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On skiing

A trailblazer, in her own way

RESI STEIGLER Withstood mountains of grief RESI STEIGLER Withstood mountains of grief
Email|Print| Text size + By Tony Chamberlain
Globe Correspondent / December 27, 2007

BEAVER CREEK, Colo. - "No girls allowed on the Birds of Prey course," came the male voice over the radio in the race start house.

It may not exactly be Jock Semple and Kathrine Switzer, but nearly a decade into a new millennium, the old boys-vs.-girls-in-sports issue has raised its ugly head again.

This time we're talking ski racing. As in downhill racing, the fastest of the fast, roughest of the rough.

And we are talking the same attitude that Roberta Gibb encountered in 1966 when she snuck into the Boston Marathon and finished in an estimated 3 hours 21 minutes, beating two-thirds of the men, though, she recalled in 2006, "The thinking then was that women would be physically damaged if they tried running that far."

Whether anyone was worried about physical damage to US Ski Team ace Resi Stiegler on the Birds of Prey super-G course at Beaver Creek Dec. 3 is hard to say. But as the accomplished 22-year old ski racer from Jackson Hole, Wyo., got ready to forerun the men's course, the call came over the radio that she should not be allowed on the course.

A couple things to consider. Yes, Birds of Prey is one of the hairiest race courses in creation. For a comparative measure, think of Sunday River's White Heat as a green lollipop hill.

When it was introduced on a World Cup circuit at the 1998 World Alpine Championships, the ski press was invited to go up and take a look, doing a customary "sideslip" of the course -- not really skiing, but holding the edges sideways to the fall line and releasing little by little. I have done this on several race courses, but staring down the icy, 50-degree first face on Birds of Prey, well, it was a little hard to keep the emotions under control.

Now Stiegler may be young, but she's certainly well-tested, with top-five finishes and an Olympics to her credit. So when she was asked, and then later received approval to forerun the super-G course, considering it part of her speed training for the next week's women's races in Aspen, she was pumped.

And aside from the sheer coolness of the experience, she figured it would be good speed training for the Aspen races. After she got approval from the US Ski Team and FIS race officials, word got out and some of the racers scheduled for that day's super-G welcomed her to Birds of Prey. Not all.

Remember that forerunning is not some ceremonial favor, like the 17th man on an America's Cup racing yacht. Forerunners must be highly skilled ski racers who can put enough into the run to actually test the course for the racers, and no one seemed to question Stiegler's ability to do just that.

A fun-loving popular team member who has been known to race with small tiger ears affixed to her helmet, she was welcomed by several of the racers ready to ski after her.

Most of the guys, that is.

There is something in the male attitude about downhill races and race courses that just can't abide the notion of a "girl" sharing the same death-defying steeps. Just days before this race, World Cup defending champion Aksel Svindal of Norway received such severe injuries in a downhill training run that his season ended.

Granted, a super-G is not as fast as a downhill, but, as Stiegler told reporter (and former Olympic racer) Carrie Sheinberg, as she stood in the start gate there was sudden confusion, and a male voice on the radio (from below) saying, "No girls allowed on Birds of Prey."

Who said it is unclear, but other forerunners at the start, such as US Ski Team member Marco Sullivan, expressed anger that Stiegler was being denied her run -- the initial one of the day.

So as the confusion settled down, the no-go order was overturned, and before anyone could think much further about it, Stiegler flashed out of the gate and put on the show of her life, hitting speeds that surprised even herself.

In the aftermath, Sheinberg talked to World Championship medalist Lindsey Vonn, who put the issue in perspective:

"It's just boys being boys," she said. "They can't handle that chicks can ski down the Birds of Prey. I think it's pretty sweet. If I would have been there I'd have jumped right in there with her. She created some serious havoc up there."

And to Sheinberg's next question whether women should be allowed on the world's roughest speed tracks, Vonn said: "Give me a break. Female skiers -- we may not be men -- but I think we're pretty good."

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