I love skiing with my family, but it doesn’t always offer me a lot of time to practice improving my skills on the mountain. My husband is a solid intermediate skier who likes to take it easy while my two teen sons don’t think they are really skiing unless they are on the steepest, bumpiest, most gladed trails on the mountain. And did I mention that they also want to ski really fast at all times?
So when I was given the opportunity to attend a Women’s Ski Camp at Killington, a camp that is hosted by none other than Donna Weinbrecht, gold medal Olympian and most decorated women’s freestyle skier ever (seriously – look her up) I said an enthusiastic yes. As someone who loves mogul skiing and who aspires to being lighter-than-air in the bumps while following a gorgeous, elegant line, this seemed like the perfect chance to up my game.
Day one: fun in a group but plenty of individual attention
Our group of about thirty women started out in the Snowshed Lodge on Saturday where all of the participants were given the chance to sort ourselves into one of three categories: beginner skiers who wanted to mostly stick to green trails with maybe a blue or two thrown in, intermediate skiers who were interested in stretching out to try the occasional black diamond, and my group, called the “chargers” who wanted to ski black and double black trails and work on some techniques on the steeps and bumps. The coaches further subdivided the intermediate group, leaving us with a total of four groups.
The coaches, who were also all women, introduced themselves and Donna led us in stretches and did a review of safety rules for the clinic. The mountain is very busy on Saturdays and all the coaches worked hard to make sure we were stopping well to the edges of the trails, facing out, and that we also checked uphill before ever venturing onto the trail, all solid advice. Then we all headed to the lifts as a large group for our Circle Ski. This, as Donna explained, was a chance for us to observe the other members of the group we had chosen and for the coaches to do so as well, just to make sure everyone was placed correctly. It involved all of us taking a run together, looping around each other and giving each person enough space to be observed and to observe everyone else. The coaches had clearly thought this through very carefully and did a fantastic job of herding us all along, and making sure that we were all sorted properly, no easy feat given how many people were participating.
My group had done a good job of self-selecting and so once the Circle Ski was complete the seven of us were able to hit the mountain with our coach Lori, who was both lovely and warm and also completely no-nonsense and knowledgeable when it comes the latest science on ski/body mechanics and also the body positions that every good skier needs to practice.
Lori wasted no time in getting us thinking about and practicing the kinds of basic skills that experienced skiers often stop focusing on as closely we ought to: getting into an athletic stance, with a grounded heel and our shins connecting with the front of our ski boots. She had us think about keeping our core firm and our legs soft and having our belly button lead us into our turns. And she had us practice the up and down movement that is always critical for turns but especially important when skiing the bumps.
I loved how passionate Lori was about helping us get the most out of our skis. In addition to getting us all positioned properly, she talked a great deal about the different types of turns we should make based on the conditions and terrain. She was so invested in making sure that we understood how to turn properly that the conversation continued at our lunch table.
She also did a great job of offering us individual advice based on her observations of our skiing. I needed to work on everything to do with my hands, from where I held them to how much I moved them. This wasn’t totally surprising given that I was coming off an injury to my shoulder last season, but I really appreciated her specific and gentle reminders of what I should be doing and also her recommendations about gear. Turns out that my poles were a little bit too long, especially if I was going to be bump skiing.
I always enjoy the camaraderie of skiing with other women and what was really fun about our group at Killington was the fact that although we ranged in age from our 20s to our 50s, we all were interested in skiing more aggressively and fluidly on challenging terrain. This was the first time I’ve done a group lesson or clinic where I felt like everyone in the group had the same agenda and also where we mixed lots of solid instruction time with tons of skiing. Killington is big and I quickly lost track of how many runs we did, but since we didn’t have to stand in line and since everyone in my group skied fast, even with lots of instruction time I still felt like I got in a very full day of skiing, which included a run where Killington’s photographer filmed each of us.
At the end of the day, we all convened for some delicious snacks (housemade queso and pita chips were especially good) and to watch the videos of ourselves with our coaches. Donna was there, smiling and chatting and posing for pictures with her gold medal, which made us all feel like we had won the day.
Day two: Bring on the bumps
The clinic included four groups of women, which meant that each group got a half day of skiing with Donna and that she offered coaching, regardless of ability or level. My group spent Sunday morning with her. We had such excellent preparation from Lori the day before that we all felt ready, although I’ll admit I was a little nervous – I had never skied with an Olympian before.
I don’t mean to diminish Donna’s skills as a coach, which are considerable, but before I talk a little bit about what she taught us, can I just say that big part of the pleasure of this camp was simply watching her ski from close up? As a lifelong skier, I’ve seen some pretty amazing skills on the mountain, but this was next-level stuff. The sheer volume of turns that she made was in itself very impressive, and the ease with which she moved was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. If I hadn’t already wanted to be a better skier, she certainly would have inspired me to up my game.
But rapturous ski-girl crush aside, Donna also knows how to talk about mogul skiing, how to break down the movements into their component parts, and what kind of drills can help improve your mogul skiing. She started by inviting us to think about our poles – to make sure that we have them properly strapped on and that we are flicking our wrists and keeping our hands steady in front of us. Then it was on to a series of different drills, including one she called “an old hotdogger’s trick” that involved having us turn in a snow plow. We worked on keeping our skis close together, on what she called “backpeddling” – bringing our hips up, our feet back, our bindings up toward our behinds and our tips down. We shortened our turns and then shortened them some more. I was really grateful that Lori had worked so hard the day before to get us into a good basic position because these tips were definitely more advanced and harder to integrate.
It surprised me how many drills Donna had us do on flat terrain, but she explained to us all that good mogul skiers do lots of skiing on groomed trails to practice for the bumps. It did really help to be able to work on shifting my weight from ski to ski and completing shorter turns without the added complication of having to choose a line or worry about the trail being steep.
And of course, once we had done all those drills on the flats, Donna found us some nice bumps and showed us how it’s done. (“That’s not happening” the woman next to me breathed as we watched her take off down the hill.) But actually, having Donna there gave us all the inspiration we needed to try straighter lines and more aggressive skiing than we had been doing to that point. She watched us carefully, offering tips about position and weight transfer. And she let us follow her to see what kinds of lines she chose.
Donna is definitely well-known at Killington – a buzz followed her everywhere we skied (my favorite moment was when a father turned to his two young daughters and said audibly, “Do you know who that is girls? That’s Donna Weinbrecht. You could be like her one day.”) Despite the fact that she is clearly a celebrity, Donna took this attention completely in humble stride. At one point she even said, “bless you” to someone who sneezed on the chairlift overhead. She’s genuinely nice and fun to hang out with and since Killington has been her home mountain since childhood, she knows it like the back of her hand. And as if it wasn’t enough to spend a full morning skiing with Donna, we also got to sit with her at lunch and hear her stories of being at the Olympic games and on the World Cup tour.
After lunch, Lori wisely avoided piling any more information onto us, but just took us out onto the mountain for a few hours of great skiing on varied terrain. She offered the occasional piece of individual feedback but mostly just let us open up on the steeps and the bumps, letting us take a lot of great runs to try practicing everything we’d learned, something I know I’ll be doing for the rest of this season.
Skills, fun and inspiration rolled into one women’s ski camp
Perhaps my favorite moment of the entire two-day clinic came late on Sunday morning when we had finished our coaching session with Donna and were heading in for lunch. She turned around to our group with a smile on her face and said, “Does anyone want to follow me down? I won’t go too fast.”
Here’s a piece of advice: When an Olympic skier offers you the chance to follow right behind her in her tracks, say yes, even if it means you’ll make approximately 300 turns in five minutes and will ski perhaps just a hair faster than you might otherwise have. For a glorious few minutes I was flying down the mountain, turning like magic and pretending that I was as glamorous and graceful as Donna. Aspiration achieved.
These women’s ski camps are an incredible bargain. In addition to all of the coaching and the half day of skiing with Donna, and two delicious lunches in a private dining room and snacks after skiing on the first day, lift tickets are also included in the $439 price. The weekend I participated in January was extremely busy and I was able to ski so much more than I otherwise would because we didn’t have to stand in line.
There’s still time in the 2020 ski season to join a clinic with Donna. Killington is offering another Women’s Ski Camp Weekend on February 22 and 23, 2020 as well as a co-ed mogul clinic on March 21 and 22.
Mara Gorman may live at sea level now, but she’s a native New Englander and mountain aficionado who grew up skiing in Vermont. She spends as many days each winter as she can chasing her two teen boys through glades and across mogul fields and regularly journeys far and wide to get on the slopes. Mara blogs about her family’s many travel adventures at The Mother of all Trips. She is also the author of The Family Traveler’s Handbook and an award-winning freelance writer whose work has appeared in various USA Today print publications as well as on websites such as BBC Travel. When there’s no snow, Mara and her family can be found hiking, biking and eating around the United States and Europe.