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Skiing hits the big time

Posted: Friday, February 09, 2001

There are many things in the sports world these days that don't sound like a big deal, but actually are when the sentences are broken down carefully.

For example, there's the NFL interior defensive lineman who's "only" 6-foot-1, 275 pounds, which is "too small" to stand up to the rigors of a 16-game season.

There's also the good-hearted hometown athlete, who signed a contract for "only" $18 million dollars so he could return to his favorite team.

In the vein of those things that don't sound that special, but really are, is the following fact: Six J1/OJ skiers from the peninsula have qualified to compete for Team Alaska in the Junior Olympics in early March in Ishpeming, Mich.

Big deal, right? The statement doesn't exactly ripple with red-hot button words that grab attention. But once words in the sentence are explained, the results are impressive.

Let's start with "J1/OJ." I was never exactly sure what that meant, but I was pretty sure it had something to do with juice.

Turns out that it actually stands for Junior 1/Older Junior. For the most part, it refers to kids ages 17 to 20.

Next up is the term "Junior Olympics." Put junior in front of anything, and I get the connotation of "not quite as advanced as" the real thing. Think junior high school or Junior Mint.

Making dings worse as far as prestige is concerned is dat dey're holding dis ding on da Upper Peninsula in Ishpeming, Mich. Dere dey have, on display at Da Yoopers Tourist Trap, da world's largest outhouse display, da world's largest chain saw and da world's largest working shotgun. Not exactly dings dat make one dink Lake Placid or Salt Lake City.

Granted, the cross-country skiing Junior Olympics definitely is not as advanced as the Olympics. At the same time, they are the largest national championships sanctioned by the United States Ski Association. The best skiers there are the best skiers in the country.

Which brings us to "Team Alaska." In every other sport contested by high school athletes, this state's small population dictates that Team Alaska wouldn't have a chance of being top dog on the national stage. In sports like football or basketball, rarely is Alaska's best the nation's best.

But in skiing, things are different. Team Alaska wins the Junior Olympics with such regularity that the trophy for winning the event is called the Alaska Cup.

Despite competing against vastly more populated regions, like all of New England, Alaska has won six of the last 10 Alaska Cups. Skiers here overcome the population disadvantage with a climate and culture that encourages skiing.

Allan Miller, a Skyview assistant principal, grew up skiing in the state of New York and remembers fearing the squad from the Last Frontier State at the Junior Olympics.

"We used to dread the Alaskans coming down and kicking our butts," Miller said. "It's different (on the East Coast). If we had snow by December, we were having a great year.

"We had images in our heads of rugged mountain men and women skiing all summer on glaciers."

Thus, if a skier is on Team Alaska, that skier is one of the best the country has to offer.

Now to the final part of the sentence -- "six" Alaska skiers. Since Team Alaska includes at least 42 skiers, six may not seem like a big deal.

But the six -- Homer's Ida Martin, Soldotna's Andy Liebner and Brent Knight, and Skyview's Amy Lambe, Jacob Fellman and Adam Tressler -- are the largest contingent of skiers from the peninsula to ever make Team Alaska.

So, to sum up the previously encrypted statement, this year more peninsula skiers than ever have proven themselves to be among the nation's best.

This accomplishment speaks to a trend on the central peninsula over the last 12 years or so where school skiing programs and skiing trails have been growing exponentially.

In the winter of 1989-90, when Miller and Kenai Peninsula College professor Alan Boraas started the ski program at Skyview High School and Tsalteshi Trails behind the school, skiing was an afterthought on the central peninsula in high school and middle school.

Since then, thanks to broad community support, programs have spread to all of the central peninsula's high schools, the borough middle school ski tournament had over 150 students last year and trails have sprung up both in Kenai at Nikiski.

The result? Six J1/OJ skiers from the peninsula have qualified to compete for Team Alaska in the Junior Olympics in early March in Ishpeming, Mich.

This column is the opinion of Jeff Helminiak, the sports editor at the Peninsula Clarion. Comments can be addressed to clarion@alaska.net.



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