Hands forward, face downhill, wiggle your toes, breathe.
I ran through the list of reminders for better skiing as a field of seven women and I traversed soft snow on Sugarbush’s Snowball on a super-sunny March day.
As we did our best to make our smooth, linked turns down the intermediate trail, we prepared for our moment in the video spotlight. One by one, Mary “Bear” Simmons recorded our attempts, each of us trying our best to execute all of the tips we had heard so far that day.
Our group, dubbed the Graceful Goddesses, was made up of intermediate skiers, ranging in age from mid-20 to mid-60. We were part of 25 women participating in a two-and-a-half-day Women’s Ski Discovery Camp, a supportive, but challenging, program for intermediate to excellent skiers.
As I readied for my turn to be videotaped, our group’s instructor, M.A. Raymond, said to me, “Can I tell you something?”
I nodded, skied over to her, and braced for some tough criticism.
Instead, she proceeded in a slow and deliberate voice, “Ass. Up. Baby.”
With her effortless skiing, raspy laugh, long blond pigtails, and impossible level of zen, M.A. is the perfect mix of Picabo Street, Janis Joplin, and the Buddha. She was nothing like the impatient ski instructors I have met in the past.
I liked her immediately.
After she shared her “ass up” advice, I started laughing, as I heeded one of what was to become many of M.A.’s memorable isms. Ass up! Every time I skied past her, I remembered to get my butt out of the back seat and put it where it belongs. In three words, M.A. conveyed the solution to one of my biggest skiing flaws, and she did it in a way that was humorous, so it stuck. I’d start to sink low in my seat and remember: Ass up baby!
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It’s these kinds of revelation moments that the Women’s Ski Discovery Camp was designed to create.
Begun 18 years ago, the goal of the yearly camps is to “provide a fun and informative ‘instructional vacation’ to intermediate to advance skiers,” said Simmons, director of Women’s Programs.
Last year, 25 women participated in the camp, which combines informative seminars, on-ski instruction, gear demos, and social opportunities.
“By providing an atmosphere that is both encouraging and challenging,” Simmons said, “the WSD ensures that each camper gains skills, confidence, knowledge, and new friends. We also strive to engage and clearly communicate with each camper by providing instructors who have a wide range of backgrounds and teaching philosophies.”
The camp includes breakfast, lunch, the opportunity to try new gear, prizes, and instruction with former US Ski Team member (and frequent Vermont Sports contributor) Lisa Densmore. Groups separate by skill level for on-ski instruction, but meals, indoor instruction, and stretching sessions are communal.
There are a number of reasons why this camp is successful. Sugarbush has a lot of interesting terrain for intermediates, so improving skiers can learn without doing the same few runs over and over. The instructors are all excellent skiers who teach with warmth and patience. The program a financial investment (nearly $500 without lift passes), so the women who are there are so because they really want to be, and they want to get the most out of their lessons.
The supportive environment fosters trying something new—maybe it’s moguls, maybe a race course, maybe a first black diamond run. While the instructors don’t push you to be unsafe, they do help with confidence to get to that next level.
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One of the highlights for me was trying the race course—skiing in and out of flagged gates, Lindsey Vonn style. OK, not even close, but you get the idea.
Those gates are much closer to each other when you’re up top at the start, and you really have to make sure your legs are ready to respond. I was quite intimidated, but rather than feeling pressured out of pride to get going, I had cheers and “you can do it!” from the women in my group. I took a few gates too wide on my first attempt, but on the second attempt, I had a little victory of not missing a gate. That was a big piece of confidence I tucked away in my memory, and now, a year later, when I’m feeling unsteady on my skis, I remind myself of that successful run.
Other women felt the same about Women’s Ski Discovery Camp.
Laura Ward, a 47-year-old production manager from River Vale, N.J., has been skiing for 30 years, but had never taken a formal lesson before the Women’s Ski Discovery Camp.
“I needed to see what I could do to improve,” Ward said. “I knew that a lesson at a local slope probably wouldn’t cut it, so I decided it was high time to learn from some experts. Besides some great skiing and conditions and a nice minivacation, I really learned a lot. Our coach, M.A., was awesome and perfect for our group, very caring, so knowledgeable, and she really made it a lot of fun. Everyone was very supportive of each other, and it was a great two days.”
Ward said Sugarbush made the logistics easy (she stayed slope-side, and campers were allowed to keep their gear at the resort overnight, to cut down on lugging). “I liked the fact that we were all together both days, rather than just a few hours and then everyone going their own way. I think it’s important to do some bonding with your group.”
Another aspect Ward appreciated was the videography. “Video feedback is always humbling,” Ward said, “but so helpful.”
Susan McGrath, 63, of Coral Gables, Fla., took up skiing later in life as a way to spend more time with her sons and grandchildren. She joined the 2011 camp.
“I signed up to improve my skills,” McGrath said. “Learning to ski in your early 50s is way different than when you are younger: lots more thinking, less automatic!”
McGrath said she loved the clinic as well as the instruction from Raymond. “I feel I have become a better skier, and the best part is that I met an amazing group of women of all ages from other cities. The groups were small and grouped to ability.”
That the camp is for women only was important to McGrath, who said she didn’t feel pressured to “attack” the mountain, but instead, as Raymond put it: “feel the mountain’s energy.”
“Women are nurturing, and I felt nurtured and supported,” McGrath said. “That was the best part. And,” she added, “we got to do the race course at the end!”
2012 Sugarbush Women’s Ski Discovery Camp
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