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Mt. Spokane prepares for Werner event

Before Bode Miller raised the bar, Phil Mahre set the standard for the U.S. Ski Team. The precedent for them to follow was set more than 50 years ago by Buddy Werner, the first American ski racer to beat the Europeans at their game.

Werner, skiing with hellbent style, was the man to beat in the 1950s and early ’60s. He was selected for the U.S. Olympic Team in 1956, ’60 and ’64. In 1959 at age 22 he was the first non-European to win the celebrated Hahnenkahm downhill at Kitzbuhel, Austria.

Werner’s life ended tragically in 1964 when he was buried by an avalanche while shooting a ski movie in Switzerland. But his legend lives on with the youth ski championship that bears his name.

On mountains across the U.S., boys and girls age 12 and younger compete in the Buddy Werner Championships. In the Pacific Northwest, the annual event rotates around mountains in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. This weekend, it’s Mount Spokane’s turn.

The 2009 Pacific Northwest Buddy Werner Championships run Saturday and Sunday. The Spokane Ski Racing Association (SSRA) is hosting the event. More than 300 racers and their families from 23 ski areas converged on Mount Spokane today for training.

“It’s one of the largest races in the nation sanctioned by the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association,” said Chuck Holcomb, SSRA head coach. “The field size is enormous. You can’t get a much larger group of kids racing on a course in one day.”

Holcomb said a racing field is commonly limited to 140 athletes and takes about 75 volunteers. To handle the Buddy Werner field, SSRA will run two courses simultaneously with about 150 volunteers. The giant slalom (GS) will be set on No Alibi under Chair 1. The slalom will be set on Hourglass.

SSRA won Buddy Werner team titles in 2004 and when Mt. Spokane last hosted the event in 2006. Three SSRA boys have won the overall title in the past five years.

Holcomb, a native of Connecticut, has been the head coach of SSRA for 11 years. As a kid he raced throughout New England, including in the Junior Olympics. He went on to race for the University of Massachusetts and later for the Breckenridge, Colo., ski team.

SSRA coaches set the courses for the Buddy Werner races. Holcomb said they focus on being fair, safe and legal. They look closely at terrain changes and set the gates so the course flows.

The key is to make the hill the challenge, not the gates.

“You won’t see the quality of course preparation we have at Mt. Spokane anywhere else,” Holcomb said. “The climate for racing at Mt. Spokane, the relationship we have with the mountain and the support we get from Mt. Spokane 2000 is hard to beat.”

Bill Jennings can be reached at