Young Gun: Mitch Gilman taking telemark racing by storm
February 14, 2009
BY DAVE REESE
A small group of skiers stands atop the race course under the orange glow of lights near Chair Two on Big Mountain.
Below them, two racers go head-to-head on the tortuous, dual-slalom course of about 20 gates set among deep, icy ruts. The starting official calls for the next racers, and 8-year-old Mitch Gilman, wearing a full-face helmet, shuffles up to the starting gate. "Racers ready … 3, 2, 1, GO!" the official barks, and the skiers are off toward the lights of the Flathead Valley, linking telemark turns through the icy course.
In this Thursday night telemark race league, young Mitch Gilman is a veritable David going up against dozens of Goliaths. Gilman takes on some of the world's top telemark racers who call Whitefish home. There's Reid Sabin, a two-time world champion, and six other members of the U.S. Telemark Ski Team.
There are about 85 men and women racers divided among teams who compete in the league each week. The seven-week season enters its fourth week tonight.
Mitch Gilman competes on the same team with his father, Jeff, who started his son telemark skiing two years ago. Mitch Gilman also competes in freestyle events on Big Mountain, and recently took a top place in the slopestyle event, doing tricks and aerials on his telemark skis.
ALTHOUGH HE'S only 8, Gilman is all business. He's focused on the race, having fun and not much else. On a recent ride up the T-bar before a race, I tried to pull a few quotes out of the little guy.
"So, Mitch, what is it you like about ski racing?" I ask.
"It's pretty fun, I guess," he says. "I just like going fast."
As soon as the T-bar ride is finished, Gilman is short on small talk and darts off into the darkened slopes toward the starting gate, stopping to hit a couple jumps along the way. His posture on his skis is solid and confident, an 8-year-old version of Tommy Moe, Whitefish's 1994 Olympic champion who won a gold medal in the downhill and silver in the Super G. (Moe was the first U.S. alpine skier to win two medals in the same Olympics.)
The Thursday night race league is geared toward being a community competition, with male and female ski racers ranging in experience from beginner to expert. Glenn Gustafson, a member of the U.S. team, said the league has been around for about 25 years in various forms. Although the competition is all about having fun, it's a great training ground for the U.S. team members, Gustafson said. "Any time you can get under a clock, it's good," he said.
Even when they're competing around the world, the Whitefish skiers always harken back to their Thursday night experiences. It doesn't matter if it's a World Cup race or the World Championships, "Every race is just another Thursday night race," Gustafson said.
And if they race in Europe on a Thursday, they feel especially fortunate. "Thursdays were always one of our favorite race days on the World Cup," Gustafson said.
Whitefish is a hotbed of telemark ski racers, and locals make up at least half of the U.S. national team.
Other local team members are Pete McMahon, Jef Elliott, Eric Lamb, Kris Carpenter, Neil Persons and Carrie Johnson. These racers will be traveling to Beitostolen, Norway, for the World Championships in March. The U.S. nationals are Feb. 24-27 at Schweitzer Mountain in Idaho. (The last world championships were held on Big Mountain two years ago.)
There are several other locals who compete nationally but are not on the U.S. team - yet. David Hobbs, 16, from Whitefish, is a former junior national champion who took sixth place in the league last week, and his brother, Willie Hobbs, 13, was 39th.
IN THE Thursday night league, racers are paired against the closest finisher to them in the previous week. For the team standings, it doesn't matter how fast you go: only whether you beat the person you raced against. Your team receives one point for a win. For the top racers such as Sabin, Gustafson, Carpenter and others, they generally end up facing off against each other each week, and the competition is heated - if not good-natured. Last week Gustafson, the 2003 Swedish National Champion, lost by only .08 seconds to Sabin, the first American to capture a World Cup and overall world title.
The Gilman father-son duo is a staple of the Thursday night telemark race league. Where there's one Gilman, the other is not far behind. The post-race awards ceremony at Moguls Pub can often include a bit of beer drinking and plenty of telemarker fellowship, and again Mitch Gilman gets to rub elbows with the big boys. He sits on the stool next to his dad, sipping hot chocolate and going over the race results. Other times they can be seen playing pool. "Dad, can we get going?" he asks anxiously, and the pair disappears before the party gets too late.
In a recent week, by luck of the draw, the two Gilmans were paired head to head. Jeff Gilman got the early lead on the steep, upper section, but his son caught him midway through the course and held a short lead before falling.
"I didn't think he'd be chasing me THIS soon," Gilman said on the ride back up the T-bar. "I thought I'd have another couple of years before he started beating me."