RUMFORD – “Nice day, isn’t it?”

The ski was dull steel gray. The flicker of a breeze came up only occasionally. The air temperature hovered around 40. In front of us, dozens of young men and women churned the snow with their narrow Nordic skis and poles.

One man’s nice day can easily be another’s difficult day. The foot of snow that fell here earlier in the week was losing ground to trail grooming, warming temperatures, and the incessant swishing of skis. Saturday was the day to practice and test before today’s start to the weeklong U.S. cross country championships at Black Mountain of Maine.

The course was breaking down. Competitors from Alaska and Rocky Mountain states were already muttering. “It will be OK,” said “nice-day” Tommie Grace. “We’ll get more.”

Notice he didn’t say make. Beneath trees in the surrounding woods there was plenty of snow for the taking. A shovel brigade of volunteers assembled at 2 in the afternoon, heading for the woods. The beating heart of the venerable Chisholm Ski Club will take care of today’s needs and every other day this week, just as they did in 2004, the last time this event came to Maine.

While everything around this sport has changed in the name of technology, one thing hasn’t. It has kept its soul.

“It’s such a small community,” said Matt Dunlap, the Mainer and former North Yarmouth Academy Nordic ski coach who returned to Black Mountain this week as assistant coach with the University of Alaska ski team.

“Everyone cares about each other.”

Dunlap’s allegiance is to the men and women on the Alaska team. When he checks the results sheets his heart will direct his eyes to Maine racers. Dunlap, who skied for perennial high school powerhouse Mt. Blue and captained the Bates College team, understands the distinguished place Nordic skiing has in Maine’s sports culture.

So does Grace, who grew up in Rumford and was the 1972 state skimeister, when that title included all the ski disciplines, including jumping. He lives in Bar Harbor now, tending a golf course through three seasons and plowing snow in winter.

Saturday, Grace packed his bag to come back to Black Mountain for the week to give back, serving as a technical judge, lugging boxes of supplies or shoveling snow.

“For those of us who grew up in Rumford and Mexico, we see this is as Mecca. Back in the ’60s, when they built more of this place and had to blast ledge, families would drive up, buy hot dogs and watch the blasting.

“I skied all day here as a kid. At night I found a place to skate.”

Back then, before the paper mill became more automated and lost jobs, Rumford and Mexico were boom towns. But money didn’t find its way easily into kids’ pockets.

“The town supported the ski teams. The town supported me. We had white tag sales. Donate money and you got a white tag.”

The tags typically were good for nothing. You couldn’t turn them in for a discounted meal or a free tank of gas. The tags simply showed your support for the Chisholm Club ski teams.

A race photo of a muscular Grace on the trail hangs in a small room in the new lodge that serves as the Black Mountain museum. Grace is happy to point it out, and he should be proud.

He remembers the work and training that went into winning the title of skimeister, particularly when he approached what he calls Old School Hill on the Nordic course.

“You had to break through the pain barrier. When you did, it was almost euphoric afterward.”

He skied at Lyndon State College in Vermont but was done skiing competitively by 1975. “Booze and drugs got me,” said Grace. “I’m not afraid to say it. I made some bad decisions.”

He looked again at the skiers passing in front of us, half of them poling their way from the start-finish line and the other half tucked and gliding down a small hill toward the finish.

“I know the sacrifices they have to make to be here, to be this good. I got help. Now it’s time for me to help them.”

Grace was right. It was a nice day.

Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:

ssolloway@pressherald.com