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Snowy Split 

Youth alpine ski racing has been divided in Oregon since 2012. Some are still hoping for reunification.

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There was once one ski racing state championship. Then there were two.
Now, there's hope for a unified race once again.

The Oregon Interscholastic Ski Racing Association began in 1961 with just a few schools, growing to include more than 50 high schools in 2017.

"I used to race in Hood River in the '70s," said Cheryl Puddy, mother of Mountain View High School ski racer Kate Puddy. "I just remember being thrilled that we got to go to Mt. Bachelor to race. I loved it."

Puddy went on to ski race at Central Oregon Community College. She's now the alpine race administrator at Mt. Bachelor Sports Education Foundation. She's not alone in her continued love of the sport.

"I raced for Lake Oswego from 2003 to 2006," said Spencer Raymond, head ski coach at Lake Oswego High School. "I had never raced before high school. It got me into skiing, inspiring me to race in college."

"The competition and social interaction with teammates in high school racing can be a great experience," said MBSEF Executive Director John Schiemer. "It was very fun and rewarding for both of my sons."

These athletes participated in high school racing when OISRA was the only league in Oregon. The 2011 state championships changed everything.

Ski Racing, Divided

The 2011 state race was held at Mt. Bachelor, with the best athletes in Oregon competing for the title.

"My freshman year I competed at the OISRA state at Mt. Bachelor," said Keenan Seidel, who was a member of the Bend High School ski team at the time. "That was the year some of the Bend coaches decided to split the league. For me, the mindset is totally different now. I loved my freshman year because I competed with the good guys from Portland. After that it wasn't the same. I didn't like it."

The incident that led to the split took place during the women's slalom race, and involved Cheryl Puddy's daughter, Kate, who was a top contender.

During the race, many of the top competitors were disqualified in the first run due to an offset gate that wasn't present during inspection. An alpine ski race is comprised of two runs on two different courses, and the fastest combined time declares the winner. In high school racing, even if a skier is disqualified in the first run, they are allowed to race in the second run and can score points for their team. However, the skier does not place for that race or score individual points.

Kate Puddy finished the first run with the fastest girl's time and the second run with the second fastest time, beat only by a West Linn High School racer who had disqualified in the first run. That alone should have ensured Puddy the first-place medal.

Coaches were informed upon their arrival to the awards ceremony that night that the race jury had thrown out the first run of the women's race. Puddy would receive second place. Coaches and others were outraged. The OISRA board later recommended sanctions against Bend High Alpine Ski Coach Greg Timm for an alleged confrontation following the decision. Timm declined to comment for this story.

A New League

After the state championship debacle, dissatisfied parents and coaches came together to form a new league that would rival OISRA and change high school racing in Oregon.

The group formed the Oregon School Ski Association in 2012, recruiting teams from the Corvallis and Eugene areas. With Portland and Southern Oregon teams still in OISRA and the Central Oregon, Corvallis and Eugene teams now in OSSA, the state was geographically split in half, with athletes in both leagues competing for so-called state titles that were no longer representative of the entire state.

Many athletes and coaches are unhappy with this situation.

"I didn't agree with or like the outcome," said Seidel. "I thought it was ridiculous that we were pulled out of OISRA. The experience definitely changed. Kids don't get a big race against the whole state and I think that's a major loss."

"It's not fair that the coaches are making the call," said Paget Rathbun, Summit High School senior and the alpine team's top female finisher. "It should be up to the athletes. I think that whatever happened, happened a long time ago and it's time to get over it."

The mission statement on the OSSA website reads, "Our mission is to establish OSSA as the leader in high school ski racing in Oregon." But some believe the direct competition with OISRA is not in the best interest of the athletes.

Summit Ski Racer Pageet Rathbun
  • Summit Ski Racer Pageet Rathbun

"One of the problems I see is the administrators and coaches getting too big for their britches and forgetting what it's about," said Gary King, OISRA president and AShland High School ski coach "To me it's absurd."

Two years ago, OISRA board members and coaches decided something needed to be done to get the leagues back together.

The OISRA board met with the OSSA board of directors last year at Sisters High School to attempt a resolution. The OSSA board was adamant about maintaining two separate leagues.

King knew of many athletes in Central Oregon who were interested in the OISRA state race, so he wrote a letter to all of the coaches, inviting them to bring their athletes to compete. The letter served as an open invitation for the OSSA ski racing community. Not one coach replied to the letter, King says.

King was determined to reach the athletes with this opportunity, so he also sent the letter to Natalie Merrill and Paget Rathbun, two Summit racers.

"It was always a goal of mine to compete in the OISRA state race," said Rathbun. "When Gary gave me the opportunity I got really excited, but I was nervous to tell my coaches."

King says the Summit coaches did not appreciate King's invitation.

"The coaches told me I was being unethical for trying to reach the parents and athletes directly, so I stopped. Part of me felt like I had pushed enough," said King.

The next year, with the 2017 OISRA state race within sight, King decided to contact the Summit families again, this time with more success.

"When Gary reached out again this season, I had no regrets in attending [the state race] or telling my coaches I planned to go," said Rathbun. "It was an amazing experience for me."

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Former Summit High School ski coach Dave McKae, stepped down last summer, declined to comment.

Lake Oswego Head Coach Spencer Raymond also traveled to an invitational race in Lakeview, Ore. prior to the 2017 state championship to get the message out to kids and families.

"The goal of going to Lakeview was to be a friendly ambassador and inform racers, coaches and families that the OISRA state event was open to them," said Raymond. "I'm also in charge of planning the OISRA state race in 2018 and so I wanted to make some introductions with the hopes of a year from now, having a real unified state championship race."

Raymond planned the 2018 OISRA state race to be at Mt. Bachelor, from March 7 to 9, to make it more accessible for OSSA racers hoping to participate.

"After attending OISRA state, I would tell racers in Central Oregon that it is definitely worth it," said Riley O'Brien, a sophomore on Summit's ski team.

"I didn't attend OISRA state this year because there was a conflict with our OSSA state race taking place on the same weekend," said Dagny Donohue, a junior on the Bend High School alpine team. "Having the chance to race against the other teams in the state is an awesome opportunity, so I'm hoping we'll be able to race with them next year."

Rathbun and O'Brien earned fourth and third places in the giant slalom and slalom races at OISRA state, respectively. However, since they say Summit coaches and Athletic Director Gabe Pagano refused to sign off on them attending the race, they were ineligible for medals or recognition.

Cheryl Hukari and the Hood River Ski Team in the 70's
  • Cheryl Hukari and the Hood River Ski Team in the 70's

"We had a chance to go compete at this real state championship, yet our school administration and our coaches wouldn't sign off on our waiver forms," said Rathbun. "I went to OISRA state to prove a point. There's been so much drama and politics in this sport. Hopefully we can change the rules next year."

Pagano declined to comment.

Looking forward, coaches and athletes in the OISRA hope to see the Central Oregon racers come back and work towars one united league.

"Step one would be getting OSSA racers competing and qualifying for state," said Raymond. "Step two would be current OSSA teams registering with OISRA and having their athletic directors sign off on them becoming members."

"The answer is getting the word out to the parents and the kids. We have the door open," said King.

With the current season presenting many unknowns for Central Oregon racers, Rathbun and O'Brien hope the initiative they showed will inspire the next generation of high school racers to keep challenging the status quo.

"I would love to see the leagues back together and athletes pushing towards one state race," said Rathbun. "I encourage all athletes to stand up for what they think is best and to push for equal opportunities in high school racing."

- Sophia Sahm is a former Source Weekly intern and a senior at Summit High School, where serves as sports editor for the school newspaper, "The Pinnacle." She has skied with MBSEF for 11 years.


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