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Story Last modified at 2:02 p.m. on Thursday, February 3, 2011

Racing into the future
Alaska's top female athletes mentor the next generation

BY MATT TUNSETH
Alaska Star

photo:Sports

Mirror Lake seventh-grader Sara Hartke (in purple) tries to eleude several pursures in a game of "chase the tail" during a Fast and Female event held at Chugiak High on Jan. 30. Participants in the event took part in several fun-themed activities designed to give them skills and confidence in their skiing abilities.
STAR PHOTO BY MATT TUNSETH

"You go, girl."

In American popular culture, that phrase has come to signify female empowerment and solidarity, akin to a women's version of "you da man" or "atta boy." But in reality, where many teenage girls actually go is away – away from organized sports, away from exercise and away from the healthy choices that can help them lead active lives as women.

Anchorage's Kikkan Randall wants to help change that.

"There's some alarming statistics out there," said Randall, a three-time Olympian who at age 28 is the most decorated female Nordic skier in U.S. history.

According to the Women's Sports Foundation, girls are six times more likely to drop out of sports than their male counterparts. That's why Randall – along with about two dozen other elite-level coaches and skiers – took part in the third annual "Fast and Female" girls' skiing day at Chugiak High School on Jan. 29.

"Girls drop out a lot more than boys do, so these events are really about getting girls excited about a healthy, active lifestyle, getting involved in sports, not being intimidated and just coming out and having a really good time with their friends," Randall said.

While she spoke, a couple hundred young ladies ranging in age from 9 to 19 giggled and talked about their day on skis while dining on Subway sandwiches (the national chain is one of Randall's biggest sponsors) in the school's commons. They'd just spent the afternoon building their appetites by taking part in a series of drills and games on the nearby cross-country trails, activities designed to both aid their development as skiers and foster what Randall hopes will become a lifelong passion for athletics.

"Hopefully, it starts to be a lifestyle for them," she said.

Founded in 2005 by Canadian cross-country skier Chandra Crawford, Fast and Female has grown into an international organization whose goal is to "increase the attraction, retention and success rate of female athletes," in endurance sports, according to the group's Web site. This year marked the third time the organization has held an event in Alaska, and the first time it's been held outside of Anchorage.

The idea behind the program is to enlist the help of big-time athletes and coaches to serve as mentors and role models for young women in an all-girl setting – and there was plenty of "girl power" to go around this year. Among the mentors who helped out with this year's event were Randall (a 15-time national champ and the only U.S. woman to win a World Cup race), 2010 Olympian Holly Brooks of Anchorage, 2010 U.S. Ski Team member Taz Mannix of Talkeetna and Chugiak's own Lauren Fritz, a former Eagle River High and Middlebury (Vt.) College racer.

Fritz, who now trains with the Alaska Nordic Racing team, said she jumped at the chance to be a part of this year's event in her hometown. While in college, she mentored several budding skiers and said she delights in the smiles and adulation she gets from the young athletes.

"They look up to you, and it really makes you feel like you're having an impact," she said.

Earlier in the day, Fritz and the other coaches put their charges through a series of sometimes-wacky ski drills that had everyone smiling – even while competing against one another. In one, skiers had to chase each other around the snow in a slippery version of tag that resulted in several low-speed crashes and pile-ups. In another, girls raced head-to-head around a short obstacle course, with the winners and losers often sharing a quick hug or pat on the back after crossing the finish line.

Randall said the idea behind the drills wasn't so much to teach the girls to be world-class skiers, but to show them how much fun skiing can be.

"It's mostly just kind of the stoke factor, getting them excited," she said.

Chugiak High sophomore Maggie Wallace said getting to ski alongside some of the sport's elite athletes was a big reason she took part in the event for the second time.

"You're like, 'oh, my God, I just skied with her,'" Wallace said, moments after the girls watched a video of Randall's recent World Cup triumph.

Participants said the all-girl setting of the event helped make them feel more comfortable in an athletic environment.

"You feel equal," said Sara Blumenberg, a classmate of Wallace's at Chugiak.

A third Chugiak sophomore, Iris Flesher, said the event proved to be a fun way to build some female camaraderie.

"It's like a girl party," she said.

The party-like atmosphere is exactly what organizers had hoped for, and Randall said the fun-first event is something she looks forward to all year long.

"This is probably one of the highlights of my year," said Randall, whose year already includes a World Cup victory. "I come out of this event just so fired up and jazzed about my own skiing, and just thinking about where these girls could be in 10 years."

She said she hopes that one or two of Alaska's next Olympians might look back on the Fast and Female event as the point when they got "jazzed" about the sport.

"Hopefully they start to think about where they could potentially take sports in the future if they want to pursue it full time, whether it's high school, college or to the world scene," she said.

Even if none of the skiers who came out to rub elbows with their idols ever makes a World Cup podium, Randall said she's content in the knowledge that many at least gained the confidence to continue living healthy lives, and during a post-ski pep talk she told the wide-eyed group that she – the Olympic hero and Alaska icon – was proud to be in the company of the next generation of female leaders.

"You are laying the foundation for what can be an awesome future," she said.

You go, girls.

Contact Matt Tunseth at matt.tunseth@alaskastar.com or 694-2727.



This article published in The Alaska Star on Thursday, February 3, 2011.