So, here we go. Winter is coming, the ski racing calendar is gradually filling out and an actual ski race is going to be held this weekend. It’s really starting, kind of, we think, at least in Europe.
In North America, it’s a different story. The Canada/US border is still closed to travelers, so the NorAms are on hold, and the collegiate season just took another step towards the penalty box with the NESCAC canceling winter sports. Junior programs need to conform to state laws so participation will fluctuate, contingent on the COVID tracking map. With so much TBD, we need to massively shift expectations for the 2020-21 ski season. This might not be the worst thing for the sport, and it might even bring significant benefits.
Amidst all the discussions about development this summer, one comment keeps returning to me. It was from coach Jim Catalano who is not alone in noting that skiing and ski racing, like other youth sports, has become overly programmed and complicated. As Catalano put it: “Over cooking the meal makes it hard or undesirable to eat. I think we are over cooking skiing.”
I knew exactly what he meant, and I sense that frustration with so many people who were drawn to the sport for its ruggedness, and constant drive towards innovation, be that in making or finding snow, in negotiating suboptimal living and/or skiing conditions, in tweaking or cobbling together gear, or even in figuring out how to navigate treacherous roads to get to the mountain. Skiing, which used to be an unscripted adventure now feels like a curated cookie cutter “experience,” with ski racers resembling perfectly (and very expensively) dressed gingerbread people.
It’s kind of refreshing, then, to realize that this season will be anything but cookie cutter, and it calls for a rough-around-the-edges philosophy to match. With props to former Dartmouth skier and big-time ski racing supporter Ken Graham, I suggest enlisting the “Whoa Doggie Jam.” If you’ve ever come into a flush or over a roller too fast and in the back seat, and had everything coming at you at warp speed, leaving you no time to overanalyze and just enough time to pull of something, anything, to get through, you’ve lived the “Whoa Doggie Jam.” On a ski course or off, it is the unpredictable and uncontrollable chaos of maneuvering outside your comfort zone, whether by choice or by circumstance. That’s what this season has felt like so far, and I see no signs of that changing. Hence, the importance of embracing the WDJ.
I went to Graham for a deeper analysis of the WDG, including its provenance and real world application. It all started with a particular NCAA Dartmouth carnival GS run, where Graham ran an irresponsibly straight line down the Worden’s pitch (in the back seat to add some flair), and rather than dumping speed before the flat to assure a finish, squeaked it out and landed a career best run. “I guess you could say I improvised, went with it and somehow made it work,” says Graham. When his teammate asked him what the hell happened on that run, he described that he got late on the pitch and “kind of did the Whoa Doggie Jam to pull it off.” The term stuck, and broadened to encompass an attitude on and off the slopes.
As Graham explains further, “The Whoa Doggie Jam is probably similar to what somebody might call today a “full send” attitude…but it’s also about creativity and just daring to do the unexpected.” It is about taking calculated risks; it is not about staying disciplined and within oneself at all times. It’s Franz Klammer flinging himself down the mountain in Innsbruck, Bill Johnson taking a course detour in Wengen, Julia Mancuso scrapping through a blizzard in Torino, and most of the Italian women’s team most of the time. “In skiing Bode is the absolute epitome of high level Whoa Doggie Jam,” Graham explains, rattling off any manner of audacious Miller moves, from weaponizing K2 Four recreational skis into race machines, to fence-skiing on the Hahnenkamm, to one legged DH in Bormio, to…take your pick from the Miller highlight reel.
The most memorable athletic moments are not about perfect turns or perfect games. They’re about creativity and turning the unexpected into greatness. For the sake of your blood pressure, you may not want to live your entire life in the WDJ zone, but you want to know you’ve got it in you, that you have enough swagger or confidence or chutzpah or just plain curiosity to go for it and trust that you’ll figure out how to deal with the consequences.
Graham extends it to a life philosophy that can go well beyond ski racing. “The WDJ life approach may be something as simple as you and your buddies taking your prom dates to the diner when they’re all gowned up for the black tie sort of place, but everybody having a blast. In bigger matters, it’s taking a job that might be a big career risk in a city where you don’t know a soul…. and going on to have an awesome life and work experience and making friends for a lifetime. Or maybe NOT having the best life experience, but what the hell, nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?!”
The unavoidable downside to the Whoa Doggie Jam is that playing outside of your comfort zone invites all kinds of ways to blow up and blow out. But even that can turn into a win. I was reminded of this last weekend, when talking to a club coach about this season. We talked about the wildly unequal training and racing opportunities, from the club level on up to the international level, and the reality that few athletes will have the luxury of showing up to a race feeling entirely prepared. He likened it to taking a flush backwards and being faster…or maybe not being faster, but learning some interesting new moves.
If you are looking for a perfect program, ideal preparation and a well-crafted race schedule, you might want to hang out on the cookie sheet this year. But if you’re looking to challenge yourself by making the best of whatever comes your way, and you’re in to some improv, this is your year. This unscripted season may set the table for feats and moments of unexpected greatness, whether in the form of results or experience. At the very least, it will foster creativity, and reward those who pursue ski racing for their pure love of competition and the sport.
From the start of the COVID shutdown we saw pure WDG at work, with kids suddenly in charge of their own programs, building rudimentary garage gyms, hiking for turns on the last patches of snow, doubling down on dryland training, and finally figuring out how to wrangle time on snow, wherever and with whomever they could.
There’s an entrepreneurial, educational aspect to figuring things out and then getting your friends to jump on board. Such was the case for the college athletes who had to completely reimagine their season, just as the snow guns started firing. Within hours of the NESCAC decision, emails were flying, phones were ringing, and plans B-Z were in the works across campuses, states and programs. Whoa Doggie Jam!
If we learned anything from last year’s hard stop, it is to bring a sense of purpose to every day, because every day on snow could be your last of the season. Hopefully it engenders an energy on the hill, not in an “I have to perform” kind of way but in an “I get to perform” kind of way. If and when things go astoundingly off- plan this season, you can crumble, or you can throw your hands forward and Whoa Doggie Jam!