Setting the standard: Former Olympic skier Kitt lends a hand to local racers
Alpine skiers from East Ridge, Park and Woodbury high schools got a special treat last week.
The area skiers not only got a chance to meet one of the country's best downhill racers at Thursday's race against Hill-Murray, they also got a chance to see how they stack up.
Four-time Olympian A.J. Kitt ran the course at Afton Alps, as a guest forerunner and pacesetter, giving everyone on the teams who raced the course an opportunity to compare themselves to the top skiers in the world.
As the forerunner, Kitt ran through the course to make sure it was fair and of good quality. Then, as a NASTAR pacesetter, he raced the hill to set a par time, so anyone who raced the course could compare themselves not only to Kitt, but to other skiers in the world through Kitt's handicap.
"It's great being able to see people just racing because they love it and at the beginning of the pipeline where these kids are learning," Kitt, 44, said. "You come here and see great racing and kids that are psyched about it. It's good for the soul."
Kitt skied the World Cup circuit for 11 years, from 1987 until he retired in 1998. Over his career, Kitt won one World Cup race - a downhill race in Val d'Isère in December 1991 - had six World Cup podiums, five in downhill and one in Super-G, and had 21 World Cup top-10 finishes. At the 1993 World Championships, Kitt placed third in the downhill. After retirement, Kitt became a traveling pacesetter for NASTAR races. NASTAR (an acronym for National Standard Race) is the world's largest known recreational ski and snowboard race program. Through NASTAR's handicapping system, theoretical times can be produced for any skier in the world, so skiers of any age or ability can compare themselves not only to Kitt, but to other skiers across the state, the country and the globe.
"You can kind of see where you are at, not only here, but in the world," head coach Kevin Seipel said. "It was a great event and a great night to try it. The kids definitely enjoyed having them out there. I know A.J. talked to some of the kids, made some comments and signed a bunch of stuff. I think even people from the crowd were giving him some stuff to sign."
Though many of the downhill skiers on the East Ridge, Park and Woodbury alpine teams were toddlers when Kitt was in his prime, Seipel said the kids did their homework .
"I'm sure all of them didn't know who A.J. Kitt was," he said. "But, they did research him to find out his results and find out that he was the top skier in the country before Bode Miller and Ted Ligety, and that he was the most medaled downhiller. He was an incredible skier. The kids getting to meet someone like him and see him race is a pretty big deal I think."
Along with Kitt, head of NASTAR Bill Madsen was on hand for the meet. Seipel has also been a pacesetter at Afton since 1989 and has known Kitt and Madsen a long time. Kitt and Madsen were in town for the NASTAR Midwest Regional Championships at Spirit Mountain in Duluth this past weekend. Seipel, who was bringing Kitt and Madsen to the event, asked them if they'd take part in his team's meet first.
"A.J. is just as down-to-earth a person as you're going to meet and he is really into ski racing," Seipel said. "He's the perfect ambassador for NASTAR. With stuff like brining him in I just want to build some excitement for the sport and our team and get our numbers up more."
Kitt said he "loves" doing pacesetting for NASTAR, and that it's allowed him to get "back to the grassroots."
"The thing I like about it is the racing," Kitt said. "I like to ski powder, but most of my days during the year are on a race course and skiing on groomed stuff, which is what I really like. I really get into watching kids race, or anyone race really, working on it and helping people get better and faster and seeing that stoke the fires within them about the sport."
Throughout the meet, Kitt met with the athletes, signed autographs, posed for pictures and passed along some worthwhile advice. He said the No. 1 thing about ski racing - or athletics in general - is practice.
"When I quit racing I thought I had done everything I could possibly do to be the best, but as I got away from it more that I could have practiced more and trained more," Kitt said. "In hindsight, practice is what it is really about. You have to be the guy that practices the most. If you're not, there's a chance you're not going to be the best. That's what I preach to people - practice, practice, practice. Don't sit in the lodge, don't use excuses or shortcuts, just get out and practice and find a way to make it fun."