Sherman Alexie may not have been thinking of Ross Anderson when he wrote the novel The World’s Fastest Indian, but the de facto world’s fastest Indian is a truth stranger than fiction. At his Taos condo, Ross Anderson, the Cheyenne/Arapaho, Mescalero Apache with a Swedish last name is not what you’d expect, especially from the very Europeanized world of elite ski racing. But behind him a trophy case is in fact filled with trophies, medals, plaques, media posters, and even an arithmetic book featuring Ross and speed skiing as a story problem example. All of this acclaim comes from the fact that Ross has been clocked skiing at 154.06 mph.
If the clothes make the man, this must be the man. It’s not just the polyurethane-coated polypropylene second-skin ski suit or the special boots or wrap-around leg pieces or the other engineered-for-speed accoutrements necessary for outpacing terminal velocity. The really impressive thing is his red helmet. This expensive helmet would provide a down payment on some nice real estate. Custom made to fit his head and offer a measure of protection in a fall, it is emblematic of a sport that personifies fearlessness and a tough mental attitude. Sponsors wanted Ross to have the best, and so they had it gorgeously painted with feathers by a New York airbrush artist (Cassatto Airbrushing), perhaps because part of Ross’s ritual is with a feather, to pray before races, and to ask permission to be in that place on Mother Earth. Among many tribes, feather bonnets confer both status and honor upon the wearer. It provides a warrior’s sense of courage and can even help “psych out” opponents.
And, those hot suits that speed skiers wear are analogous to the bullfighter’s ritual of being helped into a ritualized tight suit (that you might die wearing). Anderson says it takes 45 minutes and some help to even get it on.
How does this man—who has the All-American speed record—get over the fear of moving so fast on skis? “You don’t, really,” he says. “Fighting fear is what gets you in trouble… you have to work with it.” Ironically, his “fear breakthrough” came in a 1998 crash in France (after the finish line, while going 130 mph, the air caught his ski). “You try to fall like a rag doll,” he advises. His skis splintered, but no bones; however, the friction resulted in third degree burns when the suit literally melted into part of his leg. Yes, he got back on the horse.
He started competing around the time he got to kindergarten (his father was a professor at Fort Lewis College and a ski patrolman), moving up through ski racing ranks on pro tour and U.S. circuits until he realized that speed skiing was his ticket to ride. He drove to a competition in California and showed up with a motorcycle helmet. He was able, after that, to help the national team pick up overall points thanks to his fast times. Part ski geek, and self-proclaimed wax freak, he was busy waxing his own skis as soon as dinner was over, spending 2½ hours on each pair of skis to prep them. His perfectionism, knowledge of snow crystals, hydrology and science all mattered: On a ski hill a mile long with over a 60 degree pitch, it’s all over in less than a minute, and every millisecond matters.
On April 21, 2006 in Les Arc, France, Ross got an incredible break, and he instinctively felt this was his big chance. But first, competition was held up for days by the weather, and then the start times were held up, too, until conditions amounted to the perfect storm, but in a good way. Ross recalls that racing that day felt like a slow-motion, out-of-body experience. The roar of media helicopters and the crowd grew silent, for him, and even his heart rate, which he could hear, went down. He describes the zone as paradox: “You’re there but you’re not there.” When he saw his finish times, he literally couldn’t believe it. “I was angry—I felt I was going so slow.” Instead, he had broken the All-American record by hitting (247.930 KPH) 154.06 miles per hour.
His record remains unbroken and he’s not about to break it, either. Though he hasn’t discounted competition, he toys with the idea of going back to the old haunts just for fun. “The fastest track in the world is at Les Arcs in France. Unless it’s Les Arcs, it’s not happening.”
At age 38, Anderson has even bigger challenges ahead of him: like learning how to relax. Fortunately, he has many outlets. He likes to mountain bike. His daughter, Sierra, will be showing up to ski this winter, too. “It’s kinda hard,” he sighs, “just to go skiing.” He wants to be a role model for others and has worked with special ski programs to help kids in Durango and Ski Apache in Ruidoso, NM.
He has shown that anything is possible. “Even extreme dreams can come true. You just can’t take shortcuts,” he tells them. But for now, the biggest challenge for the world’s fastest Indian and All American Record Holder is learning to go slow.
Michele Potter, PhD, once won the world amateur Telemark ski championships, but since her retirement she teaches American studies at UNM and skiing at Taos Ski Valley.
This article appeared in Ski Country 2011.