by Tim Martin

It just makes sense that if you want to be a really good downhill skier you need to live near a ski resort. Alpine skiing is a sport of endless fine-tuning, with each run carefully calibrated and rehearsed until it seems second nature. It's a sport where close judgments are rendered to three decimal places and one slip can mean the difference between a medal and misery.

Then how did a McKinleyville High School student become a contender in the 1997 U. S. Ski Association Junior Olympics last month in Montana?

One reason is because Demian Krueger, 17, likes to compete and loves to win. And whenever he flags, whenever fatigue eats at his resolve, he pushes himself through it, accepts no excuses and makes no allowances for his failure.

The other reason is because his father doesn't mind the long drives to practice.

Each Saturday, from November to April, Demian and his father, Kerry, rise at 3 a.m., hop in the family car, dodge deer and black ice on Highway 299 and commute from their home in Fieldbrook to the ski slopes of Mount Shasta.

It's a once-a-week, 400-mile jaunt that the Kruegers have been making for more than eight years now.

This may seem like a nightmarishly long drive to the average soccer parent, but the Kruegers aren't complaining.

"When your kids grow up, they are going to eventually go away," said Demian's mother, Kristi. "Kerry and I want to spend as much time as possible with our son. When he became a freshman in high school, Kerry said, 'Let's play for four years.' That's exactly what we've been doing."

This combination of unwavering parental support, hard work on the slopes and long hours in the car has paid off. Skiing for the Mount Shasta Junior Race Team, Demian made it through the tough Western Division "J-O" (Junior Olympics) qualifiers held at Bear Valley and Mammoth in February. And he was listed as an alternate for the real thing -- the Western Regional Junior Olympics in Big Mountain, Mont., March 3-10.

Just one week before the meet Demian got a call that another skier couldn't make it and was told to pack his bags. Then Kristi got on the phone to make convoluted -- and expensive -- airline arrangements to get him there in time. Regrettably, this was one meet his parents couldn't make due to their work schedules and the expense.

Demian's philosophy for the meet was either win or get eliminated. He tackled the course with a sort of go-for-it, all-or-nothing style.

"I didn't finish in the top three," said Demian with a touch of teenage sarcasm. When questioned further, he would only say, "The competition was really tough" and that he was far enough down the list of finishers that he didn't bother to look up his final placement.

"Demian was among 23 boys and 16 girls chosen from the Far West Division," said Kristi. "We're really proud of him. What he's accomplished has taken a lot of dedication."

(The top racers in each event at the Western, Rocky Mountain/Central and Eastern regionals are invited to compete in the Chevy Truck/U.S. Alpine Championships. The best finishers become national champions and members of the USSA/Rolex Junior Olympic Team.)

Demian's ski career began when he strapped on his first pair of skis at age 9 on a family vacation to Mount Shasta. Two years later he was racing on that same hill.

"One weekend at Shasta they had a Junior Bobcat competition," said Kristi. "Demian decided that he wanted to enter the race. There were kids who spent seven days a week skiing the mountain. Demian was going just every other weekend at the time. He took fourth place overall in the giant slalom."

There are four types of races in alpine skiing: slalom, giant slalom, super G (super giant slalom) and downhill. Slalom and giant slalom are "technical" events because they pose a more technical course as racers face more control gates or slalom poles. Downhill and super G are known as "speed" events because racers generate more speed over the long course, and there are fewer control gates to break their high-speed descent.

It was when Demian joined the team that he and his father began making the journey to Mount Shasta every weekend.

"Demian became a good slalom skier," said Kristi. "Someone once told me that he had a good eye for 'the line.'"

Finding the line is finding the swiftest and most efficient path down the slope. Other factors that can influence a slalom racer are snow conditions (hard snow is always faster); ski wax (racers want the best glide); ski edges (newly sharpened metal edges help the skis bite in while carving turns); and terrain (skiers have to be aware of changes in terrain and their positions on their skis so they don't "scrub" their speed, losing time).

"It's all a matter of precision and balance. In slalom skiing, there is no margin for error," said Eric Loudenslager, 44, of Arcata.

Loudenslager, as a teenager living in Wisconsin, twice made it to the division level but never advanced to the regionals.

"It's pretty phenomenal (for Demian) to make it that far," he said. "One has to be very talented to do that."

Slalom skiing may not carry all the perils of hunting a wounded buffalo in the long grass, but it's not without its hazards. Broken knees, sprained ankles and bone-deep Technicolor bruises are common injuries.

There is also the cold to contend with.

"You can't believe how cold it gets sometimes," said Kristi. "On Big Mountain the temperature was 8 degrees. Demian was wearing a turtleneck, thermals, a sweatshirt and turtle fur (a polar jacket) just to keep warm."

Demian may not have placed in the top three at Big Mountain, but the trip was not without its perks and excitement. There were photos, jackets and boxer shorts stamped with the Junior Olympic logo, and a chance to rub elbows with a few celebrities.

"I met downhill Olympic Goad medalist Tommy Moe, and got to shake his hand," said Demian.

"We aren't disappointed that Demian didn't win," said Kristi. "The idea was to go there and have a good time. Go and learn."

The trip to Big Mountain, Mont. will not be the end of Demian's skiing career. Not according to his father.

"When Demian got off the plane, the first thing out of his mouth was 'Hi.'" said Kerry.

"The second thing was, 'I want to go again, dad.'"

Timothy Martin is a heating and ventilation specialist at Humboldt State University and a free-lance writer.

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