February Memories

Posted February 1st, 2008

When I think of February, most of my memories are of skiing. As a member of the U.S. Biathlon Team I had the good fortune to participate in several Winter Olympic Games, in different capacities, but always in February. Although those Olympic experiences are unforgettable, I probably had more fun during the 15 years I participated on the Eastern Intercollegiate Winter Carnival ski circuit, first as a competitor for Middlebury, then as a coach at Dartmouth.

Fred Harris, who graduated from Dartmouth in 1911, is credited with founding the Dartmouth Outing Club and creating the winter carnival, which features sporting events and social activities that break up the long and cold Hanover winters. The concept was a success from the beginning. In the years prior to World War II, a young woman’s selection as Dartmouth’s winter carnival queen was equivalent to winning a national beauty pageant, while the skiing events routinely attracted the top competitors in the country. The years following the Second World War, when many of the collegiate skiers and coaches were combat veterans, instilled a sense of joy and camaraderie on the winter carnival circuit that survived several decades.
In the winter of 1965, as a freshman on the Middlebury Ski Team, I experienced my first winter carnivals. In those days there were few specialists; most team members were expected to be proficient in all four events—downhill, slalom, jumping, and cross-country. Typically, a college team might have a couple of Alpine (downhill and slalom) hotshots, as well as one or two guys who just jumped, while everyone else would be prepared to fill in where needed. This meant lots of scrambling to change clothes and gear between events.
Once, at the Saint Lawrence Carnival, a group of us had completed an inspection of the cross-country course and worked our way the top of the landing hill of the 50-meter jump, where our coach, Bobo Sheehan, was swapping stories with Saint Lawrence’s coach Bob Axdell. As we gingerly approached the massive, hard-packed knoll, jumpers rocketed from the takeoff just over our heads and sailed out of sight down the hill. We waited for instructions while the conversation between the coaches grew more animated. With a grin, Bobo called over to us, “Hey, boys, Ax here doesn’t think you can ride the landing hill on your x-c boards. I bet him he’s wrong!”
Although heading down the rutted, bullet-proof landing hill on
fragile, birch and hickory cross-country skis seemed like suicide, it
was clear to the Middlebury skiers that our participation was not
optional. Miraculously we all survived, although I have never been more terrified on skis. Bobo was in great spirits that evening, probably because Axdell would be buying the beer for quite a while.
The Dartmouth Carnival was always the premier carnival, partly
because of its tradition, and also because it garnered national
attention. Dartmouth dominated the skiing scene in those years, but at the 1965 Winter Carnival, Middlebury eked out a victory, an especially painful loss for the Greenies.
Following two days of hotly contested skiing events, the Dartmouth
Outing Club hosted a lavish awards banquet attended by several of the school’s administrators. Following a delicious meal and the
prerequisite speeches, the beautiful carnival queen was escorted to the impressive prize table, which was laden with gleaming silver medals, mugs, and bowls. Smiling regally, she prepared to hand out the hardware to the top competitors in each of the events, as her carnival date beamed with pride from the head table.
Gordie Eaton, Middlebury’s top Alpine skier, drew his teammates
together and whispered, “If you go up for an award, you’d better kiss the queen, or you won’t be riding home in our van!”
The first timid pecks on her cheek by Middlebury skiers were greeted with cheers from the other skiers, and soon every award recipient was planting a big smooch on her royal lips. Her Majesty was a good sport and seemed to be enjoying herself, but when Gordie bolted to the front of the hall for his third award, ignored the silver bowl, swept the queen off her feet and headed for the door, her date had to be restrained.
Then there was the Williams College Carnival tradition of racing
back from the cross-country event to the locker room for a steaming hot shower, followed by a sprint down the hall to the swimming pool for a skinny dip. This tradition became the stuff of legend when the naked skiers dove into the middle of an intercollegiate swim meet, but that’s a whole other story.

John Morton

John Morton is a former Olympic biathlete and Nordic ski coach. He lives in Thetford Center, where he designs Nordic ski trails. You can reach him through his website, www.mortontrails.com.