2019-02-01 / Features

Ready, Set, Ski!

Tussey Mountain Alpine Racing Team teaches kids how to go fast — and have fun — on the slopes.
Maggie Anderson | Photos by Matt Fern

As the sun sets over Happy Valley, things are just heating up at Tussey Mountain. Schoolkids are gathering for group lessons, the chairlift is running skiers and snowboarders up the hill, and the lights along the slopes are reflecting the white snow back out into the coming darkness. And over at the farthest end, past the lodge and the ski club and ski patrol, kids and parents are filtering into a green shack.

Inside Tussey Mountain Alpine Racing Team’s clubhouse, it’s hectic in a familiar, happy way. Head coach Eric Updegrove greets each person who walks through the door by name. They head to their cubbies and don thick socks, knee pads, boots, coats and helmets, calling to their friends and yelling out questions. “Coach, can I wear these sunglasses?” (No.) “How cold is it today?” (Very.) Then they grab their poles and head outside, stopping for skis in a closet lined with them, and they’re off. Practice is about to begin.

“On an otherwise small mountain, racing gives the kids something to work for,” says Updegrove, who has been with TMART on and off for 16 seasons. “The mountain was put here for ski racing — all the original owners had kids in the racing program. Over the years that’s ebbed and flowed a little bit.”
In recent years, it’s flowed quite a bit. This year, 82 kids are registered for TMART’s two youth programs — the development program for ages 6-12 and the competition team for ages 8-19 — and 14 coaches come out evenings and weekends to help.

There’s no formal start to practice, but everyone knows what to do. Coaches ride up the lift and come back down Tuscarora slowly, installing gates — the red and blue poles that mark where to turn — for tonight’s course as they go. Athletes file behind them, slowly working their way around the gates in wedge formation, pushing the slowing powdery snow away from the run so they can go fast.

“The best part of racing in my opinion is being in the gates and having an amazing run,” says Sage Newman, a 14-year-old in her fifth year of competition. “When you have a good run you know it’s a good run because when you get to the bottom, your heart is racing 100 miles per hour. It’s the craziest feeling ever because you feel like you barely survived it.”

Teenage hyperbole aside, the sport is relatively safe, and even more so with nets the organization, which became a 501c3 two years ago, was able to purchase through the Kelly Brush Foundation Ski Safety Grant.

“If we see a risk area or fall zone, we’ll just net that whole area,” says Updegrove, who notes the youth skiers top out at about 25 miles per hour in giant slalom. (Professionals hit speeds in the mid-90s in downhill.)

After the course is cleared of extra snow, athletes turn on the speed. At the base of the mountain, five coaches watch the skiers, noting areas to improve and giving individual feedback when the kids ski past, pausing to chat before heading back to the lift to do it all again.

Brennan Glantz, a coach who is both a father of two TMART athletes and a former TMART athlete himself, explains tonight’s course. “The basic left and right, they call that a rhythm section,” he says, pointing to a steady back and forth of red and blue gates. “A whole bunch of straight in a line, that’s called a flush, and the whole purpose of that is to change up the rhythm and add some challenge for the skier. There are some metrics like how far apart the gates should be, but each course is completely different, every night, every day.”

That’s something Glantz’s daughter, Kesley, likes about racing.

“You get to ski, and I love skiing,” says the 7-year-old. “And you get to run the course instead of just doing free runs.”

She says going fast isn’t scary, just fun, and though it’s her first year racing, she’s been skiing since she was 2.

“I got taught how to ski on my second birthday,” she says. “So my dad’s been teaching me to ski for a long time, but this is his first year being a coach and a parent.”

It’s also his first year being a master: That’s U.S. Ski & Snowboard’s moniker for competitors 21 and older.

“Some of us older guys just wanted to run gates again,” he says. “So we decided to give it a try.” There are 12 masters in this inaugural year; Glantz is hoping for 15 or 20 next year.

The masters were out earlier in the day, from 2 to 4 p.m. (“The sun’s still shining and nobody’s here,” says Glantz) and only practice twice a week versus the 18 hours a week the youth athletes rack up after school on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and during the day on Saturday and Sunday.

And that is not typical. Josh Lincoln, a coach and father of TMART athletes, attended a ski academy in Maine where he traded night skiing, which doesn’t exist in the same way in New England, for night classes.

“To race and train during the week, you have to train during the day, which isn’t conducive to going to school,” he says. “So it’s really hard to find a situation where you can have night skiing next to a big community. If this mountain was in New England it would be a gem.”

And it still is a gem for Central Pennsylvania. “Tussey Mountain as a whole really has a broad reach with national ski organizations,” says Updegrove as he runs through a list of former Tussey skiers who’ve gone on to bigger and better things. “We’ve had athletes in the Junior Olympics. It’s really cool going to other mountains and doing clinics with other coaches and staff and they ask you where you’re from and they all know Tussey. We have a reputation for growing good skiers.”

TMART coaches might credit that to the dedicated lane for ski racers, which is also not typical at other mountains. Early in the season, TMART uses part of Tuscarora, but when there’s more snow they’ll switch to the other side of a divider hedge and use a T-bar instead of the quad chair lift, making a lap for one skier as short as three minutes.

“Around here it’s all about repetition,” Updegrove says. But it’s more than that too. “It’s instilling good values in the kids, making them lifelong lovers of the sport. When they grow older and go out skiing with their friends, they can ski anywhere, any terrain, no big deal.”

They get to test out those skills on race weekends; nearby mountains like Liberty Mountain Resort, Roundtop Mountain Resort, Seven Springs Mountain Resort and Blue Mountain Resort host races for different disciplines (slalom, giant slalom) and age groups (U10-U19). Tussey hosts, too — this month the Tussey Mountain Slalom and Pierre Lallement Memorial Slalom on Feb. 16 and 17 — and the public is welcome.

“I have a U12 and a U16,” says Dave Fonash, a coach, parent and former TMART skier, “so we’re gone every single weekend through the middle of March. It’s a condensed, intense season.”
And it draws all kinds of kids. Some play other sports — football or mountain biking — and some aren’t interested in the competitive aspect.

“It’s a good fit for kids that don’t typically fit into those basketball, football, baseball roles, for kids that are into adventure sports,” says Updegrove. “Not all the kids race — a couple just love the social aspect, love coming out and skiing with friends.”

And through the State College Area School District’s Delta Program, TMART becomes a gym class for kids interested in something different. “That’s so cool,” says Updegrove. “I didn’t have that when I was in school.”

But he did have Tussey.

“I’ve been skiing here since I was 6 years old. I started teaching here when I was 15, and I was one of the youngest coaches in the state. They had to get permission from my parents so I could do the exam when I was 15. I love the teaching aspect but (at ski school) you get different school kids, different groups every week. Over here, I’m getting the same kids not only day after day, week after week, but year after year. There are kids that are racing on the Penn State team that started racing here. It’s really rewarding. You can put a lot into it and see a lot out of it.”

Courtesy of TMARTCourtesy of TMARTAnd Updegrove is always trying to put more into it. Though he’s working between 20 and 30 hours a week during the 10-week season, he’s meeting with the board and coaches year-round. He’s hopeful the new nonprofit status will allow for more benefits for his athletes, like money to buy equipment so the team doesn’t have to rely on Tussey as much.

“We’re fundraising so we can put another junction box in for power, so we can put another pump at the pond. We want to be able to make snow on the training hill independent of the mountain,” he says. “We love this little mountain, and we are trying to make sure that this little mountain stays here for a long time.” •SCM

What Is Alpine Ski Racing?

If you’ve watched the Winter Olympics, you’ve no doubt seen professional skiers hurtling down the slopes, making turns at blue and red poles with ease and grace despite their speed. But there are actually four different events within the category of alpine ski racing. TMART athletes compete in slalom and giant slalom as well as super G at state championships. Here’s how U.S. Ski & Snowboard ( defines the four events:

In the early days of alpine ski racing, athletes competed in only two events: downhill and slalom. Giant slalom was added in 1950 and super G in 1983. Downhill and super G are generally grouped together as “speed” events, with slalom and giant slalom grouped as “technical” events.

Slalom (SL): Slalom is a timed event requiring the execution of many short, quick turns through two different courses. Slalom is staged in two runs with times added together to determine the final finish order. The competitors are required to pass around all the gates (poles), which alternate red/blue in color. The course is made up of various gate combinations designed to test a skier’s skill and strategy.

Giant Slalom (GS): Giant slalom is characterized as the event that is the easiest to finish but requires the most technical skill to do well. Skiers race down the mountain through a faster and more open course than in SL. The vertical drop of the course determines the number of gates in a GS course. Giant slalom is staged in two runs with the times added together to determine the final finish order.

Downhill (DH): Perhaps the most exciting event in alpine ski racing is the DH. Racers attempt to record the fastest time during a single run on a course with a minimum number of control gates. Speeds in masters DH sometimes exceed 70 mph. Two practice runs on the course are required prior to the race. DH is the only event that requires practice runs prior to participation in the competition.

Super G (SG): Super G is the newest of the alpine events combining the elements of speed, as in DH, while integrating high-speed technical turns, as in GS. Super G is contested in a single-run format; courses are set utilizing terrain variations with the number of gates being a function of a specific percentage of the vertical drop.

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