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Minneapolis Alpine Ski Team grows through parents’ efforts

For Minneapolis Alpine Ski Team racers C.J. Savage and Kyle Schwartz, the appeal of their chosen sport is found in both the head-to-head competition and the chairlift camaraderie.

Then there is a third factor, the one that drew them to skiing in the first place: speed.

“It’s fast,” Savage said. “It entertains me a lot more than many sports.”

The faint January sun was setting over Hyland Ski and Snowboard Area in Bloomington as the two spoke, and they soon skated to a nearby chairlift to get another practice run in before that evening’s slalom race. Meanwhile, some of the key members of the Minneapolis Alpine Ski Team, known as MAST, remained at the bottom of the hill.

They were a dozen or so parents, who would be joined by others before the start of the race, gathered near the slalom course, some in head-to-toe ski gear, others draped in blankets over their thick winter coats. MAST runs almost entirely on the volunteer efforts of parents, who announce and record run times at meets, raise funds and even provide slopeside meals and shelter for away races.

Head coach Mark Conway, one of only two paid staff members, relies on 13 volunteer assistant coaches — parents of both current and former MAST skiers — to help out at practices, held six days a week at Hyland.

“Any given night, we’ll have four, five, six coaches on the hill to help the kids, and that allows us … to take kids who don’t have much skiing experience,” Conway said. “We can give those kids more attention at the level they need it and still offer strong support to the high-level kids.”

It’s a formula that seems to work for the team, now in its 10th season. A cooperative that draws students in grades 7–12 from across Minneapolis — including varsity athletes from South, Southwest and Washburn high schools — the team has nearly doubled its squad from just a few years ago to more than 60 skiers.


Committed

It was a small group of parents, including Gary Griffin, who formed MAST in 1999. It had been at least two decades since the Southwest High School ski team folded, Griffin said.

Griffin was one of several assistant coaches who continued to volunteer with MAST even after their children moved on from the team.

“It’s just a lot of fun as a coach,” said the former high school ski racer who, at age 54, still competes. “It’s a labor of love, for sure.”

Another volunteer was Laura Hinnendael, whose daughter, Caroline Gormley, is a MAST captain. Hinnendael said she didn’t consider herself one of the more experienced coaches on the hill, despite a background in freestyle skiing.

Still, she and the other coaches find a way to divvy up the work. Despite its recent growth, MAST has remained small enough that it has never cut skiers from the team, which means members have varying levels of experience and ability.

“It’s a commitment, but it makes the winter go by fast,” Hinnendael said. “And it’s fun to see these kids out here trying hard.”


Forming bonds

MAST started as a cooperative but has grown enough that some schools like Southwest now have enough skiers to compete individually at meets. Still, they mostly practice and travel as a unit, meaning skiers aged 11 to 18 and from a variety of schools find themselves competing side by side.

Southwest senior Bonnie Bentson, a first-time ski racer, said the environment at MAST was unlike any other sports team she’d been a part of. Bentson described hanging out at practices with “people I would never think to talk to, people from my own school I never knew.”

“Even though it’s my first year, I never felt out of the loop or embarrassed to try something new,” she said.

Like many other high school sports, alpine skiing demands a big time commitment. For MAST teammates, a significant chunk of that time is spent fighting rush hour traffic on the way to Hyland Hill for practice.

Still, the time both on and off the hill forms strong bonds, both between skiers and the parents who watch their children race together.

Jake Yockers no longer has a child on the team but still coaches and, with his wife, made the long drive up to Biwabik in January for an annual meet at Giant’s Ridge Ski Area. To explain why he was still helping out on the slopes, Yockers pointed to Conway, the head coach.

“Mark is the heart and soul of this team,” he said. “The word ‘passionate’ wouldn’t go quite far enough.”

It’s a passion that’s shared by many of those who make MAST run.

“This group just really loves ski racing and loves to have kids gaining exposure to it,” Griffin said. “… That is part of what makes this thing work, is that we all love what we’re doing.”