Friday, October 20, 2017

Remembering Derek & Our Team

One Championship Season: Remembering Derek & Our Team

Derek led our high school team to the Maine Class A Cross-Country Ski Championship in 1989. Audacious as a racer, he lived for the tree-lined ski trails and the battles waged with teammates and friends. As a teenager, Derek wore large-framed aviator eyeglasses and the easiest smile on the planet Earth. No matter your tribe in school, he welcomed every-anyone into his.

 As his high school ski coach, I watched Derek devour lung-searing climbs and let loose on the squirrely down hills of our racecourse here in Rumford. Fearless, he craved speed and sought it out on every snowy corner of the trail. The son of a ski coach, Derek trained with a singular focus and on race day slipped with practiced ease into the racer’s zone. No matter the result, he remained balanced.

The last time I saw Derek, he waved and called out, “Hey, coach!” from behind a Plexiglas window in one of a dozen race officials’ cabins dotting our local cross-country trail. As a volunteer official for the Chisholm Ski Club, he monitored ski racers as they sped around the course. Just as I was about to poke my head through the cabin’s door to say hello, a pack of skiers crested the hill and flew toward Derek’s roost.

“Have a good one!” I shouted. He nodded and began checking off racers’ numbers as I trekked toward the notorious High School Hill.

I remember wax sessions the night before big ski races. Derek’s dad, Herbie, and a squad of other helpful dads came to my home to prepare skis. Waxing benches lined the basement; a cloud of blue-white smoke blanketed the rafters as the fathers painstakingly pressed cakes of speed wax onto warm irons while their kids talked about the race. Hot wax dripped in beads, then threads, along the bottom of the skis; laughter mixed with the tinny music from my beat-up boom box. It’s a ritual that ski racers like Derek savored and knew well.

During that championship season, Derek was everything a senior leader should be. But it wasn’t a cakewalk. Eric Boucher, a sophomore highflier on our team, clipped Derek’s heels throughout the season. The 10th grader landed seconds behind Derek in an early-season race, but that result only served as motivation for the senior. In the state championship meet at Fryeburg Academy, Derek’s sound technique and racehorse engine kept his young teammate and most of the competition at bay. Our senior captain took the silver medal behind future Olympian, Marcus Nash.

I have a ski room that sits between my barn and rambling Victorian; it’s part mudroom, fireside lounge, and ski museum. Framed photographs, posters, and newspaper clippings from my teams hang on the white-pine walls. There’s also a cherished shot of the Kent brothers in April of 1981 at the summit of California’s Squaw Valley. In a shadowy corner of this room, hanging above an ageless stereo, a photo of the 1989 titleholders hangs along side their state championship plaque.

The team picture was taken at Capponi’s, a local photography studio. The six boys wore white turtlenecks beneath gray team parkas stitched with “Rumford Skiing” on the left front. I’m in the back row center wearing a favorite training top. To my left, Derek wears his trademark aviator glasses and that winning smile; Scott Marchildon is on my right sporting the 1950’s look: a crew cut and the etched jawline of an athlete, the son of a Marine. In the front row, seated left to right, include Kevin Charleston, Aric Beane, Eric Boucher, and Jon Sassi. Aric and Eric hold the state plaque.

On occasion, I’ll stop to look at the team photo as I walk through the ski room to grab a bag of pellets for my stove. I smirk at the boys’ happy faces, and my own, as I think of the picture’s backstory: two of the guys were late for our sitting and I was not happy. (My former athletes know the look.) But you could never tell by our smiles.

Looking at this photo, it’s easy for me to scroll back 28 sudden years. I have a clear memory of these boys warming up for a race at Black Mountain. They’re skiing as a team, in a long line near the snow pond. Derek leads the pack. They match strides, mirroring one another in a technique known as the V-2. Their skiing exudes confidence, built on endless kilometers of technique work, years of racing, and hour upon hour of road skiing up on Beliveau Road on sizzling summer days. As my team loops through the stadium, junior skiers stare at the Rumford boys admiring their precision and strength. 

These days, Kevin is a high school science teacher. He coaches skiing and golf at a small New Hampshire school surrounded by mountains. Derek’s archrival, Eric, recently opened a martial arts studio in the midwest. He’s the quintessential competitor, so I’m sure he inspires his young athletes. After years as a college administrator, Scott moved on to become chief development officer for our state’s public broadcasting network. He’s still fit from competing in triathlons and chasing his two girls.

A year after our championship, following several months in a coma, Jon died on a sweltering July day as the result of a car accident. Over a 10-year period following his death, we raised thousands of dollars by hosting Jon’s Tournament, a fun-filled community soccer festival. The proceeds still help River Valley graduates with college expenses. In 2006, soft-spoken Aric died in a plane crash on the edge of Denali National Park in his adopted state of Alaska. Father to Kaylea Rhae, who loves to fish like her dad, and husband to Crystal, his adventurous partner, Aric had been doing what he loved, hunting in the Alaskan wild with friends.

Now, when I look at this photo, I still see fresh-faced teenagers, teammates, and champions. I'm also reminded of Chris Larsen, our 7th man on the team. Chris didn't compete in the championship, but he raced all season long and played a critical role in the championship helping with equipment, waxes, and endless support. He should have been in the photo–a regret I still carry.   

This spring, months after searching for Derek with his family and friends, I went up to Black Mountain to hike the cross-country trail and the alpine slopes. It’s a yearly ritual I’ve established. When I got to the course control building where I last saw Derek, I felt compelled to stop. I nudged open the door. On the wooden counter, a scratch of paper lay next to a pencil stub. Part of me hoped to find something more. From there, I jogged the sweeping right-hand turn to the bottom of High School Hill and an image of Derek, midrace, that has survived the past 28 ski seasons.

He glides through the transition of the hill. His mouth forms an O as he draws one steady breath and steps into the climb. Within 20 meters, the steepness of the trail is in his face and he’s established a rhythm. Shoulders square, eyes focusing up the trail. Great climbers stay within themselves on a cross-country trail; they reach for speed, maintain their composure, and stay balanced. That’s Derek. 

Halfway up High School Hill on the right-hand side, lines of bell-clanging spectators cheer him, this coach’s son who has spent his young life skiing these trails. Three-quarters of the way up, where the trail drifts gently to the left, a half dozen junior ski racers stand with their young coach. They’ve come to watch the “big kids” take on this legendary climb. It’s what I used to do with Derek and his teammates when our ski club hosted college races. I imagine this young coach’s words as Derek flies by: “Watch his hands. See how he steps up and seeks speed!”

Cowbells clang.

Spectators chant: Hiya-Hiya, UpUpUp.

This hillside chorus provides rhythm for Derek’s strides as he crests the hilltop and turns toward the finish.

He’s out of sight now, heading home, but the memory of this graceful champion will stay with those young racers, and all of us. I have no doubt that those kids wanted to be Derek, or any member of the 1989 team. And why not. They could do no better as skiers or as people.

Godspeed, Derek.

1989 Maine State XC Champions

'89 kids on the bus