Tyler Holmquist started skiing down hills when he was 2. Later on, he learned the Nordic techniques of skating and kick-and-glide well enough to become, by high school, a skimeister.

As a sophomore and junior at Gray-New Gloucester High School, Holmquist placed fifth in Class A in the skimeister competition, which includes the four distinct disciplines of slalom and giant slalom in Alpine racing and freestyle and classical in cross-country skiing.

For his senior year, Holmquist is aiming for a top-three finish. Of course, just reaching the top of the race course will be an achievement.

Nine months ago, it appeared that Gray-NG’s Alpine team would be a victim of budget cuts.

“I was really bummed out that we might not have a team my senior year,” said Holmquist, who lives in Gray. “The whole (aspect) of being a skimeister would be taken away if I couldn’t do the Alpine part of it.”

Alpine skiing and golf were on the chopping block because low levels of participation intersected with reduced overall funding. Instead of spreading the hurt throughout all athletic programs, G-NG’s former athletic director recommended lopping those two programs.

When the athletes to be affected got wind of it, they banded together and showed up at a school board budget workshop to plead their case.

Holmquist spoke. So did classmate Robby Sutherland and his sister, Karen, now a sophomore. Ditto for half a dozen others.

They spoke passionately about their love of a lifelong sport, of the experience of being part of a team, of the school’s history with skiing, which includes overall state championships in 1973, 1976 and 1981.

“I guess it turned the tide of people’s opinions,” said Robby Sutherland, whose father, David, is a member of the school board.

The board cut a deal with the team members and their parents. Skiers would have to pay a $150 activity fee — same as hockey and football players — and have at least five boys and five girls signed up and paid in full by Oct. 15.

After a successful recruiting drive, both golf and Alpine skiing were saved. The golf team had 16 members, the ski team initially drew 20, but the current roster includes nine boys and seven girls.

“We’ve got three boys and two girls who are brand new to ski racing and one athlete who is very new to the sport of skiing,” said second-year Coach Will McMellon, who made a point of staying out of the budget situation because he didn’t want to appear as if he were fighting to save his job. “But what’s really nice with skiing is that, this is something these kids can do for the rest of their lives. As we know, winter lasts a long time around here.”

McMellon is a ski instructor at Sunday River who works with special needs students at Greely High. He says that, without a middle school ski program, Gray-NG isn’t able to compete on a level with Western Maine Conference rivals Greely, Falmouth and Yarmouth.

“We’re not going to win anything (at the state level),” he said. “But with the numbers we have, we’re going to be OK.”

The Nordic ski team, which boasts more than 30 members, was never in jeopardy.

McMellon and his assistant, Chris Carpentier, still haven’t seen many of his skiers run any gates yet, because December’s pre-Christmas conditions offered little snow. The first meet is scheduled for Monday at Shawnee Peak.

What the coaches have noticed, however, is a different attitude toward the normally mundane dryland training.

“They know they’re fighting to keep the program going,” McMellon said. “The kids are working harder and I think the parents have instilled that in them.”

Robby Sutherland said, “With more kids on the team, there’s more of a sense of community.”

The parents formed a booster club for the first time since the late ’70s, as far as club president Carl Wilcox can tell. He was a Nordic skier on that ’81 state title team — as was Tyler’s dad, Carl Holmquist, who skied Alpine — and remembers the club raising money to build a ski jump that was completed his freshman year.

Within two years, the Maine Principals’ Association joined a national trend and banned ski jumping because of safety and liability concerns, first for smaller schools and then for everyone.

The largely wooden structure built on the edge of a gravel pit eventually rotted. Its remains lay beneath the Route 26 bypass.

Wilcox, whose eighth-grade son races Alpine and won a middle school skimeister title last winter, said most of the credit for saving the program should go to the students who stood up at the budget workshop.

“I think it got the attention of the school board,” he said, “more than if just some parents showed up.”

Regardless of how the Patriots fare on the slopes this winter, they’ve already achieved learned a valuable lesson that has nothing to do with edges, lines or carving.

“They learned about the political process, and that speaking up for something you believe in actually works,” said Beth Sutherland, mother to Robby and Karen. “It might not work all the time, but it can. I think that was a really important lesson rather than to just sit back and complain. Get involved. Lo and behold, you’ve got your ski team back.”

 

Staff Writer Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at: [email protected]