Racing for the Sise Cup
These Veteran Skiers Don't Fade Away
Like slightly built pro football quarterbacks with bad knees, ski racers are not known for enjoying particularly long athletic careers. It's a physically demanding sport, better suited for teenagers and young adults who possess the resiliency and courage to bounce back from falls experienced at high speeds. Often peaking in their mid-twenties, most skiers are considered over the hill by the time they reach the comparatively youthful age of 30.
Contrary to what one might suppose, however, not all veteran ski racers hang up their bibs and boards after they've retired from the collegiate, Olympic or pro circuits. The thrill experienced when skiing through the gates becomes something of a fever once it enters the blood, and it hardly diminishes with the passing of the years. No, "old" ski racers don't die or fade away - they join the Al Sise Cup Series for veteran racers aged 25 years and older.
Established in the winter of 1970-71, the Cup gave an organized focus to the USSA-Eastern veteran's circuit that had been in existence for over 20 years. As more racers became interested in competing in fun yet competitive races, organizers began keeping track of the results on an informal basis. Finally, they developed a World Cup system of determining a season champion on the basis of points accumulated in at least eight of 16 races held throughout the season.
As veteran skier Brooks Dodge of Jackson noted recently, the circuit developed to such an organized extent that it was decided the series should be given an official name. Fittingly enough, they christened it after a colorful veteran skier who exemplified the notion of amateur skiing more than anyone else in the country, the legendary Al Sise of Norwich, Vermont.
An active ski racer even now at the age of 75, Sise's name can be found alongside other skiing greats such as Dick Durance's in racing results dating back to the first ski races held in the 1920s. When the Mt. Washington-Tuckerman Ravine Inferno Races were held in the 1930s, Al was there. He served as one of the first Mt. Washington Weather Observatory crew members at the time as well, and later worked on short wave radio projects as an electronic engineer. Although not exceptional in terms of his skiing ability, the adjective aptly describes Sise's character and enthusiasm.
"Al's quite a character, full of energy and just a great guy to be around," commented Brooks Dodge. "He's never been one of the best skiers, but he's contributed to the sport and kept at it over the years, helping out wherever he could. Everyone felt that we should honor him by naming the circuit after him." Wildcat ski area's Dick May concurred, noting that there are few other skiers - if any - who can match Sise's vigor. "I don't know anyone better than Al who embodied the old-fashioned idea of what amateur racing used to be about. He races for the pure love of the sport," said May, "and when he takes to the mountain, he really attacks the course. It's quite a sight." Veteran racer Bob McGrath summed up Sise's status among amateur racers with one strong statement. "Al Sise has probably been in more amateur races than anyone else in the world, and he's still going strong - he's the history of American Ski Racing."
More than anything else, the lesson that Al had taught other racers by example is that the sport of ski racing need not be the exclusive domain of young skiers. On the contrary, the 150-to-180 men racing on the Sise Cup circuit for 16 weekends every winter in New Hampshire and Vermont, and the 50-to-60 women competing on their equivalent circuit, the WES (Women's Eastern Series), amply illustrate that ski racing is a lifelong sport. Consisting of separate age groups for men and women aged 25 and older in seven-year increments, the Sise and WES Cups allow top-flight competitors to continue their active interest in quality ski racing.
While many veterans will note that the emphasis along the circuit is definitely on having fun, they also admit that the competitive edge bred into them through all the years of collegiate, Olympic, or even professional racing is still very much evident. Dedicated skiers all, many have been competing against one another as members of opposing college teams and now as veteran racers for up to 40 years, and the consequent rivalries that have developed in that time add to the racers' obvious overall enjoyment.
"The rivalries are serious, but sportsmanship dominate the competition overall," Bob McGrath noted while looking over the results of the first run of a Giant Slalom held on Wildcat's competition slope last Sunday. "None of us is going to slit our wrists if we don't do well, but we obviously all feel that there is some prestige to winning out there on the slopes. We're trying to show that ski racing can be a lifelong pursuit, and that you can keep on doing it well into your years."
McGrath didn't win in his Class III division Sunday, as Conway's Ned McSherry topped the field with a time of 98.63. The overall winners for the day was former Harvard standout Peter Carter (Class II - 96.48), followed by fellow Class II raced Mill McCollom (98.62), McSherry and former Norwegian Olympian Lasse Hamre in 4th with a time of 98.68. As the results show, the times turned in by the racers are more than respectable and are a matter of pride among them. Class VI racers such as Bob Middleton, aged 62, and Class V racers such as Arne Rostad, at age 57, finished the course with respective times of 110.39 and 102.02. In the Women's WES held on the same course, South Conway's Sue Fisher finished first (Class I) at 105.20, followed by Deb Carter (Class I) at 107.37, and Sue Clippinger (Class II) at 110.15.
Those respectable times are somewhat qualified by the fact that older racers are given an advantage over the youngers skiers in that they are allowed to race the course, first, before the ruts get iced in and rough. Despite that advantage, however, there is little question that the majority of the racers can more than hold their own on the slopes. As Class III racer and Sise Cup Veterans Commission member Gary Colwell stated, "The Eastern Sise Cup Seniors is the most elite of any of the eight USSA (United States Ski Association) divisions in the country, and I know, because I've been out West and raced there. These guys come from strong racing backgrounds for the most part, and some of the better older guys can still give the younger hot shots a good run for their money."
Colwell and other skiers noted that the older racers are particularly proud of their performances against a team called the Green Mountain Boys of Vermont, comprised of young skiers who raced on the Eastern B tour up until this year. When the World Pro Ski Tour virtually became non-existent this winter forcing many of the world's top professionals to compete for the lower purses along the Peugeot Grand Prix, the B skiers turned to the Sise Cup veteran's circuit. According to Colwell and last year's overall Sise Cup season winner Peter Carter, the Vermont skiers have been somewhat surprised by their encounter against the veterans. "I think that they thought they'd be able to come onto the circuit and blow everyone off, but some of the older guys such as Rostad, Harold Wescott, Barry Bryant, and Lasse Hamre have finished just seconds behind them," said Colwell.
Unlike the competitive, almost "cut-throat" atmosphere that exists among racers along some racing circuits, the Sise Cup series is characterized overall by a sense of camaraderie and support. As many of the racers commented while enjoying the fruits of victory at Wildcat's race building Sunday afternoon prior to the informal and lively awards ceremony, the pervading sentiment is more that of a traveling ski club where skiers share an enthusiasm for racing and the sport in general. Skiers often carpool to the weekend meets together, and cut expenses by staying at each other's houses.
"I raced in a veterans circuit in Colorado, and I find that the Sise Cup Series here attracts a more competitive field of good racers," commented two-year circuit member Ken Lubin, 28, of New York. Representing the Al Sise circuit members who don't have truly strong racing backgrounds, Lubin said that the supportive criticism given by fellow racers is another positive factor that sets the series apart. "I've been able to improve my skiing a great deal both from racing and also from the help that the other racers have given me by sharing their knowledge," said Rubin. "I always thought that as you got older, you got worse, but I'm finding that I'm skiing better every year now," Laughing about his third place finish among the I's on Sunday, Lubin added, "I'm already looking forward to how well I might do next year."
Owing to improvement in skiing equipment since their collegiate days, many of the older veterans agreed with Lubin's sentiment of not getting older but better. The reward for them is obtained in knowing that they're still competitive, active, and in surprisingly good shape. Receiving little more in prizes than a glass cup bearing the respective host ski area's name, it's simply a matter of enjoying the skiing life in the best Al Sise tradition - vigorously. Open to all Eastern registered skiers aged 25 and older, the series has increasingly become a family affair in recent years as the children of some of the older racers have followed in their racing parent's ski tracks. As Bob McGrath noted, ski racing no longer is merely the pursuit of young men - it's a lifelong interest.
"There's no reason to keep you from racing all your life if you take care of yourself and keep at it," stated McGrath as the rest of the ski crowd gathered to collect their respective awards at the race building Sunday. "Of course, we lose some of our older racers every year too, including Guy Greeley who died of a heart attack at the age of 75 this year while training for the first race of the season at Bromley, We all loved him - he was a wonderful guy, and we held a commemorative moment for him" McGrath continued. "But I think that if you asked anyone here they'd all agree that when the time comes, there's no better way to go. I think Guy probably would have felt the same."
Editor's Note: According to hid obituary, Al Sise died Oct. 14, 1991, of a heart attack at the age of 84. "He was preparing for another season of racing in an event that went from leather binding and soggy woolen pants to plastic and spandex in his lifetime."