A local couple caused some consternation in Aspen, Colo., last week when they became champions in a national ski racing series.
JoEllen and Steve Burford of Manassas, Va., served notice that ski racers don’t have to come from traditional snow country states, champions don’t have to work or train in the ski industry and age isn’t a barrier for committed athletes. The Burfords handily won the Jeep King of the Mountain National Challenge to become the top recreational ski racing team in the nation.
They represented Washington Ski International, a local ski racing organization that has staged a season-long series of ski races in the Middle Atlantic region for 26 years.
“The rest of the country, of course, doesn’t know about WSI,” Steve Burford said. “But we put them on the map. Throughout the competition, JoEllen and I wore our WSI vests. I guess we proved that you no longer have to come from a ski town to be a good skier.”
The Burfords also struck a blow for over-40 athletes with their victory.
“It was such an inspiration standing on the podium next to snowboarders who were 25 years younger then we are,” said Steve, who at 52 is five years older than his wife. “The Jeep people ate it up.”
The organizers of the event liked the Burfords and what they represented enough that they asked JoEllen to speak at the awards dinner on their last night in Aspen.
The Burfords won because they make a good team. Their times through gates are consistently within fractions of a second of each other, giving them an advantage when times are combined for scoring purposes. Most teams have a time disparity between team members.
The Burfords also were fortunate that they avoided injury, an all too common factor in ski racing. The favored team in Aspen went down when Kelly Lewis broke her leg in practice. Her husband and teammate is Doug Lewis, a former U.S. Ski Team member, bronze medal winner in the downhill in the 1985 world championships and national downhill champion in 1986 and 1987.
“It was like a fairy tale the way it ended up for us,” JoEllen said. “We met people we had seen on television. They were so gracious, and they talked with us. It was wonderful.”
The Burfords worked hard to get to the podium in Aspen. They finished second at a local qualifier at Canaan Valley Resort in West Virginia at the end of January. They were there racing with WSI and decided to enter the Jeep race that morning.
“There were three WSI teams within half a second of each other,” Steve said. “The Canaan instructor teams were five seconds behind us.”
The winning team from that qualifier, Lance Bravard of the District and Mary Hollein of Columbia, Md., couldn’t make the next race, so the Burfords carried the WSI banner to Snowshoe, W.Va., for the regionals. The third-place team at Canaan representing WSI was Laura Gabanski of Kensington and Stan Van Gelder of Baltimore.
The race at Snowshoe was much the same for the Burfords, who outclassed the rest of the field. The win there earned them the trip to Aspen to compete for the national title.
“Sam Mantis [WSI founder and guiding light] has done an excellent job,” Steve said. “We truly have a competition within the club. And that only makes us better. It’s not an adversary relationship. None of us are making money from ski racing. We share information, train together and help each other get better.”
Much of WSI’s training is done at Ski Roundtop in Lewisberry, Pa, according to Steve. This season, Diann Roffe, an Olympic and world champion medal winner, conducted a series of training sessions and workshops at Roundtop and sister areas Liberty (Carroll Valley, Pa) and Whitetail (Mercersburg, Pa). The Burfords, and other WSI racers, took advantage of the lessons.
“Diann helped us a lot,” Steve said. “She made the competition stiffer. JoEllen became her star pupil.”
Steve Burford came to ski racing naturally. Born in Germany, he started skiing as a child. In the 1970s he was a state champion in Pennsylvania and a NASTAR pacesetter. When he’s not racing or training he runs a storage company.
“Before we were married, I told JoEllen that she’d have to keep skiing if this was going to work,” Steve said. “She’s really kept her end of the bargain.”
JoEllen, who got involved with skiing at Massanutten in Harrisonburg, Va., is a retired high school teacher and gymnastics coach. The couple has been involved with WSI for 16 years, and JoEllen is the three-time defending club champion racer.
Winning the Jeep Challenge isn’t the end of their skiing or racing careers.
“I want to ski until God says I can’t do it anymore,” JoEllen said. “I can’t wait to get that patch on my coat that says ‘70-Plus Ski Club.’ I’m looking ahead to the Senior Olympics.”