Making the Grade: Steph Race
“Relentlessly positive” describes Steph Race’s teaching style well. When her cross country skiing students lose control and fall, the Frisco Nordic Center instructor never says a discouraging word.In her lessons, both skate and classic, Race, 52, encourages her students to ski the same way she lives her life: with a determination to succeed. That determination was a necessity for her during her 20-year career as a firefighter in the Front Range. In 1981, she became the first female firefighter ever at the city of Westminster. The department didn’t hire its second woman until five or six years later.”The guys I worked with were dead set against having a woman,” she said. “They worked really hard the first year to get rid of me and then they realized I was there to stay and they let up on me.”
Because she was the first woman to work in the firehouse, there were no facilities for her.”There was one big bunk room, and no bathroom for women,” she said. “I had to wait until all the men were done to take my shower. We put up hospital curtains around my bed. They lasted about a week.” Race depended on her ingenuity to make it as a firefighter.”They’d come up with all these special physical tests,” she said. “I had to figure out techniques to handle things. I couldn’t just dive into it like the guys.” To compensate for her small size, she developed ergonomic devices, such as special straps, to help her do the job. Some of these devices, she said, are still used by firefighters in her former department.Despite the obstacles she faced in Westminster, Race persevered. She stayed in Westminster for 10 years before transferring to the Boulder Fire Department for the last decade of her career. A part-time Summit County resident for many years, she moved to the High Country permanently after retiring from fire fighting in 2001.
Since retirement, Race has been an instructor at the Nordic center in winter and a mountain bike patroller in the summer at Copper Mountain.In Frisco, she coordinates the women’s clinics, gives private and group lessons and works with school groups. A certified emergency medical technician for 25 years, she also teaches CPR to the staff and wrote the grant for the center’s automatic external defibrillator.Race said it’s easy to be positive in an environment like the one she works in now.”People are happy to be here,” she said. “On the fire department, it’s always an emergency.”A native of northern Ohio, Race came to Vail in the early 1970s for a break from school at Ohio State. She learned to cross country ski in Vail and credits her teacher there, Jean Naumann, for instilling in her a love for the sport.
“She was a true inspiration: a tall, strong and capable woman,” she said. “I was only 19 and I wanted to be just like her.” Now a stylish and accomplished skier, Race works hard to perfect her coaching skills.”It’s tough in the cross-country world, because we don’t have many role models,” she said. “I watch a lot of video narrated in Scandinavian.”Race, who now lives in Silverthorne with her partner, Lori, a battalion chief for the Red, White and Blue Fire Protection District, said in retrospect she appreciates the impact her challenging experience in Westminster had on her life.”It brought out some sheer determination in me I didn’t even know I had,” she said. “The harder they made it, the more I dug in my heels. It definitely made me stronger. It gave me confidence. You don’t feel it all at once, but you look back, and yeah, it gave me a lot of confidence.”
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