Riismandel finds silver in the mountains

April 23, 1995|By Katherine Dunn | Katherine Dunn,Sun Staff Writer

Exploring the mountains out West still can be intimidating for a girl from back East especially if she skis.

Tania Riismandel decided to take that challenge this winter and spent almost four months skiing with the Snowbird Racing Team in Utah's Wasatch Range near Salt Lake City.

Despite two strong seasons with the Ski Liberty Racing Team, the Centennial High junior knew skiing out there would be a whole different story.

When she joined the Snowbird team the week after Christmas, she summed up her first impression in a simple E-mail message to her parents -- "These girls are awesome. I stink."

But she soon conquered the mountains and even discovered silver there -- in a couple of second-place giant slalom finishes in her age group.

"In the beginning, there were people I couldn't beat. I couldn't get anywhere near them, but after a while, I was catching up and eventually beating some of them. It was neat to see the progress," said Riismandel, also an All-Metro and top club soccer player.

After starting out as about the 10th best girl on the Snowbird team, Riismandel had moved up to fifth before she returned home two weeks ago. Among those ahead of her was Heather Walker, a member of the U.S. Ski Team.

Riismandel never expected to end up among the elite at Snowbird. She just wanted to improve and spend as much time as possible on the slopes -- the same goals she's had since her first day on skis.

Eight years ago, her father took her and her sister Corina, now 20, to Ski Liberty, just north of Emmitsburg in southern Pennsylvania. Her brother Chris, now 22, and Corina enjoyed skiing, but Tania's reaction was a bit different.

Tony Riismandel knew his youngest was hooked that first day. "She really loved it. She looked up at me and said, 'This is the happiest day of my life,' " he said.

After that came lessons, 15 or 20 group trips a year and family skiing vacations. She raced in recreational NASTAR, or national standard race, events and was ranked No. 1 in Maryland in her age group in 1990-91.

In her freshman year, she joined the Ski Liberty Racing Team and qualified for the Pennsylvania Alpine Racing Association championships.

Last year, she boosted her training schedule from weekends to five or six nights a week. That helped her average about 10th in regular-season PARA derbies even though she was among the youngest in her age group.

She ended the 1993-94 season finishing 28th of 50 in the slalom at the Killington (Vermont) Invitational.

Based on her progress with Snowbird, Riismandel would have qualified for the Eastern Junior Olympics had she raced this season at Ski Liberty. Instead, she opted for the greater challenge.

"My dad said it was a really good opportunity for me to see if I really do like it. I'd be training all the time, and getting really into it, I'd improve," said Riismandel, who wants to ski in college although probably in Division III where she might play soccer, too.

With encouragement and a housing offer from friends of the family who had recently moved to Salt Lake City, she and her parents plowed through the red tape to find a school that would accommodate her schedule. She took four courses (earning all A's) at West High then left at 12:30 to ski the rest of the day.

Because the snow season is much longer there, she spent about three times as many days on the slopes as she would have at Ski Liberty. She learned how to ski in all kinds of conditions and improved a key technique that lowered her times considerably.

In the slalom and giant slalom, the tightest alpine racing courses with the most gates, Riismandel always had skied completely around the gates never touching them at all. At Snowbird, she learned cross blocking, hitting the gates with her body while slicing around them with her skis. Eliminating the wide turns chopped lots of time off her course runs.

Despite her vast improvements, Riismandel still lagged considerably behind the team's top racers. Most of them had a big jump on her, hitting the slopes as early as 3 or 4 years old and racing as early as 7.

"I wish I had started sooner. It would have been neat to see how good I could be, because I think I have a lot more potential for racing," she said. "There's nothing for me after college in skiing -- I've realized that. But I love skiing and it's something I'll have for the rest of my life."

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