ice kind of feel. I see more smiles than growls in this new version, which really demonstrates how far ski racing has come in the past 30 years.

The ski racing world I grew up in was harsh and I couldn’t wait to retire from the sport. In fact, I quit USSA racing not long after watching the Pro Tour. We didn’t say “good race” to the racers from other mountains. We barely said “congratulations” to our own teammates. It was a different time and it’s wonderful to see the hugs being given in the finish corral in this new age of ski racing. I watch the athletes support each other, wish each other well and actually be friends with even their closest rivals. It’s amazing to see how far we have come in the ski racing world and it’s only getting better.

Now, if we could just get the Pro Tour to come back to Outer Limits … there’s nothing more thrilling than some dual panel slalom action!!

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