Traverse City Record-Eagle

March 2, 2014

Not So Downhill From Here

BY NATHAN PAYNE npayne@record-eagle.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — THOMPSONVILLE — Barry Cook was certain that a lifetime of hard work, a hip replacement and 25 years away from Michigan’s slopes meant downhill skiing was out of his grasp.

Sure, he spent most of his younger winters gliding over powder-covered hilltops and cutting an edge on corduroy-blanketed valleys, but he hadn’t strapped on a pair of sticks for two decades.

“I was a little leery,” said Cook, 61, of Traverse City. “I thought it was out of reach.”

Cook worried that one fall — maybe even a minor one — could do irreparable damage.

That was before he met Rick Robb, a man on a mission to push retirees out of their houses and onto the slopes.

“I’m thinking, ‘Hey, somehow I’ve got to bring my friends back to the sport’,” said Robb, a veteran ski instructor and former National Ski Patrol member.

A life-long downhill enthusiast, Robb, 78, watched while careers, families and injuries pulled most of his friends away from skiing. The active ski instructor for Crystal Mountain grew tired of teaching children to ski while their grandparents sat sidelined from their once-beloved winter sport.

They were people who could be enjoying the activities they once loved, but needed a nudge to get moving.

Robb knows that story well. He nearly lost his ability to ski a few years ago when his knees began to surrender to seven decades of outdoor adventures. Then, in 2009, knee replacement surgeries breathed new life into his favorite pastime.

Fear of injury, up-front costs and need for instruction were issues for fellow skiers, Robb said.

That’s when he pitched his idea for the “Retired not Tired” ski program to Ron Shepard, director of snow sports at Crystal Mountain Resort and Spa.

The program, launched last year, offers skiers 50 and older cheap lessons, ski rentals and lift tickets Tuesday through Thursday during the heart of northern Michigan’s ski season. The price tag for a day on the snow is a mere $29 and after three sessions, members can buy a season pass for $42, Robb said.

The sessions include coffee, lectures and ski lessons. The first group hit the hills Feb. 6, 2013 with five members led by ski instructors — all of them older than 50. This year the club enlisted 68 skiers, Robb said, while club members piled into a hillside classroom for a recent pre-outing lecture.

Employing instructors who sometimes are more than 25 years older than their students gives the club a distinct “lead by example” attitude.

Karen Keranen stood in the middle of the room to talk about how to properly ski the fresh blanket of powder on the slopes that morning. Lines at the nearby lifts were short and snow conditions don’t get any better.

“The faster you go through the powder, the better you turn,” she told her students. “For me, that’s the thrill of a lifetime. What I want you to do is feel comfortable in your skiing.”

Keranen has been instructing skiers for 40 years and helped Robb usher club members onto the slopes in Benzie County.

Half cheerleader, half drill sergeant, Keranen shepherded the club toward the rental room and the chairlifts, with orders to meet her on the north side of the hill for some hands-on instruction.

“The first time we started, she put our boots on,” Bev Villo said with a grin toward Keranen.

She hadn’t worn ski boots in so many years, she couldn’t remember how to properly snug the tongue to her shin, she said.

“I hadn’t skied in 40 years,” added Peg Lawrenson. “We started out in the Totem Park where the kids are and by the end of the day we were on the chairlift.”

Many of the club’s members hadn’t worn skis since before major technological advances of the past decade, either. Those changes in gear made controlling skis and turning take significantly less effort, Robb said.

“They didn’t know how to ski that new equipment,” he said.

Michael Nowak, a former ski racer, sells skis and equipment at Boyne Country Sports in Traverse City. He often finds himself helping older skiers select new equipment.

“I tell people, when they come back to it, ‘You’re getting 20 years of technology in your first turn,’” he said. “If you can stand, you can ski.”

The shorter length and pronounced parabolic shape of modern skis make turning more intuitive and less physical, Nowak said.

“You look and you turn,” he added.

One of the club’s members flashed his new set of Rossignol skis at Keranen while she herded her flock toward the chairlift.

She looked down to the gloss-black skis and boots, then back to the man’s face. His white mustache poked out from under a pair of ski goggles and helmet.

“Well, let’s go try them out,” she said with a wide grin.