Each year fewer of them show up in North Conway, N.H., and even fewer get in the starting gate. But if they are any slower on their skis, you could not prove it by 41-year-old Sgt. Patrick Muir, who travels from Fort Drum, N.Y., to attend the annual Hannes Schneider Meister Cup.
"It's an eight-hour drive for us," said Muir, whose ski team races in the event, which raises funds for the New England Ski Museum. "But I would drive eight days to be with these guys. But I don't know how the buggers keep beating us."
"These guys" are veterans of the Tenth Mountain Division, the legendary "phantoms of the snow" in World War II who fought in the Italian Apennines to help break through Germany's "Gothic Line" and whose efforts eventually led to the capture of 20,000 enemy soldiers.
This history's grandeur seems to fade more and more each year, and of course the last thing soldiers want to talk about at social gatherings is war. But it is a time to check on friends past and present.
And it is time to do what many of these veterans have been doing for three-quarters of a century. Ski through obstacles -- gates, in this case -- with the same old grace and smoothness.
"We ski against these teams with men ranging from 82 to 90," said Muir, "and on skis they just whip our [butts]. It's not that we don't try to win. And now and then we'll beat one or two of them. But when we add up all the points, they still beat us."
After the war, Dick Wilson, who now lives in Grantham, N.H., taught skiing at Colorado's Berthoud Pass. The Tenth veterans actually "imported" the sport back to America, fanned out east and west, and provided the impetus for the explosion in popularity of skiing in America.
Wilson downplays the competitive aspects of his fellow veterans, many of whom have spent decades racing on master's teams, and some of whom still show up in their speed suits with racing skis.
"Basically this event is about the camaraderie," said Wilson.
The event is named for Schneider, one of the greatest skiing legends ever. Schneider's son, Herbert, who ran the ski school at Mt. Cranmore for years, is a Tenth veteran, and he still races with his fellow vets.
A native of St. Anton, Austria, Hannes Schneider taught mountain troops to ski during World War I, and then went on to teach some of the illustrious ski instructors of the generation, most of whom ended up in the United States in the post-war years. Schneider's approach was a litany: "Learn to control the skis and the speed will come later." But his goal was always to teach skiers how to break through to the parallel method as fast as possible. Sometimes, recalls Herbert, "It would take six years."
The arrival of Schneider to Mt. Cranmore was one of the biggest public relations stunts ever pulled off by promoters of the then-fledgling sport. Much of Schneider's story was known well before he arrived by train to North Conway, stepping off to ringing church bells, a band, and an archway of raised ski poles, held by 150 young student skiers.
Long before he arrived, people had read the story of how he had been jailed by the Nazis in 1938. Then, with friend and advocate Carol Reed promoting Schneider's train trip from New York City to North Conway in 1939, the locus of the skiing world around the New Hampshire resort town was ready to explode with anticipation.
The Meister Cup begins with a torchlight parade tomorrow night at Mt. Cranmore, and then Saturday morning with race registration at the 10th Mountain headquarters. Both teams and individuals register Saturday from 7:30 to 9:00 a.m., and the first run follows the opening ceremonies at 9:30. Between the two runs, there is an ice-carving competition, lunch, a silent auction, and vintage skiwear parade.
The afternoon run begins at 1 p.m., followed by awards at 3:30 and, of course, an apres ski bratwurst party at 5, along with dedication of the Tenth Mountain Division headquarters.
For more race information, call New England Ski Museum at 800-639-4181 or go to www.skimuseum.org