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Welcome mat out for new skiers; freestylers cleared for takeoff

If you've ever fancied giving skiing a try, consider Friday, Jan. 9, for a potential debut. That's the day ski areas across the United States will offer rentals, a ski lesson, and a beginner's lift ticket to a limited number of fledglings - all free. ``Let's Go Skiing, America'' is the name of the ski industry's extravaganza. As of this writing, 192 ski areas, about 60 cross-country ski centers, and 1,000 ski shops have signed on for a massive, beat-the-bushes-for-beginners promotion.

It begins with the ``Free National Learn to Ski Day'' and continues for a month. From Jan. 10 to Feb. 8, beginners' packages (rentals, lesson, and lifts) at participating areas will generally cost $15 midweek, $25 weekends, and even less at some areas. Cross-country ski centers participating will offer beginner packages at $10 midweek, $20 on weekends.

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There are a couple of prerequisites. Reservations will generally will be required, especially for the ``freebie'' Jan. 9. Like the airlines with their limited number of super-saver fares, ski areas will ration the number of free packages. And already areas have received lots of requests for reservations. Beginners are then urged to pick up a coupon at any participating ski shop, where they also get an information packet and magazine telling how to dress and what to expect.

Last season, about 16,000 newcomers attended smaller promotions, according to a National Ski Areas Association representative. A conservative guess could be 20,000 for this year's turnout. There has been a sizable response.

That should please the ski industry, which has been worried in recent years that new skiers were not developing because of an aging population. But in the last season or two, a growing number of beginners and skiing dropouts have showed up at ski schools.

One thing not likely to keep people from trying skiing this January will be its cost. Return of midair maneuvers

The ``Mobius Flip'' and an even wilder series of stunts called inverted aerials thrilled spectators during the heyday of freestyle skiing in the early '70s. Pictures of upside-down skiers flying through the air filled ski magazines, and the sport also attracted the interest of the TV networks. But then several serious injuries and major lawsuits dried up insurance coverage, put the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) on record opposing ``inverteds,'' and effectively stopped world-class aerial competition in the US.

A competition that included inverted aerials was held at Breckenridge, Colo., in 1984 and '85, but not on ski area property. Last season, no insurance could be found to cover ``inverteds,'' and the same was true as late as this fall. But now it looks as though freestyle skiing in general, and inverteds in particular, are coming back with a bang. On Jan. 21-24, the Freestyle World Cup, featuring competitors from 18 nations, will take place at Breckenridge - on ski area property. Even Eastern Europe may be represented, with Poland and Yugoslavia expected to compete, and with the Soviet Union indicating it may send observer-coaches.

What happened? Well, the insurance situation has eased slightly - Breckenridge secured coverage in the past two weeks. And Breckenridge spokesman Gary Dutmers says many states have enacted tort reforms that make individuals more responsible for their own actions. ``But the real turn-around in the sport came in the acceptance by the Olympics of freestyle as a demonstration sport in 1988 and as a medal sport in 1992,'' says Dutmers.

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Making freestyle, which includes mogul and aerial ballet competition, an Olympic sport unquestionably has given it legitimacy and new status. ``It's certainly going to get a lot more coverage this winter,'' agrees NSAA president Cal Conniff, though he says his organization remains opposed to inverteds. ``I can't see how the insurance situation is going to change, and I don't anticipate more ski areas will allow [inverteds],'' he says.

Television has had a major role in the longstanding issue. ``It's the inverted aerials that are really exciting and make the sport a media event,'' says Dutmers. ``Last year, when we told NBC we couldn't have inverteds, they said in that case there isn't enough interest value to send a crew out there.''

Once TV focuses on the inverted aerials, the big concern is not about the superbly trained world-class competitors, who have not had an incapacitating injury in competition in 12 years. The danger is what Conniff calls ``the copycat effect'' - young viewers without sufficient training or expertise going out to flip on their own.

But Dutmers insists that his organization will do what it can to impress upon viewers the difficulty of the event and the dangers of trying it without proper experience. ``We will be working with TV crews so the on-camera people do keep reminding the viewing public it takes years to do a triple-turning somersault off a ski jump,'' he says.

On the other hand, a lot of us can do one of those instantaneously off an icy mogul. The difference, of course, is that we don't have a clue as to which end is coming down first. But the athlete who has spent countless hours in training harnesses, suspended over water long before over snow, and who can carve out two ski jumps that are identical - like a high-wire artist - such an athlete knows and has proved what he or she can do.

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