Ski Team, Waxing

In the north country of New Hampshire, skiers from Dartmouth, the current NCAA champions, reign supreme, while the Green Mountains are home to the University of Vermont ski team, another perennial powerhouse. On the intercollegiate ski trail, Harvard has lagged behind such competition for decades. Even though the Crimson typically field the best college team in the Boston area, the squad, which finished ninth among 17 colleges in the Eastern Intercollegiate Ski Association (EISA) last year, has strained to keep pace with top-funded programs to its north and out west.

 But 29-year-old Tim Mitchell, now in his second year as Harvard’s head Alpine ski coach, vows to turn that around. “I’m rebuilding the entire program from scratch,” the soft-spoken, caffeine-driven coach says. “The word is out.”

Mitchell is reviving a Crimson program that had been in disarray—lacking a coach and adequate training facilities, and running a deficit. He’s attracting top young skiers to an urban—and woefully flat—setting. In the big-mountain-dominated cosmos of skiing, recruiting for Harvard is an uphill battle, so to speak, but one that Mitchell is starting to win.

Photograph courtesy of Harvard Athletic Communications Office

Tim Mitchell

His credentials help. A five-time all-American racer at New Hampshire’s Plymouth State University, Mitchell has been near the summit of the brutally competitive, dangerous world of Alpine (downhill) ski racing. He has also fallen to its depths.

His coaching career took off, quite literally, by accident. In the winter of 2003, while cranking out a high-torque giant slalom turn in an elite race at the Sunday River ski area in Maine, Mitchell broke his back. The painful crash into an unyielding race gate ended his ski-racing career. (He does, however, compete as a pro bicycle racer and at amateur skiing venues like the night league at Wachusett Mountain Ski Area in Princeton, Massachusetts.)

For many summers, Mitchell had mentored young athletes on the glacier at Mount Hood, Oregon, the mecca of American ski racing, so after his injury, he threw himself into coaching. He was an assistant coach at Brown in 2004-2005, and then enrolled in the University of Utah’s master’s program in exercise physiology. At Mount Hood in the summer of 2006, racer Matt Basilico ’08, then the ski team’s de facto coach, recruited Mitchell for the open job at Harvard.

Unfortunately, tragedy would soon set back the team’s fortunes. Starting in 2005, ski-team alumnus Nicholas Rhinelander ’88 became chair of the Friends of Harvard Skiing and quickly turned a $60,000 deficit into a $250,000-to-$300,000 annual operating budget, on par with the top teams. But this past April, Rhinelander died in a car accident after a day of spring skiing at Sugarbush, Vermont. The team banquet, traditionally a joyful end to winter, turned into a requiem for him.

Yet Mitchell clung to his goal of catapulting Harvard into the realm of the top Northeast NCAA Division I programs that forgo athletic scholarships—like Dartmouth and Williams—and into the top five in its EISA league. His strategy involves seeking out young racers who might have had a bad year or a serious injury, but who have outstanding potential. And his contacts in the obscure circles of junior ski racing have paid off, netting two elite recruits from the ski boarding academies that turn out the nation’s best racers: Chris Kinner ’10 from the Green Mountain Valley School in Waitsfield, Vermont, and Margie Thorp ’11, from Salt Lake City’s Rowmark Academy. “When I got here, I was really excited to see Tim,” says Kinner, a former New England junior slalom and grand slalom (GS) champion from Greenwich, Connecticut. “He’s just got so much energy he’s put into the program. He knows people in the business.”

Mitchell, who inherited a squad dominated by walk-on athletes, hopes to field a fully recruited team within four years while bringing along talented lower-tier athletes on a development team, as Dartmouth does. And if Harvard Square has no mountain vistas in sight, there are decent local training spots close by at the Blue Hills Ski Area in Canton and at Wachusett. The team also does preseason training in Canada alongside national teams.

NCAA Division I ski racing is one of the highest levels of ski competition in the world. Alpine and Nordic (cross-country) racers make up a single team. Each college fields men’s and women’s Alpine and Nordic squads, with each squad starting six athletes per race. The top three finishers in each discipline score team points that add up to the total team score.

College Alpine racing features two events: slalom, in which competitors snake technical, tight turns around closely placed poles, and the more open GS, which demands equally precise but much larger arcs down a 200- to 450-meter course (measured in vertical drop). Nordic athletes vie in “classic” races, characterized by the traditional running-stride action of cross-country, and in separate races utilizing the modern “skate” technique that resembles ice-skating.

Photograph courtesy of Harvard Athletic Communications Office

Peter Graves

Harvard’s Nordic coach, Peter Graves, is working with Mitchell to build a cohesive team. Their first concrete step is a newly opened, enlarged ski-preparation and training room at 145 North Harvard Street, near the Stadium, where team members can sharpen and wax skis, mount bindings, and undertake physiological training and testing, such as performing cardiopulmonary exercises while monitoring their blood-oxygen levels.

Graves, 55, now in his sixth year at Harvard, is an eminence in both Nordic and Alpine skiing. A former cross-country racer at Fort Lewis College in Colorado, he is a well-known television commentator and announcer for World Cup and Olympic events. “I learn so much more about Alpine by talking to Tim, and he’s got such an outstanding background in physiology,” Graves says. “We’ve got a very good vibe going between the two squads. Over time, we’re really establishing Harvard as a player.”

~Shaun Sutner

Shaun Sutner is a reporter for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

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