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Amateur sportsField of Play: From the Rockies to Russia

Posted: Wednesday, January 30, 2013 | 10:38 PM

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CBC Sports Weekend host Scott Russell, centre, is accompanied by five lifelong friends on a dream excursion to Vail, Colo. (Photo courtesy Scott Russell) CBC Sports Weekend host Scott Russell, centre, is accompanied by five lifelong friends on a dream excursion to Vail, Colo. (Photo courtesy Scott Russell)

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CBC Sports Weekend host Scott Russell joined five lifelong friends on a dream excursion to Vail, Colo.
When I was a hockey-playing kid my father had only two bits of advice: "Be a good teammate," he urged. "And for goodness sake if it looks like you aren't going to make to it to the NHL find a sport you can do for life."

Wise words from a man who was often too busy professionally to pursue sport the way he wanted to.

And so it was that I found myself poised for the annual 'guys' ski trip.  It was going to have to be a quick one because last-minute arrangements for an exploratory voyage to the next Olympic city of Sochi, Russia had cut into my plans.
Still, the commitment to join five, lifelong, friends on an excursion to Vail, Colo., the quintessential American ski destination celebrating its 50th anniversary, was not negotiable.

Two days of skiing at the site of the 2015 world alpine championships to be staged in the Vail Valley, not to mention the home of World Cup superstar Lindsey Vonn, was not to be missed.

Even for an "aging athlete" and in spite of the fact that I'm beginning to question my ability to stay the course in a sport I've only seriously practiced in my middle-aged years, it was a no brainer.

We assembled at the gondola, which is at the head of historic Bridge Street in the main village of Vail.

In our other lives we appeared as, a broadcaster, an insurance executive, an international banker, a lawyer, a high school teacher and a professor of kinesiology. We had gone to summer camp together and first met about 45 years ago. These were the same fellows who were my swim instructors, my cabin-mates as well as the guy who first taught me about the ecosystem and how to paddle a canoe.

Fountain of youth

In our ski garb, we were suddenly young again, teammates and little boys all thrown into the same boat and ready for an adventure. The fact that some of us were retired and another was a grandfather did not come into play.

There was only skiing and the magnificence of the post-dawn rush on what was to be a bluebird day. It had snowed all through the previous night, and for the first time in what had been a lean season, Vail luxuriated in fresh powder.240-russell-small-02.jpg

The Tuesday morning lift lines overflowed as the faithful migrated 2 1/2 hours north from Denver, eager to undertake what was natural to them. Vail had been restored to its glorious self.

We were headed to the legendary "Back Bowls" led by the most proficient of our group.

"It's not often in life you get the chance to ski powder like this," he declared.  And then the three words you come to dread when you don't trust completely in your own abilities.
"Just follow me."

Up to an elevation of 11,220 feet we went. The landscape was breathtaking in more ways than one. The snow at the threshold of the peaks was unmarked as we became like the first explorers in a one-in-a-million day. The altitude was such that it forced a difficult flow of oxygen to the lungs.

Never mind, there wasn't a moment wasted as we were off in search of immortality and the unadulterated feeling of exhilaration that presents itself all too infrequently.

Menacing names

Before I had time to chicken out, we had dropped over a vast cliff into a basin which had runs with menacing names like "Dragon's Teeth," and "Chopstix."  I alarmingly realized that this was the first time I had attempted to ski on anything other than a nicely groomed "blue cruiser," marked by symmetrical, corduroy-like lines drawn in the snow.

It was too late.

My boards were sinking fast and so was I. But I heard the whoops of joy that the other trailblazers let out as they floated by. Snow flew all around me and my leader looked like a pro on his descent. I resisted the temptation to give up, partly because there was no turning back. Mostly though, there was no other way out.
But at the midway point, he waited.

"You're doing it," he shouted. "The skis will check your speed. Let them run!"

And so I did.

It wasn't pretty and once complete I wasn't overjoyed on the lift ride back to the top. Still, I had made it to the bottom and left a freshly marked trail on the face of the mountain where no-one else had been. It was an accomplishment to be sure.

"Now that you've done it, you'll be a hundred per cent better the next time out," our leader said by way of consolation. It went a long way toward easing the burning pain in my legs and the more hurtful bruising to my pride.

I don't know why I didn't give in to the overwhelming inclination to quit or to retreat to the easy slope on that morning. Perhaps it was the sound of my father's voice echoing in my head.  
"Be a good teammate and find a sport you can do for life."

Love of skiing

It was true, I wanted to be with the rest of the guys and I didn't want to give up on something which has been such a joy to me. I really do love skiing, and to think that there would be a "next time out" was tremendously encouraging.

In order to make my plane for Russia and the Olympic city I had to leave Vail a day early. Meantime my buddies, undaunted, had another crack at the "Back Bowls" and a rendezvous with the endless fields of play that the mountain afforded their aging but rejuvenated bodies.
On the bus ride back to Denver I got a text message from my friend, the one I have known the longest and the organizer of the trip.

"Thanks for the day comrade," was all he wrote.

These were the very same words we all said each night as the lights went out at summer camp those many years ago.

Nothing had changed.

In our love of this sport we were in it together and for the rest of our lives.

1 year to go

This Saturday Sports Weekend comes from the Olympic city of Sochi, Russia. February 7th marks the one-year out celebrations and the test events are in full swing. At 1 p.m. ET we'll have the World Cup short track speed skating event from the Iceberg Skating Palace. I'll be on site while Steve Armitage and Kristina Groves provide the play-by-play.

At 2 p.m. ET it's Hockey Night in Canada with Buffalo at Montreal.

Then at 5 p.m. ET, World Cup snowboarding has snowboard cross from Blue Mountain in Collingwood Ont. Featured are Olympic champion Maelle Ricker as well as Dominique Maltais of Canada. Brenda Irving and Tara Teigen have the call. We'll also provide full coverage of the one-year out anniversary from Sochi on CBC News Network.

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