When most area students are asked to list their favorite sport, responses can run the gamut.
Baseball, softball, soccer, basketball, running, tennis, swimming or perhaps golf, lacrosse, hockey, or, in this coastline community, sailing or rowing.
Those cover them all, right? Well, one sixth grader's answer to what is her favorite sport is none of the above. Nobody will ever confuse maritime Stonington with the likes of Stowe or Stratton in Vermont or Mount Snow in New Hampshire, but the streets of Mystic are home to one of New England's top youth skiers in 10-year-old Jessie Gentilella.
"My classmates are into popular sports like baseball, soccer, basketball," Gentilella said. "When they ask me what sport I'm into and I answer skiing, I get interesting reactions. Many think I just fool around on the slopes with my family on weekends. They don't think skiing is a demanding sport, but they don't realize the commitment. If they see me out there running slalom gates, they change their mind."
Gentilella, who turns 11 later this month, has qualified for two straight New Hampshire Alpine Racing Association State Championships. She does not just show up and wing it down the hill. She has trained six years at the renowned Waterville Valley Black and Blue Trail Smashers Snow Sports Club in New Hampshire.
From November to April, Gentilella, parents Marc and Patty and sister Grace, trek to New Hampshire for her alpine ski training. When snow melts in late spring, summer and fall, she trains in the Borough with long-distance running guru Heather Bessette of and travels to her snow sports camp in New Hampshire for cross training.
"Skiing is a year-round commitment," Gentilella said. "If you treat it like a seasonal sport, you'll be behind when races come around."
Competing in fields of 70 or more top skiers in her age group, Gentilella has made top 10 lists nine times in the past two years. Her most impressive finishes during U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association races were a second in the BWL STATE FINALS Slalom event and a fourth in the Minahan Memorial Giant Slalom.
Gentilella does plenty of running to prepare her skiing legs, either with trainers, at camps or with the Mystic Middle School cross country team. The work is geared with her skiing in mind.
"Running helps strengthen my thighs for skiing, because you need leg power to turn around the slalom gates," she said. "Long distance running also helps your mental toughness, which is necessary for skiing."
So is a healthy financial commitment. To train and race in a ski season, the Gentilella’s say competitors need at least four pair of race skis, new boots each season plus protective gear.
Marc Gentilella has no reservations about devoting most of the family's entertainment income on skiing. Wife, Patty is an active skier, Marc is a snowboarder and Grace is a promising skier.
"There are no reservations, but we give up many things to be able to pay for the travel, lodging, equipment, race school, race entry fees, etc," Marc said. "We do not go on vacations, as we look at our winter travels as one big vacation. It is a total family commitment."
And it's paying off with mountains of enjoyment, accomplishment and pride and perhaps college scholarships down the road. The Waterville Valley Black and Blue club consistently produces Olympians, including five on the 2010 U.S. Ski Team, highlighted by Hannah Kearney, a gold medalist in moguls.
"I want to take it as far as I can," Jessie said. "My skiing club has produced Olympic skiers. You can always strive to be the best you can be and dream."