BY ANNE STANTON
TRAVERSE CITY — Serving food to hundreds of exhausted Vasa cross country skiers takes a little tact.
For example, you don't say, "Yikes! Don't let your melting beard and mustache drip all over the food." It's more like, "May I offer you some Kleenex to wipe off your icicles?"
Cindy Greensky and her mom, Connie Steele, said that's among the many light touches they've learned after years of volunteering for the North American Vasa race, one of the region's most highly anticipated races.
"I'd like to think we are one of the best things a skier sees at the end of the race," said Greensky, who volunteers at the post-race banquet table.
"A smile, a drink and some hot soup. 'All right! We made it!'"
The mother/daughter team will be there bright and early Saturday, along with friends and relatives they've recruited along the way.
Steele, 82, said she never had the desire to ski the Vasa when she was younger, a time when she carried skis in her car for an impromptu ski in a field now covered by the Grand Traverse Mall. Steele decided to volunteer in the early 1990s after talking to George Kuhn, a local athletic legend. In 1995, her daughter joined her and eventually took over her role as crew chief.
Eventually they were able to move from chilly environs, where water had an annoying tendency to freeze, to inside the much cozier Timber Ridge Resort. There they ladle soup and pass out cookies and little cups of fruit — another idea that evolved as they went along.
"The skiers' hands were too cold to grasp the food, so one of our workers came up with fruit in a cup so they wouldn't have to hold it in their frozen fingers," Greensky said.
On Vasa day, the two awake at 5 a.m. and are on the job by 6 a.m., when they begin to stir up sports drinks, cut fruit and lay out cookies. Skiers, some of them "pretty heavy breathers," start arriving around 9:30 a.m.
It's not all work and no play. In the earlier tent years, some of the skiers, soaked with sweat, would walk to the back to change.
"They'd strip down to nothing," Greensky said. "You could see steam rising off their bodies."
Not that she was looking.
She also meets interesting skiers, like the foreign man she could barely understand. Despite their communication problem, he entrusted her with his glasses for the duration of his race.
Linda Deneen, Vasa's volunteer coordinator, said there are more than 200 volunteers. Most people don't realize the commitment it takes. Greensky and Steele are particularly dedicated, she said.
"Their philosophy has always been, the last skier is no less important than the first," Deneen said. "They stay until the very last skier has their hot soup and they make sure it's hot. They are just incredible."
Steele says she always keeps an eye out for George Kuhn, who suggested the gig in the first place.
"He's impressive," she said.
Kuhn, 80, said he is almost certain he'll ski the 12K, classic style.
"If I do it, I'll be doing it in honor of John Bruder, an orthopedic surgeon who has level four lung cancer," he said. "He's been out skiing, taking his oxygen with him."
And, he said, he'll look out for Steele and her daughter at the finish line.
"They're always there," he said.