- Associated Press - Sunday, March 1, 2020

KALISPELL, Mont. (AP) - Swirling wind kicks up the snow around John Steitz’s feet as he watched his students zig-zag their way down the course he had set for them on the Blacktail Mountain Ski Area west of Lakeside.

With students gathered around him, Steitz breaks down their runs, giving advice and encouragement. The sun is shining, the snow is great and Steitz is exactly where he loves to be.

For 40 years, Steitz has spent his time on the slopes helping train skiers, mostly in Lake Placid, New York - home of the 1980 Winter Olympics. These days, Steitz spends most of his time on Blacktail, working with skiers as the coach of the Montana Alpine Race School (MARS) Foundation, which he helped open in 2016.

A far cry from the overcrowded slopes Steitz was used to back east, Blacktail Mountain offers what he and his students consider just the right combination of good runs and a laid-back atmosphere that provide the perfect opportunity to learn.

“The team here is so small and condensed that racers can get more one-on-one instruction, and that is great,” 14-year-old Big Sky racer Morgane Vap told the Daily Inter Lake. “In Big Sky, there are so many of us that it is difficult to get that kind of personal attention. It also allows us to get more runs in during a training session, which is very helpful.”

According to Morgane and her father David, Blacktail offers a chance to practice and learn in an environment with fewer skiers and restrictions than their home course in Big Sky, which they say has become overcrowded in recent years.

It is that opportunity for individual instruction that drew 15-year-old Lakeside resident Audrey Metzler to the program. According to Metzler, who has been racing since she was 5, the MARS program and Blacktail Mountain provide a near-perfect place to improve her skills.

“We have so much fun and, with such a small team, it seems like we get more done each time we train,” she said. “We really have something special here at Blacktail Mountain. We can train on any run that we want to, which is something you don’t get to do at other mountains. Also, the employees here are super welcoming to us. They really work with us and support us. It really is a great place to train.”

Steitz’s path from New York to Blacktail was not a direct one, having spent time away from coaching before finding his way to Whitefish Mountain Resort, working with skiers there as part of the Flathead Valley Ski Education Foundation.

When a difference of opinions led to Steitz’s departure from Big Mountain, he found himself looking for a new home where he could train his students. After several of his students repeatedly told him how much they loved Blacktail Mountain, Steitz decided to check it out for himself.

“They kept telling me how good the snow was at Blacktail and what a good hill it is. After I finally made it over there, I was amazed how good it was,” he said. “There is so much potential.”

Today, MARS hosts four full-time youth racers and one part-time racer as well as a Masters team, ranging from dedicated adult ski racers to adults who just want to have some fun zipping through courses. Full-time students spend 10 to 12 hours per week on the mountain, training four days while learning to juggle their training and school work.

“It really takes a lot of dedication and sacrifice to ski at this level,” Steitz said. “It is about more than just skiing, though, and making sure these kids are learning what they need to is a big responsibility. Being a ski coach means a lot of things. You are a travel agent, a psychologist, a motivator and more. I just want to help kids and help them be the best skiers and the best people they can be.”

While still relatively new, MARS already has produced several success stories, including Whitefish’s Mikaela Daniels, who is currently training with the New York Ski Education Foundation at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid and Masters skier Anne Paschen, who brought back two age-class medals - including a World Championship in the giant slalom for her age class - from the International Ski Federation championships in Big Sky in 2018.

With interest in the MARS program continuing to grow, Steitz is hoping to get the opportunity to continue passing on his knowledge for a long time to come.

“This mountain has had six teams here in the past that have failed. I am bound and determined not to see that happen this time around. This really is a great place for kids to learn and I want to keep that going,” he said. “I want to give back to this mountain so badly and I will do everything I can to fill Blacktail’s needs.”

For more information on the MARS program, visit www.montanaalpineraceschool.com or look them up on Facebook.

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