Lost sports of the Winter Olympics: ski joëring, the wild mix of horse riding and skiing

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More than 10,000 kilometers from the Chinese capital at Kamas, Utah, thousands of people will flock to High Star Ranch to watch skiers race down a course of jumps, rings and gates.

Some of these competitors will reach speeds of 40 miles per hour – an impressive feat given that they are essentially racing on a flat course. Although these skiers have a trick up their sleeve – or, more accurately, a galloping trick on the other end of their rope.

Yeah ! Don your cowboy hat and gallop into the wild world of Western-style skijoring – otherwise known as “Ben Hur on Snow”,

Introduced in St. Moritz, Switzerland in 1928, skijoring has the honor of being the very first demonstration sport at the Winter Olympics, but the discipline’s origins extend far beyond its beginnings. games.

Practiced differently according to the continents, the history of skijoring is complex. Fortunately, Loren Zhimanskova, President of SkijorUSA and Skijor International, has a fountain of knowledge for all things skijoring.

A key coordinator of American skijoring and central to the sport’s growing reputation in the region, Zhimanskova’s passion for skijoring is matched only by her seemingly endless knowledge of its history and people.

Born in Europe, skijoring has taken many forms over the years. It started with skiers pulled by reindeer in Lapland, before trying its hand behind horses, dogs and – popularized in the 1950s – behind motorbikes and cars.

Zhimanskova has even heard of skijorers being towed by planes, although she insists the riders let go before takeoff.

The frozen lake of St Moritz – host to the glitzy annual White Turf event since 1907 – has been described as the sport’s spiritual home, but skijoring crossed the Atlantic soon after and has since become a growing discipline in America. .

To ride or not to ride?

The main difference with the European version of skijoring is that in the United States the horse has a rider.

While in Switzerland many competitors grow up on horse ranches and ski, in the United States most are either very accomplished riders or very accomplished skiers.

For many American racers and skiers, the start line will be the first time they meet.

“They just put their talents together and did their best — it’s fun like that,” Zhimanskova told CNN.

At White Turf, competitors will race around a flat oval track twice – leaving the gates at the same time – while Western-style sees skijorers navigate an obstacle course punctuated with jumps, collectable hoops and gates to be overcome in record time. -test format.

White Turf has been described as the “playground of the rich and famous”, with sponsors ranging from BMW to Credit Suisse, and Zhimanskova finally achieved her dream of experiencing glamor first-hand in 2016.

“When I walked on this frozen lake, I felt like it was holy ground,” Zhimanskova said.

“As a historian, I’m really here and really going to see this. And it was just as spectacular as I had imagined.”

It also gave Zhimanskova the opportunity to share with locals how the sport was played differently in the United States.

Their reaction? “You are crazy.”

“They had no idea how we skijored here,” Zhimanskova said.

“And I said, ‘Well it’s funny you say that because when I describe how you do skijoring in Switzerland…we think you’re crazy!’ So we had a good laugh.”

American hospitality

If White Turf is the Monegasque Grand Prix of ski joëring, does the United States have an equivalent to the Super Bowl?

Despite some old events like Leadville, Colorado — a 73-year-old site that sees competitors race down the city’s main street — the United States doesn’t have a flagship event, but that’s by design.

The soul of American skijoring is its sprawling diversity and uniqueness from place to place. While White Turf takes place once a year on three Sundays in February, the US skijoring season runs from early January to mid-March with venues spread from Calgary along the spine of the Rocky Mountains to Ridgeway.

While riders can expect an overall similar format in terms of track length and snow depth, all races are staged independently – each sculpted to the organizers’ desires.

Some events, like Leadville, take place on a main street. Others take place on rodeo grounds or in a hay field.

All have different prize pools ranging from $40,000 to a simple jackpot consisting of an entry fee. Some races will even reward the winning skijorer with a personalized horse or saddle.

Incorporating skijoring as the centerpiece of a larger weekend festival – filled with food and live music – is an increasingly popular trend, but stand-alone two-day race formats remain.

A new event in Canterbury Park, Minnesota features a wildly popular freestyle event – featuring skiers dropping the ropes on jumps to perform tricks in front of growing crowds of over 10,000. A new snowboard division also continues to flourish.

“Everyone really wants to do it their own way…I respect that, it’s the nature of sports in the United States to be flexible,” Zhimanskova said.

“I think as a community we are very united, it’s just that all of our events have to have their own local flavor.”

Cowboy camaraderie

As such, Zhimanskova and SkijorUSA act as the central coordinating hub for skijoring in the region.

Backed by Zhimanskova’s relentless efforts, skijoring in the United States has enjoyed a golden age over the past decade. Some 23 races are scheduled for 2022, with two more potentially coming to Canada.

Despite the expansion of skijoring in the United States and the multitude of new faces, the grassroots community remains incredibly tight-knit. For Zhimanskova, always on the road, this camaraderie is at the heart of her love for the sport.

“When I travel, I don’t like to feel like a tourist,” Zhimanskova said.

“I like fitting in, I like being able to hang out with people at the local bar and just chatting about life in this town. Everyone is having a good time and everyone is helping each other, which is wonderful .

“Yes, it’s a competition, but it’s that kind of cowboy rodeo culture where you have to have your buddy’s back because you never know when your horse trailer is going to break down and you’re going to have need someone to help you.”

Joe Loveridge, competitor and organizer of Friday’s big event in Utah, wholeheartedly agrees.

“I love the camaraderie, the adrenaline, and the fact that anyone can do it,” Loveridge told CNN.

“There’s no better way to mix a ski town full of skiers with western heritage and cowboy life.

“The sport brings different types of people together and offers fast-paced action and also allows new and young people to participate.”

The Cowboy Channel will broadcast five skijoring races a year, and Zhimanskova is working on a number of potentially high-profile sponsorships, including Justin Boots and Cinch Jeans.

There has even been interest in a reality TV show to potentially follow some of the sport’s eccentric personalities around the circuit.

Operation Olympics

While Zhimanskova doubts that skijoring will ever be on the official Olympics calendar – citing reasons surrounding the Games’ complicated relationship with animals – she would be keen to revive the show tradition or incorporate it into the opening ceremony. opening of the next Games.

Not least because 2028 marks the 100th anniversary of skijoring in the Olympics and there’s a chance Salt Lake City could potentially host the 2030 or 2034 Games.

Imagine the scene: a cowboy or cowgirl riding a horse towards the Opening Ceremonies carrying the American flag, followed in tow by a skier carrying the Olympic torch.

“I think it really represents the American spirit,” Zhimanskova said.

“Freedom, a love of the outdoors and the environment, the ability to come together from different backgrounds, different worlds and compete as a team.

“Of course, the horse is also an iconic animal that has been so important to our growth as a country.”

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