By Pete Thomas
It only takes a single lift ride up Big Mountain, Montana, to realize the strong freeheeling presence. Manifested in wide, arcing turns down a face, powder shots in the glades or a dicey edge held precariously on a gated course - Whitefish, Montana reeks of telemark talent like no other place. Sure this is a lofty statement and perhaps one shot from the hip. My intentions are not to boast superlative claims but rather to rant on something great happening in a tightly knit tele community. And while I'd like to hype up all facets of the local freeheeling scene, it would be way too large a task to approach in a single piece. That said, if one observed the race scene in particular, it's hard denying the fact that the folks in the 'fish are quickly establishing themselves as the new stronghold for telemark racing in the United States.
The place is stacked! This ski season, Whitefish will be home to a majority of the members of the United States Telemark Ski Team. This includes Cody Thompson, Reid Sabin, Glenn Gustafson, Neil Persons, Jeff Elliot, Taug Bauschen and its most recent arrival, Chris Rice, from Salt Lake City, and currently the top-ranked U.S. racer and team captain. Since the team operates with no coaches, the local contingent benefits from a tight concentration of bodies willing to train together and share expertise. And despite a non-existent budget, the ragtag crew remains positive, collaborating in fund raising efforts to support the team. In return, they gives back by participating in local tele clinics and workshops.
Reid Sabin, Neil Parsons, and 1999 World Cup Champion Patrick Leapold at the 99 Big Mountain World Cup.
For many years, most of the U.S. Telemark Ski Team hailed from the Northeast. Consequently, most of the major tele events took place out east with Local series races in Colorado and Utah. Three years ago, Neil Persons began spearheading a movement championing Whitefish as a serious telemark scene, as he became the first Whitefish local to secure a spot on the team. His perseverance along with the support of other telemark advocates sparked a trend establishing Whitefish as a tele hub. The Big Mountain Events Department embraced telemark racing and in 1996 hosted its first USTSA sanctioned race, the Silvertip Classic. Groups of local racers and a strong Stevens Pass, WA posse boldly attacked the Classic course in -40 degree weather. Their lungs eventually thawed out, and the following season Big Mountain hosted the Northwestern Telemark Championships. By the spring of 1998, Big Mountain was hosting the U.S. National Championships and quickly becoming a worthy venue for big races. Racers began boasting their Classic course as one of the best in the world. At the same time, Whitefish locals began to move up the USTSA ranks as more sanctioned events took place in the area. In January of last season, Big Mountain hosted its first ever F.I.S. Telemark World Cup, proving itself an ideal international venue. The event was a resounding success.
As Big Mountain was gaining notoriety, the local racers became noticed as well. While touring with the World Cup circuit overseas in 98/99, Cody Thompson shocked the international scene receiving a silver medal in the Classic in Norway and a bronze in the Giant Slalom in Sweden at the World Championships. Reid Sabin also established himself as a threat grabbing the silver in the Classic in Norway and scoring additional top ten finishes in the World Championships. Chris Rice came up strong capturing the bronze in the Classic at Worlds. Perhaps the biggest news was the outstanding third place team finish at the World Championships for the U.S., ahead of Sweden, behind the triumphant Swiss and Norway. With victory so close, the team approaches this year with a clear eye on the prize. Asking Sabin about his immediate goals, he explained with a smile his desire to stand on the top step of the podium, a feat never achieved by an American. Persons has made his international mark with his success at the Canadian National Championships (a.k.a. the Hose Head Nationals) last year. In his appearance at Kimberly, B.C., he managed to grab the title as overall winner of the event with his first-place finish in the Classic and second-place in the Giant Slalom. Gustafson also found himself on the podium with a bronze in the Giant Slalom.
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