Ithaca High skiing helping build sport’s culture

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Ithaca High School adopted a varsity alpine skiing team four years ago, spearheaded by then-student Lily Cowen, who is now the president of the Cornell Alpine Ski Team. Now, the team is in the hands of Ian Hayward, whose passion for the sport of skiing is radiant. Hayward is a first-year coach for a team of 16 Little Red skiers, including his son, the top-ranked skier in the section, Aidan Hayward Toland.

Being the only skiing team in the county, the Little Red compete with four teams from the Catskills region. Ithaca’s home mountain for both meets and practices is Greek Peak in Cortland, and the peak will be hosting a race on Feb. 2.

The theme of the season for Aidan has always been to be ready. That works well considering that the home meet was supposed to take place on Jan. 17 but was postponed due to inclement weather.

“We try to practice at least weekly because we have races pretty early on in the season,” Aidan said. “We try to prepare ourselves as much as we can for that stuff. Before the season, we also do indoor stuff where we work out. We try to stay as ready as possible before and during the season.”

While there have only been two weeks of competition thus far, the ski team has been working hard for months.

“It started [in November] with the trainers in the gym at IHS,” Ian Hayward said. “There was a very, very challenging dry-land regimen they were on, which includes all kinds of weight training. It’s all about getting your core and lower body strength up to be able to take the challenge of this kind of course on.”

Spending all that time together builds the bond of the team. Despite skiing being primarily an individual sport, Ithaca performs with a team mindset when on the slope.

“In our races, I think [our success comes from] us as a team,” Aidan said. “We work really well together, and we’re a very supportive team. There’s individual skill, but I think our teamwork has been very good in making our skiers who they are right now.”

When discussing the sport of skiing, Ian said that failure is a huge part of it. Once a skier falls in a race, they’re eliminated from contention. Despite having that much pressure, spirits are high for Ithaca.

“On the bus rides, there’s a lot of singing, which is awesome,” Ian said. “This is a great group of kids. I’m really lucky. I feel really blessed to be around these guys. They’re happy all the time. When they fall, they help each other out. They’ll cheer. They don’t care where you are. If you didn’t finish, your teammates are all behind you.”

One of the most positive aspects of the team is the opportunity it provides for those interested in taking up the sport. With Ithaca providing the equipment, there is no barrier to entry as there would be outside of school.

“It’s a really interesting opportunity,” Aidan said. “And that’s for a lot of people, not just regular racers but people who just want to ski. I think it opens up a lot of paths for them. It’s really fun, and I think it’s important to share these kinds of things with people.”

Through those opportunities, Ithaca has been represented by quite a few successful skiers at the high school level. Just last year, five boys on the team went to the state championships. Those are big shoes to fill, but the team is off to a great start.

“Tracking right now, it’s way too early to tell,” Ian said. “But we’ve got five or six kids tracking to take those spots at states. We’ve got some work to do, though - more laps on the snow, more time. A lot of this is psychological, making sure you’re focused on the next turn and not the end.”

Several skiers from last year’s team have moved on to the college level or switched over to out-of-school competition. That includes IHS senior Ryan Morse, who will be competing at the Empire State Games beginning on Jan. 30 in the Adirondacks amongst some of the best winter athletes in the state. Morse was present at the latest Ithaca practice to help build the next generation.

“We’re really proud of our skiers,” Ian said. “There’s another thing that’s great too: mentorship. We can do all the drills, we can do all the talking, but some of the older kids will help those younger kids and pull them up.”

At the end of the day, what’s most important for Ian is helping build the sport of skiing in the Ithaca area. He works with Greek Peak’s adaptive ski team when he’s not coaching the Little Red, helping those who are developmentally disabled take on the mountain.

“There’s a culture here that just really loves to ski,” Ian said. “My hope is that will be contagious with this next generation of skiers, get them motivated to come out and ski and race. In the end, racing teaches you those really valuable life lessons of getting back up when you fall down. Being able to find courage when you don’t think you can.”

The next opportunity for the skiers to represent the Little Red will be on Friday, Jan. 24. The team will be traveling to Windham Mountain in the Catskills as the Feb. 5 date of sectionals inches closer. This will be just about a three-hour journey for Ithaca with an 8:30 a.m. departure. The travel may be long, but it’s all worth it for these athletes.

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