Not only do competitors get to show off their skills at the 19th annual Winter Games of Idaho this year, winners get to take home a gold medal; two excellent reasons to get into the games which include 19 events at nine venues.
Events in this year's Winter Games include alpine skiing (slalom, giant slalom and telemark), ice hockey, Nordic skiing, snowboarding and figure skating for a wide range of ages and abilities. Heather Price, director of the Winter Games, emphasizes the underlying spirit of the occasion.
"It's about having a good time," says Price. "But it never hurts to go home with the gold medal."
But it most certainly does hurt to go home without the gold, even in a competition that is considered mainly recreational; a true competitor isn't going to give it up without a fight, and if there is one place where spectators expect a good fight, it is in the hockey rink. Among the events at the Winter Games, hockey has become the most popular sport.
"Even when we started, there wasn't a lot of hockey," says Price. "Now the adult hockey tournament is one of the biggest in the Northwest."
So big, in fact, that registration for the event is closed because the rosters are full. However, there are plenty of other activities to compete in, and, for most events, participants may register the day of the competition. Price believes in the value of competing for anyone who enjoys a particular sport.
"It's always good to push the limits a little," says Price. "We see a lot of families, all ages, all abilities. Even though you're competing, you're testing your limits. Competition always takes you to the next level."
Mary Glynn Wilford competes in the Giant Slalom at Bogus Basin Mountain Recreation Area and says she's aware of the friendly spirit behind the Winter Games. She notes that for some of the competitors—herself included—the more people who compete, the higher the stakes.
"It's fun," says Wilford. "They try to get as many people into it [as they can.] That's why I've been losing."
If your own competitive spirit has been growing dim lately, the Winter Games are here to revive it with some good old-fashioned glitter and, of course, bragging rights for the remainder of 2008. Joe Ellsworth is still bragging about his past gold medals. He competes in the telemark skiing event with sibling rivalry to egg him on; his brother also competes in the contest.
"[My brother and I] do have a strong rivalry," says Ellsworth. "He's won the gold several times ... primarily because he cheats," he laughs.
Price knows the competitors are throwing verbal jabs and even offered up the biggest trash talkers for interviews.
"Talk about competitive," said Price. "The smack talk: Whew! They haven't [started] accepting bribes yet but ..."
A little jab only adds to the drive to cross the finish line faster than a challenger but that doesn't necessarily mean competitors are training for race day.
"No, there's no real formal training," says Ellsworth. "We just kind of go up and do the race. There are usually 40 or 50 telemarkers that show up. You hope your ski wax is in good place and that your edges are tuned and from there it's just technique."
The fact that the games are open to all ages and abilities adds another level of fun. Thirteen-year-old Alexi Micinski won the gold last year in the Children's Recreational Alpine Giant Slalom, but not without a little hiccup that has her second-guessing her ability to hold the title.
"Last year, I wrecked and flew into the finish line," says Micinski. "I don't know. I think [Avenol Rolfson] might beat me this year. She got really good. She's a little faster."
Micinski spends her weekends skiing with Rolfson so they know each other's weak points as well as strengths. For Micinski, being friends with her No.1 adversary seems to engender humility, but that doesn't mean she isn't gunning to win this year, and she has a great sense of humor about when a crash ought to happen in a race.
"You get nervous when you're about to race," said Micinski. "If you crash, you don't win because it takes too much time to get up. But if I'm going to wipe out, [the finish line] is a good place to do it."
On the other end of the age scale in the games are the Prime Timers, who are all over 50. The Prime Timer events are split according to age groups, ranging from 50-54, 55-59, 60-64, and on up. The competition among the older folks isn't any tamer, it just carries a different tone. The joke among the group is changing the name of their category to Old Timers. Wilford is one of the Vertigals—a group of women who meet weekly to ski—and she knows that getting older doesn't mean becoming less competitive.
"Well, I can tell you there isn't one of [the Prime Timers]—I don't care what age they are—that are starting out of the gate to lose," says Wilford. "They are all on pins and needles until those awards are given."
Ben Doty has been competing in the games for 12 years and is still skiing fast enough to melt snow.
"I beat [some other skiers] the year before, and they want me to move on to the next age group," says Doty. "I remember one day, I got off the ski lift and I knew we were all racing together, and they say to me, 'Hey Doty, when's your next birthday?'"
While everyone else is trying to stay young, Doty admits that getting older can be a boon for those who compete in the games.
"When you're 60, you're waiting to get into the next age group," says Doty. "Then you're the young guy."
Of course, there are other pitfalls and possible benefits for folks who compete in the over-50 groups, one of which Doty expects may get him the gold this time down the race course.
"I do think I'll win this year," says Doty. "My major competitor beat me a couple of years ago, but [this year] he had a hip replacement."
Recreational competitions don't offer millions of dollars in prize money, so competing is mainly about having a good time and maybe, just maybe, taking home the gold.
The 2008 Winter Games of Idaho take place January 26-February 23 at various venues across the state. BW will print race results each week. For more information or to register, call 800-442-3794 or visit WinterGamesOfIdaho.com.