From Mont Ripley to U.S. Nationals: Local athletes advance to the highest competition in country

Photo provided to the Daily Mining Gazette Sarah Rowe flies through the air during a training run at the U.S. Ski Team Speed Training Center in Copper Mountain, Colorado, in December. Rowe was invited by US Ski Team to the 19U Speed Camp from December 1-5.

Sarah Rowe, an 18-year-old Dollar Bay resident and former Mont Ripley Race Team alpine ski racer, will compete in the Toyota U.S. Alpine National Championships, March 18-26 in Sugarloaf, Maine, and Waterville Valley, New Hampshire.

This season, Rowe has been competing on the North American Cup circuit and FIS (International Federation of Skiing) races throughout North America and Europe as a member of the Burke Mountain Academy post-graduate FIS team. She qualified for the national championships by virtue of some strong results early in the season in competitions in Colorado and on the North American Cup circuit.

“I’m excited to compete at nationals against some of the best women ski racers in the country,” said Rowe. “It’s been a long season, with some ups and downs. I was able to get some good results in FIS races early on and score points in a few NorAm Cup races.

“I’ve been battling a nagging ankle injury that limits my reps in training and keeps me from competing in slalom, so I’ve been focusing more on the speed events and the giant slalom. I had to back off my schedule in February and have had trouble finishing races lately, but I’m hoping to finish the year strong.”

It has been a long and arduous journey to this point in the season for Rowe.

“We started out by spending most of August at a training camp in Chile,” she said. “I then trained a few weeks in October in Hintertux, Austria, with the Norwegian development team. I was in Colorado for all of November, which included training with the University of Denver and Dartmouth College women’s ski teams.

“I was invited to the U.S. Ski Team 19U Speed Camp at Copper Mountain in December. I got to train on a full downhill course that was 1.8 miles long with a vertical drop of 2,500 feet. On one run, I hit 79 mph. That was a blast.”

Sarah spent most of January as a guest of the U.S. Ski Development Team during their annual European FIS Project, where she competed in races in Italy and Slovenia. To finish the season, Rowe will also race in the Canadian National Championships, to be held at Mount Eduard, Quebec, and the U.S. Junior National Championships in Mittersill Cannon, New Hampshire.

Back in Ripley, not far from Rowe’s hometown, the Mont Ripley Race Team (MRRT) is an alpine ski club out of Mont Ripley. The MRRT encompasses a large variety of skiers at several different age levels.

“You can get in at an entry level and just learn to be a better skier,” said Kim Salmi. “A lot of people start off at the club level.”

The club level in alpine skiing is akin to house league in hockey, according to Salmi.

The MRRT competes regularly against Marquette, Pine Mountain, Zion Mountain locally. For more advanced skiers, there are opportunities for them to compete on regional and even national stage, not quite to level Rowe is at, but still high end. The higher competition is managed by the United States Ski & Snowboard Association.

Four competitors from the MRRT competed recently at the Junior Nationals in Colorado, two in U14 at Steamboat Springs, and two in the U16 level at Winter Park. The two skiers at the U16 level were Reed Heathman and Lydia Salmi. In the U14, Mikko Salmi and Finnley Lutz competed last week.

“They are competing against kids from very robust, very, very large areas, and very robust ski programs,” said Kim Salmi.

Salmi’s daughter, Lydia, and Heathman both competed this season for the Houghton/Hancock ski team as well, earning All-State honors for their efforts.

“As a parent, I think it is pretty phenomenal to watch that determination,” Salmi said. “This is a very self-motivated sport. It is not something that we push on them, it is something that they love to do.”

The main coach for MRRT is Bob Vial, a Chassell native who raced professionally before returning home to coach the next generation of skiers. Larry Heathman has jumped on board this season to help out with the team.

Rowe was coached by Vial as a member of the MRRT from age 9 to 13, and then went on to the U.S. Ski Team National Training Group for two years before being accepted to the world renowned Burke Mountain Academy for her junior and senior year of high school.

“Bob used to tell us that if you can race on Mont Ripley, you can race just about anywhere,” she said. “That’s turned out to be pretty much true. Other than the length of runs, Mont Ripley offers the steeps and challenging terrain necessary to get you ready to compete on a bigger stage.

“Since, I’ve moved away from the area to pursue my ski racing dreams, I have followed my old teammates and their success in winning the Michigan High School championship a couple of years ago. That was great to see.”