Judy Hendrickson is a veteran thrill seeker. You might say she still lives in the fast lane.
Each year from December through March, the 72-year-old trades amateur Porsche racing — sometimes wheeling a straightaway at speeds topping 140 mph — for gliding down the slopes at Waterville Valley Resort with the country’s longest-running ski club for those age 50 and older, the Silver Streaks.
Downhill skiing is “a little bit like flying and floating. I like the peace and quiet of it,” said Hendrickson, who spent 20 years in the U.S. Air Force, most recently negotiating weapons systems contracts. She now commutes weekdays from her condo in Nashua to White Mountain slopes. For her, the club is about camaraderie, staying active and enjoying the outdoors — not about taking gates at warp speed. “I save my high-speed activity for the summer,” she said. “Behind the steering wheel.”
Each winter, close to 140 enthusiasts age 50 through 95, and some who are new to the sport, join the Silver Streaks of Waterville Valley for collegiality, coffee and donuts and recreational skiing, as well as amateur racing in a competition fondly known as “The Beer League.” Each team has a fetching moniker, including “Shirley and the Kids,” christened for Shirley Ziebarth, 91, who leads a youthful troupe of 70- to 90-year-olds. Ziebarth bowed out early this season after breaking her leg before the initial race.
Making connections, on and off the hill
For most, it’s not about being the fastest down the giant-slalom course, or being first to carve through fresh snow. Members stay healthy and active — physically and socially — during the long New England winter and enjoy ranging in the snowbound outdoors. Group activities include moonlight snowshoe treks and Nordic ski outings, and venturing to other ski areas when regional high school teams compete at Waterville or when families descend during school vacation weeks.
There’s also an after-hours attraction: potluck suppers on Wednesdays, drinks and snacks apres ski at local watering holes, and a Silver Streaks early bird dinner special at the nearby Coyote Grill. A sub-faction gathers off-slope for “Stitch and Bitch”— chatting while knitting neck warmers and mitten covers. Rainy days find a critical mass clustered inside the base lodge for coffee and conversation that ranges from chit-chat to heated-but-kindly debate.
“They inspire me,” said Lori Fernandes, the group’s coordinator for the last six years. “They’re all happy, all the time, whether it’s pouring on the slope, no matter what’s going on in politics or their family. I don’t know whether it’s the skiing, or just being outdoors.” Friendships forged during ski season have led to fishing, hiking, kayaking and swimming together during warm weather.
“It’s like being in college again,” said Laurie Pichnarcik, 65, originally from Plymouth, Mass. “You run back and forth to each other’s houses.” She nods toward a buddy seated across the table in the designated Silver Streaks section of the lodge. “Last week she had she had a party at her condo and there were 18 people — and it’s a small condo.”
Members Hendrickson has gotten to know come to cheer her on at the racetrack during summer. As a hobby, she taught race car driving until recently, and still careens around courses at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon and Lime Rocks in northwest Connecticut, and in New York’s Finger Lakes region. Both car racing and skiing filled a void left when her husband passed away in 1995. “We take some girl trips out West,” Hendrickson said. “Relationships are key to life.”
New Hampshire’s White Mountains, considered the American birthplace of alpine skiing, are a cradle for luminaries, including Olympian Bode Miller, and the state has spawned a slew of standouts, including four-time slalom world champion Mikaela Shiffrin, who grew up in Lyme, and Kristin Uhlmer, a Henniker native and pioneer of extreme skiing, who was recently inducted into the U.S. Ski Hall of Fame.
But downhill skiing is not a sport typically associated with aging adults — especially those pushing 70 or 90. In general, older adults gravitate toward athletic pursuits that don’t advertise the risk of broken bones. Another surprise: Most of the regular racers in the Silver Streaks are female.
“The women I know who still race are type A. They need the competition,” said Fernandes, the coordinator, who at 48 is too young to join. The motivator is slightly different for those in their 70s, she said. “It’s the thrill, the camaraderie and the team. It’s actually fun for them. They do it because they can do it.”
Participants look at it this way: You can get hurt doing just about anything, even if you never leave your house. “Everyone here would rather get injured doing something they like,” Pichnarcik said.
Diehard racers and snow bunnies
Anne Pelletier, 69, of Salem, Mass., stays with her husband, Mike, at a bed and breakfast in Waterville Valley during the week, and competes in NASTAR, the world’s largest recreational ski and snowboard racing program. In 2015 at age 65, she took second in the country in her age group in the women’s downhill. Competitors are handicapped by age, which means the oldest skiers can win even with slower times.
“I have a need for speed,” Pelletier said. “I told my husband, ‘When I retire I want to be a ski racer. You can either join me or you can hold my coat.’” Last year her husband, then 76, ranked No. 1 overall in New England in USA Track and Field events, taking first in the 5-mile race.
“We tend to be competitive people no matter what we’re doing,” Pelletier said.
Judy McBride, 70, a retired high school physical education instructor from Ashburnham, Mass., is known in the group as “Speed Queen.” She and her husband, Jim, 83, a retired biology teacher, compete regularly on Monday mornings, driving up from their vacation home on Newfound Lake, 33 miles south.
“Racing was more fun to me than worrying about getting hurt,” McBride said. “I try to not worry about what I can’t control. If that’s all you think about, you probably shouldn’t do it. You just have to enjoy the experience.”
Silver Streaks also provides an incubator for late learners — people who have never skied before turning 60.
“I ski with everybody who’s rehabbing their knees because I’m cautious,” said Deb Hurley, who moved to Thornton from Massachusetts five years ago, and took beginner lessons and clinics through the club. None of the longtime skiers looked down on her or other newbies, she said.
The Silver Streaks allow for guilt-free, judgement-neutral quitting when the conditions aren’t right — and patches of slope loom like tilted skating rinks, or fog obscures the trails. Or, when someone just feels like they’ve had enough for the day. The group’s mantra makes that easy: “One and done. Two and through. Three and flee. Four, no more!”
“Sometimes all I take is one run,” said John Crossin, 67, who grew up in Manchester and now lives in Waterville Valley during ski season, telecommuting mornings to his engineering job before taking any runs.
“Nobody’s here to punch a ticket,” said Peg Berko, 61, who hails from Massachusetts. “Sometimes people age out, and just come for coffee.”