Photo by Karen Sarris
Senior skier and captain Ava Sarris shoots through the gates during a race at Mount Brighton on January 30, 2020. As one of the top skiers on the Birmingham Unified Ski Team, she hopes that she can help her team place high at the state championship race. “The team has been in the top three at Regionals and made it to States every year that I’ve been here, and that is definitely something we want to continue. We want to create a good reputation for the Birmingham team,” Sarris said.
That single word ran through Sophomore skier Mark Morris’ mind on January 28 before bolting out of the starting gates, beginning his race. He knew that this racing hill at Mount Brighton was small and there was no room for error. He could not fall. He could not make a mistake. His team could not afford it. They were counting on him.
After he speeded out of the gates, Morris’ mind became clear. He remembered what his coaches told him before races; the course is icy, these turns need to be fast, and keep pressure on the outside ski the whole way down the hill. He applied his work from weeks of practice and, for the first time all season, had a Top 10 finish. While pride rushed through his mind after this impressive finish, Morris also felt hopeful about the team’s future.
“When I saw my time, I was really proud of myself because as a sophomore, I know that in the next two years, I will definitely improve and have more impressive races like this. Seeing that I was already doing so well surprised me and I was really excited,” Morris said.
Morris is one of many underclassmen on the Groves and Seaholm combined Birmingham Unified ski team. Unlike many other sports, few people join the ski team with much skill. Most are inexperienced and must practice their technique while receiving tips from the coaches and teammates to perform like the upperclassmen. After a season of hard work in both technical and racing aspects, Morris notices a big improvement in the skier’s performance by the end of the season.
“In the beginning, inexperienced skiers aren’t very consistent and fall a lot in practice courses. They have many technical errors like being on their inside ski and they aren’t very fast. Towards the end of the year, they really improve. They’re much faster and they’re much smoother,” Morris said.
Morris’ twin sister Marie is also a member of the ski team and she is one of many underclassmen that strengthen the team. Morris agrees with her brother that the team has lots of potential to place high in the next few years.
“We lost a few good skiers last year, but we have a very strong young team. This year may not be our best year but the team is building a very strong base right now so it will be strong in the future years, but they have potential to do well at regionals and divisionals,” Marie Morris said.
Although she is only a sophomore, Morris is one of the strongest female skiers. She placed seventh at the regional meet last season and she hopes to place in the top five this year. Her teammate, senior captain Ava Sarris, was amazed with her performance immediately after joining the team as a freshman.
“She's been a standout since the beginning. Last year as a freshman, many people were unsure of her ability, but she got in and made Varsity automatically. She killed it and made Varsity faster than anyone expected. She’s definitely a strong asset to this team,” Sarris said.
As one of the top performers for the girls, Morris knows that her performance is critical for the team’s placement. Knowing that her times in her races greatly affect the team, she often becomes nervous before races. Morris controls her nerves by focusing only on her race ahead and thinking about her racing strategy.
“I like to zone out right before I leave the gates and just think about the things that I’ve been working on like making sure I’m not leaning too far and other things like that,” Morris said. “I do this to remind myself what’s important about my technique but that it’s also important to be aggressive.”
Morris has a similar preparation strategy to Senior skier Isabelle Sims. Before a race, Sims is silent and focuses on her strategy. Her coaches and teammates often stay at the starting gate with the skiers giving them last minute advice before the skiers jump out of the race. Sims, however, prefers to be left alone to focus.
“Right before I race, I don’t want people to talk to me. I don’t care about what the course looks like, I just want the people around me to be quiet. I don’t want to hear about if the course is difficult or if anyone fell, I don’t want to know that. I just want to focus on the race ahead of me,” Sims said.
Like Sims and Morris, Sarris also knows the importance of being mentally prepared before a race. As a sophomore, she had an experience where she was told before a race that she had been disqualified. Some officials thought that she hit a gate, which would disqualify her from her next race. Officials informed Sarris of this while she stood at the starting gate, preparing to start her second race.
“I knew that I didn’t straddle the gate, and I was standing at the starting gate ready to go and completely freaking out. As I was waiting, I put my goggles down and realized that they were all fogged up and they were not defogging,” Sarris said.
Despite this confusion and moments of panic, everything worked out for Sarris.
“My teammate gave me a pair of her goggles. I put them on, and then they [the officials] confirmed that I wasn’t disqualified, so I was able to race. I then had one of the fastest runs of my life,” Sarris said. “It was so much fun and everyone was cheering for me at the bottom of the hill. I heard seniors that I had never talked to cheer for me. My coaches were cheering for me, and my teammates were cheering for me. It was so exciting.”
This camaraderie helped Sarris overcome a stressful moment and have a great race. Friendships and bonds throughout the team help the athletes to stay positive and perform their best.
“Even if you’re the only one at the start gate, someone’s bound to be at the bottom of the hill or someone on the chair lift cheering for you. There’s always someone on the team supporting you. It is such a good environment,” Sarris said.
As a senior, Sims feels responsible to help keep up these good spirits. Sims leads the team by encouraging her teammates, regardless of how they perform.
“I try to boost the team morale if the race isn’t going the way we want it to. Even if we are doing well, I help keep the energy going and make sure everyone’s cheering and doing what they’re supposed to be doing,” Sims said.
Sims hopes that she can help motivate her teammates into skiing their fastest, and ultimately into placing high at the state meet. Last year, the team placed ninth at the State meet, and everyone hopes to place higher this year. Though there is a lot of tough competition being in Division 1, the highest division, Sarris hopes that the Birmingham United team can place as high as they did her freshman year.
“I would like to see us get fourth place again like we did my freshman year. I think that it would be really cool to top that off in my senior year,” Sarris said. “I know that there are many people that have the potential to do that, and I know we’re really hungry for that.”
Although the team did not place fourth as Sarris had hoped, the girls’ team placed fifth overall at the state meet February 24, 2020. They did, however, move up four places from the previous year, when they came in last place.
“Last year, we didn’t have enough girls finish the course because a few of the girls fell on the course, and when that happens, it takes the score down. We did much better this year, so we’re all really proud of that,” Marie Morris said.
Although the boys’ team did not make it to the State meet this year, Marie Morris hopes that they will make it to States next year, and believes that both the boys’ and girls’ team have potential for next year.
“I think that they [the boys’ team] have potential to make it [to States]. They have skill, they just need to practice more, but they can definitely get up there,” Morris said. “I’m excited to see where the team will be next year. I think that next year we can be even better, and I think that we can really do some damage.”