FRANCONIA NOTCH, N.H. — The Hochgebirge Challenge Cup, held last weekend at Cannon Mountain, is the country’s oldest ski club race. First down the slalom course on a blustery morning was David “Duffy” Dodge of St. Johnsbury, Vt., who finished in 1 minute, 6.03 seconds.
At 86, Dodge is a decade older than the race itself — and was the sole entrant in the 85-and-older division. Still, he was not alone in representing The Greatest (Skiing) Generation on a day when many racers young enough to be his grandchildren skied the same demanding course.
Down the mountain behind Dodge came fellow New Englanders George MacNeil, 82; John Kielty, 84; Alphonse Sevigny, 83; and Paul Rich, 84 — all born when Herbert Hoover was in the White House and hickory skis and leather-strap bindings were state-of-the-art equipment.
The five octogenarians have been skiing against one another for years — decades, in some cases — as they challenge assumptions about competitive sports and aging.
Their hair may be white, but in their hearts they’re gate-crashing Bode Millers, hellbent on reaching the finish line the fastest.
“We like beating up on our buddies, but we are buddies,” said Dodge, nodding at the other men.
The only shared quality conceivably stronger than their competitiveness is the camaraderie that binds them together, week after knee-testing week, through a 20-race New England ski season. Although they tease each other about the vicissitudes of aging, the hearing aids and back braces they take with them to the mountain, they recognize they possess something rare and precious, too.
Many of their athletic contemporaries “have gone by the wayside,” Dodge said with a touch of wistfulness. “But we’re still here.”
Other than Sevigny and MacNeil, they are widowers. Rich is the only great-grandfather in the group. Dodge is the patriarch of a legendary New England ski family: His son Peter coaches the Dartmouth College men’s alpine team, while son David owns Dodge Ski Boots, a specialty boot manufacturer in Essex, Vt.
MacNeil, who sported an ugly gash on his nose, the result of an awkward fall he’d taken on the slopes the day before, was all smiles as he grabbed his helmet and goggles and tucked in his racing suit. Five-foot-nine and a trim 145 pounds, he still skis with the fluidity of a lifelong athlete.
“I was a ski instructor for years but never a racer until I retired,” said MacNeil, a former engineer who owns a home at Cannon Mountain. “I spent 30 years learning how to go slow. Then I turned 65 and had to learn how to go fast.”
North America is home to 10.2 million alpine skiers, only 2 percent of whom are 65 and older, according to Snowsports Industries of America, a member-owned trade association. That puts skiers like Dodge, MacNeil, Sevigny, Rich, and Kielty in rather exclusive company, actuarially speaking.
Add in the competition factor, and they vault into a truly elite group. According to the US Ski Association, which sponsors about 200 races annually around the country, the 80-to-84 age group, or Class 12, boasts only 23 ski racers. Those 85-and-older category comprises an even smaller group, eight in all, with Dodge, Sevigny, and Rich among the very top performers at their levels.
Dodge, the most physically imposing of the group at 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds, won a pair of gold medals at last year’s Masters National Championships in Utah and captured three more at the 2012 FIS World Criterium Masters races, held at Mammoth Mountain in California. How many New England masters races he has won is unclear — hundreds, Dodge guesses — but he’s showing no signs of calling it a career.
In mid-March, he will join Sevigny and Rich on a three-day road trip from Rich’s home in Laconia, N.H., to Big Sky, Mont., site of the 2013 US Ski Association Alpine Masters Nationals. Sevigny is the defending Class 12 champ in the Men Super Combined, Men Super G, Men Giant Slalom, and Men Slalom events. Rich also medaled in all four events last year.
Rich has managed to pile up the hardware despite three back operations, hip replacement surgery, broken bones, and a chronic respiratory ailment that kept him on the sidelines last year. His victory at this year’s Hochgebirge Cup was hardly an upset, though Rich acknowledged that Sevigny might have beaten him but for a bad slip on Sevigny’s first run.
“I got down, though,” Rich said modestly.
Dodge was equally self-deprecating after he tumbled on his second run, although he managed to right himself and finish in a respectable 1:27.69. “Well, I won,” he said, laughing. “I fell and crawled around the course a bit. But I won.”
Winning is sweet, of course. For younger racers, though, who approach men like Dodge and Sevigny just to shake their hand and exchange a friendly word or two, it’s about more than trophies. These racers know what it takes to strap on skis and try to beat the clock, week after grueling week. The idea of doing so decades into the future is both mind-blowing and inspiring.
Ted Bidwell, 71, who retired from the financial industry before becoming a painter in Gloucester, Mass., and who regularly skis on the New England Masters circuit, is among their many admirers.
“We figure, if he’s doing it, I can do it too,” said Bidwell, relaxing between races in the lodge next to the course. Older skiers who competed at a high level long ago, some on their college teams and a handful on the US national team, often to seem to have “some unfinished business,” Bidwell added, especially those whose racing careers were shortened by injury or illness.
Dodge and Rich go way, way back as competitors, Dodge having skied for the University of Vermont, Rich for the University of New Hampshire. Their wives were once sorority sisters.
Kielty has also been skiing since boyhood, learning the sport on a rope-tow serviced slope in Fitchburg, Mass. His first pair of hickory skis, Kielty recalls, were strapped onto his street shoes. Along with the others, he marvels at the high-tech gear now available to skiers of all ages.
“We wouldn’t be doing this without it,” he said.
Sevigny, a retired Bell Labs supervisor from Amesbury, Mass., took a different route to competitive skiing. He didn’t try the sport at until turning 50, then took another 15 years to begin racing. Joining the masters circuit in 2000, he met Rich and Dodge. They’ve since become fast friends and road companions.
Sevigny concedes his buddies are more technically polished racers than he is.
“What they do is inbred, it’s automatic,” he said. “Someone like myself can learn [to race], but my body doesn’t do it automatically like theirs do.”
After the races had ended and entrants gathered at the Hochgebirge Ski Club house to gather their loot — and sip a post-race beer or two — Dodge and the others mentioned another over-80 racer, Richard Calvert, who had skipped the race due to family issues. Calvert, 89, is the oldest surviving member of the US Army’s fabled 10th Mountain Division to still be skiing competitively, they noted. A great story in his own right.
Reached at his home in Wolfeboro, N.H., Calvert ventured that he’s the oldest masters ski racer in New England, period.
As “something of a speed freak,” added Calvert, a three-time national downhill champion, he’s been clocked at nearly 60 miles per hour in recent years. “For a guy in his 80s, that’s pretty good.”