No one expected Franco Rossi.
The Italian, raised in Milan in the shadows of the mighty Dolomites, stepped off the lift, unzipped his snowsuit, and mounted the start platform in bright yellow racing tights.
He had driven just under three hours from his home in a north Atlanta suburb to make the Thursday night slalom race at Cataloochee Mountain.
“Why do I do it? I don’t know? Maybe I’m crazy,” Rossi said. “How do you explain passion?”
Eleven seconds later it was over. That’s the thrill of ski racing. Focus, strategy, preparation, and then speed. Sure, it wasn’t the Olympics. It wasn’t the Alps. It was only a local race league on a Southern ski hill, but tell that to the people involved.
Pat Keller, one of the world’s greatest whitewater paddlers, laid out the course that night, lovingly tamping down the starting block with the back of his snow shovel as the racers took their start positions.
“You gotta love it,” Keller said. “In whitewater you’re generally using the same features on a given run. With this, you can play with it. Tweak it to where it’s most fun.”
The course was fast on Thursday. Cold temperatures had created a slick surface on the hill and the gates were set up in a giant slalom pattern.
Most of the racers competing in the Cataloochee Challenger Cup Series are locals, focused on winning grudge battles with their friends.
Judy Sutton and Richard Coker have been racing each other in one form or another on the Cataloochee hill since they were kids. Their grandfather started the ski mountain, and Richard and Judy perfected their telemark turns on the surrounding backcountry terrain.
“I think I get faster as I got older,” Judy said after Thursday’s race.
“That’s cause your skis are more expensive,” Coker said.
School age athletes have been racing at Cataloochee Mountain for 20 years. The Tuesday night middle school races draw as many as 150 participants on a given night. But the adult races started in 2005-06 as a way to keep skiers involved in the sport.
“We’re trying to create lifelong skiers,” said Paul Yaeger, race director.
Shane Clampitt helped start the Tuscola High School ski team in 1993. Now, Clampitt’s son races at Cataloochee and is a regular in the adult races. For Clampitt, the races are a way to stay in touch with something he’s loved his whole life and to pass the competitive spirit on to his child.
Hank Millar has been skiing at Cataloochee for 40 years. He races in the Challenger series and takes particular pride in beating Judy Sutton.
“He used to beat me all the time, and now I beat him most of the time,” Judy said.
Millar said he races because he’s still trying to get better.
“Everybody who’s passionate about skiing has a passion for getting better,” Millar said.
Richard Coker, still a part owner of the ski hill, sees the races as a way of teaching people that to ski well, you have to constantly get better.
“It’s easy to go downhill and turn, but the gates force you to do it in specific places and that helps your skiing,” Coker said. “I don’t think the racing will ever make us any money. We do it to create lifelong skiers and instill that idea in the kids.”
But Coker, Millar and Judy will all tell you that part of the reason they race is because they like to win. That’s where Rossi comes in.
Three weeks ago, he showed up on the mountain for the first time, an unknown quantity. Rossi moved to the Atlanta area from Milan 10 years ago to run an Italian-owned carpet fiber company. He grew up racing competitively at Madonna di Campiglio in the Dolomites, beginning his career at the age of 6 and racing in all of the alpine disciplines.
“It became a big passion for me and I raced at some good levels,” Rossi said. “I’ve never been a champion, but I was decent at the regional level.”
When Rossi agreed to move to Atlanta with his family, he thought it was the end of his career as a ski racer. But the itch never went away. He found a listing for Cataloochee’s Challenger Cup Series online and decided it was worth the drive.
“I thought I had to forget about it and ski a few times a year going back to Italy,” Rossi said. “It’s like a half a miracle being here.”
Half a miracle, maybe, and half attention to detail. Part of the reason the racing series at Cataloochee Mountain is so successful is the crew of people who work it care deeply about how the race turns out.
Paul Yaeger is a transplant who fell in love with the mountain during a vacation and has been working on it ever since he moved to the area. Yaeger directs a team of younger folks, teaching them how to organize an event, set up a race course, and encourage friendly competition.
Then there’s Keller. A junior world champion kayaker, he grew up on skis at Cataloochee where both his parents taught skiing. In fact, the sport was his first love.
He’s best-known now for riding his kayak over 120-foot waterfalls, but he credits his success in that sport in part to a knee injury he sustained as a 9-year-old at the Cataloochee ski hill when he mislanded a jump and tore his anterior cruciate ligament.
“From that point on, I had to focus everything on paddling, and that’s gotten me to the point I’m at now,” Keller said.
Keller spends his years chasing whitewater from North Carolina, to Colorado, to Oregon to British Columbia. In the off-season he trains, but this year a shoulder injury has kept him from training hard. So he’s working on the mountain, sharing a little of his competitive edge with the local ski crowd.
Every time a racer steps to the starting gate, Keller offers advice and encouragement.
“Keep your hands forward,” and “Set up your turns early,” and “Think you can beat 15 seconds tonight?”
A handful of people skied fast on Thursday. But Rossi taught the group the difference between really good skiers racing and a real ski racer. The course was slick and fast, but the Italian was slicker and faster, driving through the turns with his skis shoulder-width apart, never edging, always powering the perfect line.
Rossi doesn’t care too much about the times anymore. He’s tapping into a lifetime of memories.
“I’ve done it for so many years and there are so many good feelings and emotions associated with skiing and racing that I want to come here and feel it again,” said Rossi.
After the race, he drives home, arriving between 1 and 2 a.m., a schedule his wife tolerates.
“She’s a very good woman,” Rossi said.
As the competitors gathered in the lodge to hear Yaeger read out the results with proper enthusiasm, the skiers were still thinking about racing –– about Team USA’s chances at Whistler Olympics.
“We’re kind of upset (Lindsey) Vonn has a bruised shin, but we know she’ll ski through it,” Millard said.
Ski through it. Never quit. If there’s one ski value the South can claim as its own, it is a deep commitment to ski at any costs, rain or shine, at night, with or without snow. That’s a value Rossi has become a part of.
“My friends in Atlanta think I’m crazy,” Rossi said. “Some people like to go to Vegas. I like to ski.”