Mark Sperling, assistant director of the Snow Sports School at Whiteface Mountain Ski Area in Wilmington, N.Y., shows Monica Shellenberger, of Lake Placid, N.Y., the proper technique during her first lesson in Whiteface's "Parallel from the Start" learn to ski program, in this Dec. 9, 2003, file photo.
AP Photo/Todd Bissonette/FILE
WILMINGTON, N.Y. Stephanie Ryan never gave downhill skiing a thought, even though she lives in the Olympic village of Lake Placid in the heart of the Adirondack Mountains.
"I really didn't care about it," said Ryan.
Then she heard about the ski school at Whiteface Mountain.
In the past seven years, the school has taught thousands of people to do what once was unthinkable parallel ski in a single day. And at Whiteface, no less. The mountain, which hosted the 1980 Winter Olympics, looms majestically over a vast icy valley of forests and lakes and boasts the biggest vertical drop in the East at more than 3,400 feet.
"We can teach a monkey," said Ed Kreil, the ski school director who devised the Parallel From the Start program. "It really is that easy. I have seen people who can barely walk or see become avid skiers. People over 70 learn how to ski."
The secret lies in using short skis only 3 feet long and no poles.
"Fifteen years ago, half the lesson-takers usually quit before the first lesson was half-done," said Kreil, a native of Germany. "The problem with most people is that ski shops put them on too long of a ski. People have to learn to cater down to shorter skis. More people would have fun if they experienced a shorter ski.
"Our learning is fun-related," he said. "All you're going to see is smiles on people and it never stops."
One day last winter, Ryan and two friends all in their 20s and not a skier among them joined instructor Mark Sperling at the base of the mountain for their first lesson.
Sperling, who helped developed the program, is adept at making his pupils feel comfortable right from the start. After helping fit them with the proper boots, it's off to the snow.
"Everything we do will be safe. If it's not safe, we won't do it," Sperling reassures them, squinting under a bright winter sun and standing atop more than three feet of new fallen snow.
The simplicity of the lessons only adds to the program's appeal. They cost $75 a day up to $315 for five days.
"I'm going to ask you to do things you've been doing your entire life, and I'm not going to ask you to put your body in any position that you don't do," Sperling promises. "Just stand in your natural position, and if you feel you can jump, jump and land on your feet.
"Now, what I want you to do now is stand up straight. Perfect posture. Here's the technical part. I want you to flump into your boots. That's it."
When flumping, for the uninitiated, the knees are a little bent, the shoulders a little rounded.
"Our posture ain't quite so good, but it's pretty relaxed," Sperling says.
So far, so good.
"That's it," Sperling says. "That's all I'm going to teach you right now. Let's just walk."
The class makes its way up a small hill and sits on four wooden benches. Sperling asks them to imagine holding a couple of glasses of wine, all the while flumping in their boots.
"I'm just going to let gravity and the snow take me," he says as he slides down a slight incline and makes a parallel turn.
Ryan follows, smiling widely as she slides into a turn holding those imaginary glasses.
"Did I tell her how to turn?" Sperling asks. "She's moving to the head of the class. All I wanted her to do was to go straight and she turned."
Classmates Laurie Besanceney and Monica Shellenberger follow and easily make the same turn.
"You've been out here just three minutes and you've just perfected an open-stance parallel turn. I love this job!" Sperling says as Ryan shrieks with glee. "We guarantee that with everybody who skis with us, and we've never had to pay off that guarantee."
It was different when Kreil first strapped on a pair of skis nearly 50 years ago.
"I think it took me 10 years to learn open parallel turns, no lie," Kreil said. "This program is going to get you to the top of the gondola skiing Little Whiteface in three lessons or less."
This group is right on schedule. No longer harboring the initial trepidation they felt when they arrived, the three hop aboard the "dreaded" chair lift and climb higher for the next lesson.
Sperling asks them to imagine squeezing a sponge with each knee as he explains that skiing happens from the knee down.
"Watch me get shorter," he says. "Squeeze the sponge. Now we've got to fill it up with water, so we kind of relax a little bit. Now, we squeeze the other sponge, knee going forward, shin pushing against the boot."
Less than an hour later and after only a few harmless falls, they have learned how to stop, master the S turn, realize that the body will follow the eyes on the slopes, and the safest part of a trail.
"As you ski and progress around the mountain, you will learn that the best snow is on the side of the mountain," Sperling says.
"So, we're going to ski the side of the mountain. We're not going to ski out where all the crazy people are skiing, who don't take lessons and don't know how to turn."
This class completes the two-hour lesson by skiing gently back down to the base lodge, smiling at every turn.
"There are other mountains where they're still teaching parallel skiing from the beginning," Sperling says. "And it isn't like we're saying we're better than anybody, but this method, you can see how quickly these three just learned."
And became hooked.
"I didn't buy their claim that I could ski that well that quickly," Ryan said. "I'm a believer now."
"I'm getting my season pass next year and going all out," added Besanceney, who went back shortly after her lessons to ski six more times last season, even making it down a black diamond course at Whiteface.
"Because of the program, I progressed so much I feel I can do anything now," she added.
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