In her early days as a cross-country ski racer, Meredith Schwartz couldn’t go to the start line without first finding her mom and dissolving into tears of adrenaline-fueled anxiety.
“I would get super-nervous before races and I would always come up to her crying,” Schwartz said. “I would only do that to her. She decided she would start racing to keep out of my way.’'
With her mom no longer available to offer soothing pre-race pep talks — sometimes she’s already racing, sometimes she’s off somewhere warming up or cooling down — Schwartz developed new ways to handle pre-race jitters. She’s 16 now and one of Alaska’s top young racers.
Her mom turned into one of Alaska’s top masters skier — and one of Schwartz’s chief rivals, in the friendliest way imaginable.
Last winter Alison Arians finished fourth in the Tour of Anchorage after an impressive, season-long performance in the Besh Cup race series, where her successes sometimes came at her daughter’s expense.
In the days after she turned 50 earlier this month, Arians celebrated with two top-10 finishes in season-opening races that drew high-quality fields even by Anchorage standards. The races at Kincaid Park were teeming with Olympians, World Cup veterans, World Junior Championship medalists and NCAA All-Americans. And Arians, whose previous heyday was more than 30 years ago.
Arians graduated from Service High in 1989, a member of a girls ski team that won the 1987 state high school championship. During her senior year she swept the gold medals in the Older Junior division at the Junior Olympic championships and went on to ski for Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, where she was a team captain in 1992.
She moved to Colorado to work on a post-graduate degree in geography and met Dan Schwartz, an East Coast biochemist who came to Colorado looking for change and found it by becoming a bread baker and furniture maker.
“I fell madly in love and luckily he was willing to move up here,” Arians said.
They married in 1998. She worked for the Department of Natural Resources, and he made furniture.
Meredith was born in 2004, and a couple of years later Arians quit her job and she and Dan opened the Rise & Shine Bakery, which they operated in their South Anchorage home for more than 10 years.
Though her racing days were long behind her, Arians never stopped skiing. “That is our family culture,” she said, and while she was pregnant with Meredith she thought about how she would share the family passion with her child.
“She didn’t have to be a racer, but I wanted her to love it,” she said.
Meredith was on skis by the time she was 4 or 5 and a member of the Alaska Winter Stars by age 10. She loved skiing, but race days meant a mini-meltdown in front of mom.
“She would find me wherever I was and kind of fall apart, but she would never fall apart with anyone else,” Arians said. “I thought, ‘This is terrible. I’m making her more nervous.’ ”
Arians’ solution: Stay out of Meredith’s way by becoming a racer herself. That way when they saw each other before a race, Arians could keep things brief and lighthearted.
“She’d tell me, ‘I’m so nervous,’ and I’d say, ‘Me too! I gotta go warm up!’ ’’ Arians said.
“It showed me I didn’t have to be a nervous wreck,” Meredith said.
As she pursued ski racing again, Arians quickly discovered she needed to play catchup. Techniques had changed significantly since her high school and college days.
“I showed up to a race and (someone) came up to me and said, ‘I love it! ’80s-style skiing!’ and I said, ‘What do you mean?’ I didn’t realize how much things had changed since college,” she said.
She found a patient and knowledgeable technique coach in her younger brother, Ben Arians, and she joined the Alaska Winter Stars so she wouldn’t have to do high-intensity interval workouts on her own.
Meredith is a Winter Stars skier too. She’s not the only team member who gets a ride to practice from her mom, but she’s the only one whose mom sticks around and beats everyone in intervals.
“I used to be pretty embarrassed that she was skiing with us. Sometimes you see parents skiing around, but you don’t ever see them do the intervals,” Meredith said.
It wasn’t just that her mom was doing intervals with them, she noted: “It was more of us not being able to keep up with her.”
These days Meredith, a Service High sophomore, doesn’t mind having her mom around, and not just because this is the first winter she is consistently beating her mom in Winter Stars time trials.
“I’ve definitely grown a lot, and it doesn’t bother me anymore,” she said. “... Sometimes we drive each other crazy but mostly it is awesome to have a built-in training partner.”
Arians said one reason the mother-daughter dynamic works so well is Winter Stars coach Jan Buron made it clear the mother needs to give the daughter plenty of space.
“He was 100% right,” Arians said. ”I don’t think I was hovering over her but by just being around, she couldn’t be a squirrelly teenager.”
The two will warm up together before a practice, but then Meredith joins her teammates and Arians goes off in another direction. When the two traveled to Michigan a year ago for the U.S. National Championships, Arians stayed in one hotel and Meredith stayed in another with her Winter Stars teammates.
Arians had a superb showing at the national championships. She was the oldest skier by eight years in a field of about 180 women and she finished 32nd in both of her races.
Her plans to race at the 2020 World Masters Championships were foiled by the pandemic, but the Tour of Anchorage happened right before the sports world shut down in March. For the third year in a row Arians claimed fourth place in the 50K women’s race.
She always loved racing, but now she pursues it with a different kind of exuberance.
“Being 50, it’s not like I’m going to the Olympics some day,” said Arians, who returned to the Division of Forestry three years ago. “My future will not be determined by my races this week. It’s just for my own joy.
“... My real goal is to show this is fun even when you’re old. To really show it. That was the other reason I wanted to race again. If I’m going to tell Meredith to have fun racing, I should get out there and show her.”
What isn’t fun is beating her daughter in a head-to-head race. They often race in different events because of their age difference, and sometimes they are in the same interval-start race but seldom actually see each other.
But it’s tough when they wind up in the same heat in a sprint race. Heats are true head-to-head battles — six skiers going shoulder to shoulder on a short course where separation is minimal — and Arians and Meredith both remember a Besh Cup semifinal heat that pitted them against each other.
“I was bummed and she was bummed that we were in this heat together,” Arians said.
Arians passed Meredith near the end of the race to grab second place. Only the top two finishers moved on to the finals, so Meredith’s day was over.
“At least one person in our family advanced to the next round,” she said.
Arians felt terrible: “I apologized and she said, ‘What are you sorry about? You can’t just let your daughter win.’ ‘‘
Ah, but Arians wants her daughter to win. Buron has warned her it’s only a matter of time before Meredith starts beating her, others have told her it will be bittersweet when that day comes, and Arians says bring it on.
“I can’t wait,” she said. “That’s the whole point.”
Three days after she turned 50, Arians opened the race season by finishing seventh in an Anchorage Cup 10-kilometer race that featured a number of accomplished, world-class skiers. Meredith won the 5K race.
The next Saturday they competed in a Solstice Sprint limited to qualifying-round racing because of COVID-19. And it happened:
Ninth place, Meredith Schwartz. Tenth place, 1.13 seconds back, Alison Arians.
It happened again the next day in a 10K freestyle race. Eleventh place, Meredith Schwartz. Fourteenth place, 16.4 seconds back, Alison Arians.
“I am overjoyed,” Arians said. “I’ve waited 17 years for this, and she’s only 16 years old.”