Column: “Uncle Larry’s Speed Suit”

Rocky Mountain News, April 23, 2007

Uncle, 68, inspires with his ongoing passion for skiing

This is the time of year when we receive a visit from my uncle.

“Larry” (names have been changed to protect the crotchety) lives in New Mexico, and he likes to ski race. Since the ski resorts close earlier in his home state, he makes the journey each May to Colorado to participate in a spring race camp at Arapahoe Basin.

In the first half of the last century, Larry, 68, was a podium regular on the Rocky Mountain junior circuit. In college, he raced for a top ski school. Then he decided to get serious with his life. He went to graduate school, got married, had kids, quit racing and resigned himself to being a weekend warrior like the rest of us.

While Larry might have hung up the racing skis, though, his competitive edge never dulled. It didn’t matter there were no gates to run; Larry was always trying to ski better. A family bump-run often was accompanied by the none-too-pleasant soundtrack of my uncle berating himself, in language not fit to print in a family newspaper, for making an inferior turn.

Over the years, Larry got himself a reputation for his on-slope exclamations. When we got walkie-talkies in the late 1990s so we could communicate better on the slopes, we gave each other joke CB handles.

Mine was “Chainsaw” (don’t ask). My brother’s was “Duckfat” (he’s crazy for the foie gras). And Larry’s was “Uncle (F*%$).” He never fully accepted this handle. But even he had to admit it was sometimes accurate.

Thank goodness Larry retired from his day job so he could finally devote himself to improving his form.

It started with pine boughs. While the rest of us were searching for powder, Larry was busy breaking off evergreen branches, lining them up on the side of a groomed slope, and running mock slalom gates to get his race-form back.

Then he started attending race camps. He got a new pair of super-fast Rossignols, traded in his ’60s A-frame stance for the Bode Miller uphill-edged gorilla-power-move (I mean that in the speediest sense of the phrase) and started ripping.

Soon, he was mopping up on the New Mexico Corporate Cup. With his age handicap, any team he was on was guaranteed to win. That wasn’t enough for Larry. Ask him how a race went, he’d say “lousy” – sure, he had won his age group by a monumental margin. But he didn’t just want to win the 65-plus category, he wanted to beat 30-year-olds.

He needed something more. Something that would make him faster. So he got a speed suit.

I’ve never seen it (he won’t let any of us see him wearing it), but from what I hear, it’s red, form-fitting of course, with black spiderwebs all over it.

He doesn’t wear it all the time, but he does wear it for races, and for training camps like the one he plans to attend in early May at Arapahoe Basin. Perhaps his high-tech getup won’t shave a ton of time from his finishes, but imagine what it will do to the competition.

Sure, I mock him, but my uncle’s passion is an inspiration to me. Larry’s gotten quite a bit hairier in the 45 years since he last ran gates, but he hasn’t gotten a whole lot slower. At 68, he takes eight-hour trips to attend race camps with skiers one-fifth his age. And he squeezes into a speed suit just so he can shave a few hundredths of a second off his race time. That, my friends, is dedication.

So if you happen to be at A-Basin this spring, don’t be surprised if the first red flower you spot in the high alpine is my uncle Larry, in his speed suit. All that time spent in lycra at the training camp will, we hope, help him prepare to take on more formidable competition next season on the Rocky Mountain Masters circuit (there are no Masters races in New Mexico, so he will have to travel to Colorado to get his fix). And I will be there cheering.

When I see this man approaching 70, still so thrilled to challenge himself on the slopes, I hope I am seeing myself when I am his age. Still fired up. Still ripping. But maybe not so hairy. And definitely not wearing a speed suit.