Saturday morning was ominous and gray. A thick cloud blanketed the top of Baldy, making visibility near zero. The first snow in weeks swirled on a fierce wind. It was very Swedish-feeling weather, perfect for the Leif's Combined race. It evoked the glamorous, chiseled, romantic, athletic and handsome Leif Odmark, the native of Sweden who was father of cross-country skiing in Sun Valley. He died in 2004 at 84, but the Sun Valley Ski Club had years before established the Leif's Combined race.
Many racers turned out for this seemingly innocuous ski event. But a high-voltage undercurrent sparked just below the race's placid surface. In the days leading up to the race, Leif's morphed into a contest between two highly competitive groups of women skiers—the alpine Divas and the Nordic Vamps. For those not familiar with these programs, they are extremely popular instructional teams for adult women who want to improve their technique and learn new things in a supportive group setting.
Down on Cozy, waiting for the giant slalom runs that began Leif's Combined, all was bright and full of life and laughter despite the dark day. The Greyhawk lift line was full of tutus and butterfly wings and boas, mostly on the Divas team. True to their highly competitive nature, some Vamps donned race suits. Wings, ironically, aren't very aerodynamic. Full disclosure—I should probably mention that I ski with a Divas clinic and am inherently biased in their favor, whatever the endeavor.
The team component was added a few weeks before race day. John Campbell of the Sun Valley Ski Club created a complicated mathematical algorithm to keep things fair. And the challenge went out! Divas to Vamps—bring it! Vamps to Divas—consider it brought!
Soon, incendiary emails were flying. Challenges were posted on social media sites. "I predict a super-diva smack down!" said one Diva supporter. "Let's show those trampy vampys," said another. Really, all the trash talk would have been appropriate for a pro wrestling match.
Vamps were smug going into the event. According to Vamps team organizer Karoline Droege, early reports had double or triple the number of Vamps competing as Divas. Using the race's graduate school level math, that factor greatly favored a Vamps' victory. Yet exactly the same number of Divas and Vamps registered. Game on!
After the giant slalom, the anticipation intensified at Sun Valley Nordic. There, the skiers took time for a costume change (Diva Nicky Elsbree almost didn't make the start due to an elaborate wardrobe switch) and made it out to the course. The sun broke through the clouds for a moment as the starting shot rang out.
What was inspiring and noteworthy about the "smack down" was not necessarily how good each team was at its sport, but how many Divas and Vamps were doing something they weren't particularly good at. To the competitors brave enough to try something new or hard, we tip our helmets.
Vamp Droege said, "I have an alpine racing background so I was happy to coach the Vamps for the giant slalom part. I was blown away by how inexperienced many of the girls were in alpine racing. They literally didn't know how to go around the gates. They asked if they were supposed to go to the left or right of them. I explained it, 'red, blue, red, blue.' But they got out and did it. It was amazing!"
One Diva, though a great alpine skier, had never run a gate before Saturday. More were totally inexperienced at Nordic. Two Divas clicked into their first pair of Nordic skis—ever—at the starting line. A Divas coach taught herself how to skate ski on Friday.
One novice racer was Diva Candice Pate. She said, "I got the email with the Vamps challenge. Everyone starting weighing in, egging each other on. The next thing I knew I was agreeing to race in a sport I had never even done before. Divas has been wonderful in nudging me out of my comfort zone—taking on bumps, doing gates, Nordic racing, you name it! With the support of great friends, not to mention the veil of a goofy costume, it's amazing what you will tackle."
Ditto, said the Vamps.
"From a Vamps perspective, when a challenge like that gets thrown down, we show up," said Droege. "Women in their 50s and 60s without a lot of alpine experience turned out and tried it. That's at the heart of Vamps, getting out and going for it."
In reality, most of these women are friends or at least friendly, and many participate, or have participated in both programs. All the trash talk was just that, talk. That's not to say they aren't crazily competitive.
"I think those Vamps are going to take us much more seriously next year," said Diva Susan Robinson. "If there had been style points awarded in addition to event times, we would have taken it."
Elsbree, a Divas coach and top finisher, is already planning for next year since the Vamps squeaked out the team win Saturday by the tiniest of margins. Ellsbree said, "This race was a hilarious, heart-pumping and team-building event. I think we won the most enthusiastic award as a whole. It was so close. We lost, but we'll continue to hold our heads high and train harder (not!) for next year's event."
Overall women's individual winner Droege said that pitting the two women's groups against each other reinvigorated the Leif's Combined event. "I've done Leif's before, and it was always a really small field of women. The team concept this year was brilliant."
Robinson said, "The fact that these women were willing to put themselves out there, dress up in costumes and have fun with the event was so inspiring. It's a good lesson in trying to do your best but not taking yourself so seriously that you can't have some laughs along the way."
Leif Odmark, a bachelor and ladies' man for much of his later life, would have approved of Saturday's "smack down" between the Vamps and Divas. "He's smiling down on us because we added a lot of sass to his event," Elsbree said with a laugh.
This year's race was, um, larger than Leif.