The St. Croix Valley is home to several downhill ski areas. This means tons of talent gets developed as families spend time together at their local recreational ski hill. For more talented skiers, Alpine race teams offer exciting opportunities and challenges. This past year, the Stillwater Area High School (SAHS) boys and girls Alpine teams captured their respective section titles and the girls’ team won the Minnesota state championship.
In his third year as head coach and only the third coach in SAHS Alpine team history, coach Kevin Neubauer says it was a great year but the hardest year to balance along with his work life. “I have a real job but lead a double life in the wintertime,” Neubauer says.Clearly Neubauer loves the sport. He started downhill skiing at around age 5 when his parents took him to Afton Alps for some family time. “From a family perspective, 5–6 skiers can go down the same hill at different levels of ability and have a great experience to discuss at the bottom,” he says. But Neubauer played competitive hockey as a kid and found it difficult to find time to ski. “As hockey got more competitive and political … skiing really intrigued me,” he says. After the age of 13, Neubauer decided to quit hockey and pursue ski racing. He says the social aspect he found in family skiing also exists on an Alpine ski team. “That chair lift ride means a lot,” he says.
The SAHS boys and girls teams had 65 skiers in its program last year and the numbers continue to grow. Mark Schwantes is the assistant coach among eight coaches on staff. “One of the first things I did was surround myself with really good talent,” Neubauer says. “I knew I could not do this with just one–two people.” Together, Neubauer and Schwantes discuss the strengths and weaknesses across any competing team. “You have to determine who your competition is. We keep a close eye on other teams,” he says knowing that, “people keep an eye on Stillwater” since the program has had a team make it to the state meet in all but one of its 29-year history.
Neubauer’s daughter Maddie skied on last year’s SAHS championship team. She says, “Skiing in general is a super difficult sport because the tiniest flaw in the course could be the difference between winning and taking fourth [place]. Another challenging part is that racing is such a mental sport and so you really have to have your head in the right spot to perform your very best.” Maddie graduated from Stillwater in 2018 and also placed 18th overall in the individual state competition.
Kirsten Anderson, a younger skier from the girls championship team says, “The most rewarding part of skiing is getting to do something I love on a competitive level, but also having it be a really fun hobby too.” As for the mental aspect of racing, she says, “A high school ski race is about 30 seconds long so you have to make every second count without messing up. The more I’ve raced, the less nervous I get.” For her, mentoring younger skiers is about helping them deal with nerves. Kirsten returns as a junior at SAHS and placed 23rd in the individual girls Alpine championship meet last year.
For families interested in Alpine ski racing, Neubauer recommends younger athletes begin racing through club or ski area programs before joining the high school team. “You must build a foundation someplace else and give it a shot,” he says. “If you have a fourth or fifth grader, go for it, but keep in mind that many of these kids have started at ages 5–6 and habits get formed young.” That said, some skiers with little to no experience “can make big improvements in a year or two,” he says.
If ski racing isn’t your thing, that family ski experience is still something great memories are made of. So get out there this winter and enjoy all the skiing the St. Croix Valley has to offer.
Local Ski Areas: