Telemark Triumph – Kelsey Schmid Sommer

Published: Tuesday, January 20, 2009 8:33 AM CST

DILLON TABISH The Daily Inter Lake

Telemark skiing is a sport that Kelsey Schmid-Sommer has mastered the only way you can — the hard way.

“It’s the sport of 10,000 falls,” the three-time national telemark champion and Whitefish resident said. “You need to fall 10,000 times before you get it.”

And Schmid-Sommer has definitely got it.

The University of Montana graduate is in Austria for the World Telemark Ski Championships, which begins on Wednesday, hoping to improve on her fifth-overall ranking in the world. Schmid-Sommer came into the World Cup season as the only female racer on record to win the United States Championship in three straight years, from 2006–2008.

“I’m really excited for the Worlds,” she said. “The

highlight is to be able to go over there and just be a part of the world.”

Her goal is to bring home a medal . This season she has focused more than ever, and worked even harder, on achieving that goal.

Schmid-Sommer, who’s married and works as an artist in Whitefish carving wood sculptures, started a grueling training regime in September that began with gym workouts twice a week. As the snow started to fall, the training increased to three times a week and the workouts grew harder.

“The competition is getting stiffer. There are some young girls from Colorado who are really starting to break through, so it will be interesting,” Schmid-Sommer said during a recent workout at the Flathead Performance Training Center outside of Whitefish.

“I’m 32 (years old). I’m the second-oldest woman participating in the whole World Cup. My competition is about 19-24 years old.”

But how many 19-year-olds are hopping from one leg to the next on a tilted beam while catching a rubber bowling ball until the guy throwing the ball needs a break? Or reenacting what it’s like to stride with ski poles, but with weighted-down wires?

This is the hard way. But it doesn’t seem to bother her.

“I feel rejuvenated,” she said with a smile after finishing a set of lunges.

Mike Carey works with Schmid-Sommer at the Performance Center and said he considers her to be a high-caliber athlete not only because of her ability, but because of her work ethic.

“She’s got the drive, which is not rare, but the kind of drive she has definitely is rare. You don’t always see that,” Carey said. “We push her as hard as she can go and she’ll do pretty much anything that she’s asked to do.”

The 5-foot-4 inch national champion didn’t get to be sponsored by prestigious companies like K2 and Smith by chance, even though she started on the Bunny Hill like everybody else.

Her dad first put her on alpine skis as a three-year-old in New Hampshire, where she grew up. After five years of learning the slopes, she started racing across New England all the way through high school.

Surprisingly, it was her move to Montana that forced her to learn telemark skiing after she found out the university didn’t have a ski team. So instead she headed up to Snowbowl ski area whenever the chance came and tried out the Norwegian phenomena of telemarking.

The main difference between telemark and alpine skiing lies in the bindings, which allow the heels of the boots to lift up freely while the front section remains buckled, similar to those used in cross-country skiing. Founded in Norway in the late 19th century, telemark skiing requires a person to step one leg forward so the knee nearly touches the ground instead of standing upright like on alpine skis. Simply put, it’s a downhill lunge workout on skis.

“It’s just a natural way of skiing,” Schmid-Sommer said. “It’s very rhythmic and also really challenging. It’s a mix of speed, balance and air time.”

After graduating in 1999, Schmid-Sommer moved to Whitefish and got in with the ski crowd, which included U.S. Telemark Team members Peter McMahon and Eric Lamb. Then in 2005, after years of free-heeling through the powder of Big Mountain ski area, she decided to give racing another go.

On one of her last days in the country before leaving for Austria, Schmid-Sommer is getting in a few last minute runs under the sun at Big Mountain on a slalom race course that’s been set up in front of Ed & Mully’s grill.

She emerges up top, decked out in U.S. National Team gear. With a push of her poles, she darts downhill on a serpentine path around tightly placed flags. Left, right, left — she strides downwards at 20-30 miles-per-hour. And then a jump comes and she pops up in the air. After landing smoothly, she continues zig-zaging between a final group of flags before coming to a sudden, snow-spraying stop.

Telemark skiing may be the sport of 10,000 falls, but Schmid-Sommer makes it look more like an art.