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Septuagenarian Gray Skiing His Way to Wins

  • Veteran cross country skier Bob Gray

  • Veteran cross country skier Bob Gray

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 3/31/2016 12:34:13 AM
Modified: 3/31/2016 3:54:49 PM

Newbury, Vt. — Bob Gray returned to cross country skiing several years ago, primarily as a way to keep his heart pumping. As it turned out, he’s more than capable of breaking the hearts of opponents. 

Gray, 76, recently swept a pair of races at the National Masters Championships in Soda Springs, Calif., winning the Masters 5B (ages 75-79) 10K classic race on March 19 in 33 minutes, 58.6 seconds, more than nine minutes faster than runner up Hans Muehlegger, of Idaho, and good for 20th overall in a field of 53.

The next day, Gray placed fifth overall while winning his 70-79 age group in the season-ending U.S. Marathon National Championship, finishing the 14K bronze race in 48:12.1 — again more than nine minutes ahead of Muehlegger.

A two-time Olympian who competed on the U.S. Nordic Ski Team from 1960-74, Gray had also swept both events in the 2015 National Masters Championships, held closer to home at the Craftsbury (Vt.) Nordic Center. 

“There isn’t much competition for my age group in that event,” said Gray, who co-owns the Four Corners produce and dairy farm in Newbury, Vt. “I’d like to think part of it is that I’m in pretty good shape.”

Gray’s competition was stiffer last month at the Masters World Cup in Vuokatti, Finland, where he left with two silver medals and a bronze. On Feb. 6, he bettered 75-year-old Frenchman Daniel Chopard by two seconds for second place in the 10K skate in 33:40, then beat Chopard by 35 seconds with a time of 47:34.1 in the 15K skate Feb. 12.

Norwegian Finn Magnar Hagen decidedly won both skate races, finishing the 10K a good 2:40 ahead of Gray and besting him in the 15K by nearly four minutes. 

“There was just no catching Finn; he was just gone,” said Gray. “On the other hand, me and Chopard had a great time going back and forth. We’d pass each other and say, ‘All right, I’ll see you up ahead on the hill.’ ”

Neither Hagen nor Chopard competed in the 5K classic on Feb. 8, a race in which the top four were separated by just 17 seconds. Russia’s Gennady Ushakov won in 18:10.9, followed by Austrian Josef Schniagl, Gray (18:19.7) and Finland’s Taplo Wallenkus (18:27.9).

“I think I had a chance to win that race, but my skis just weren’t up to par with some of the skis these other guys had,” Gray said. “I made one tactical error, started kicking too lightly and it got me off-track. I was still able to make up most of the places I lost and close the gap. It was a close race, a fun race.”

Gray, a Vermont Ski & Snowboard Museum Hall of Fame inductee whose wife, Kim, is a former U.S. Alpine skier, competed in the 1968 and ‘72 Olympic Games. His best finish was 12th place in the 4x10K relay in the ‘68 Games in Grenoble, France, complementing three combined top-50s in individual events at Grenoble and the ‘72 Games in Sapporo, Japan.

The Putney, Vt., native also skied four seasons in the FIS Cup (now known as the FIS World Cup), winning national titles in the 15K and 50K and earning the top U.S. ranking in 1973.

The Grays opened the Green Mountain Touring Center in Randolph in 1977 while running their first farm in Hartland Four Corners, inspiring the moniker they kept even after moving operations to their plot in Newbury.

Bob Gray later had about a 12-year hiatus from the sport while devoted to raising the couple’s three children and farming, not strapping on skis again until the early 1990s.

He competed off and on in various national and international competitions, capturing bronze at an event in Quebec City in 2001 and two silvers and a bronze five years later in British Columbia. He began refocusing on training and competing in earnest several years ago, motivated equally by the desire to keep his heart rate up as much as keeping his competitive juices going.

“When you get older, if you don’t keep moving, you get sick and die,” Gray said plainly. “So much of your health is about staying active and exercising. I get some of that on the farm, but I’m much more of a manager type now than I used to be. So (returning to skiing) is a way to keep my heart beating.”

Like any snow sports athlete based in the area, Gray faced challenges finding suitable surfaces to train on this winter. He ventured to Craftsbury Nordic Center at times to practice on their manmade trails, but most often settled for dry-land exercises.

“I’d go up (North Haverhill’s) Black Mountain, Mount Moosilauke, sometimes Mount Ascutney, always with ski poles to help practice balance,” Gray said. “I’d go uphill on paved roads on rollerblades — I like rollerblades better than roller skis. I can go from here up Snake Road to West Newbury, which is about three miles, so that’s perfect. The only problem with that is that I’m too tired to skate home after that so I have to have someone come get me.”

Gray, who was trained in his youth by former Dartmouth skier and Olympian John Caldwell, would like to see more kids today on Nordic skis. He’s given lessons in recent years at Strafford Nordic Center and elsewhere.

“It’s a great sport, a great way to get kids off of the couch or away from the computer,” Gray said. “Plus, you can do it until you’re my age.”

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3225. 

 

 

 

 




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