On Ben's Farm

A Season for Skates
Coach Paul Sweet wasn't going to let lack of snow stop the cross-country ski team

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Weather conditions for winter sports have never been completely reliable in Durham, and the 2011-12 season isn't the first to leave UNH athletes and coaches frustrated for lack of snow.

In 1925, the UNH winter sports team traveled in late December to Lake Placid for a two-day carnival, its first as a recognized varsity team. In his manager's report, chemistry professor George Perley [19]'08 noted, "Peaslee froze four fingers and two thumbs in snowshoe 3-mile cross-country race." (Fred Peaslee '26—apparently a rugged fellow—won the race anyhow.)

Paul Sweet and cross country ski team
FEET IN BOTH CAMPS: Coach Paul Sweet had the UNH cross-country team practice on the streets of Durham wearing roller skates in the snowless winter of 1936.

The weather for the second competition, at Dartmouth on Feb. 5-7, was "fair and warm," wrote Perley, and it was downhill from there: The last three carnivals were all canceled for lack of snow.

When Perley resigned in 1929 to concentrate on his professional career, the duties of coaching the winter sports team—which competed in snowshoeing, speed and figure skating, ski proficiency, cross-country skiing and ski jumping events—were transferred to Paul Sweet. Sweet had joined UNH as a track coach and instructor of men's physical education in 1924, having graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in coaching only the year before. As a transplant to New England, he may have been unfamiliar with the erratic weather, but he knew how to get his athletes into condition and keep them fit.

Training consisted of daily calisthenics and cross-country walking until the snow and ice conditions were good enough. Perhaps not surprisingly, New Hampshire dominated the snowshoe events, losing only one championship in 10 years, and was also strong in speed skating.

In 1936, the season was scheduled to begin at Lake Placid on the weekend of Dec. 28-Jan. 1. UNH was at a disadvantage, as several of the team's best skiers had graduated the previous spring, and their jumping star, Mike Mirey '37, was sidelined with injuries. But the biggest problem facing the team was the dearth of snow in Durham for practice.

Paul Sweet and cross country ski team
Sweet, left, wearing a ski jacket of his own design, and team members pose in their more orthodox cross-country footwear.

To help strengthen their arms and legs, Sweet came up with the novel idea of using roller skates. All 39 members of the team, wearing roller skates they bought themselves, skated and pushed themselves around Durham with ski poles, giving Louis Bourgoin, chief of police for both town and campus, a bit of a traffic-cop headache.

Using roller skates may have been a variation on roller-skiing, which got its start in Europe in the early 1930s as a way for cross-country skiers to train off season. (It's now standard training and a sport unto itself, with international competitions.) But the use of roller skis—or skates—as an aid for training must not have been well known in the United States, because Sweet's innovative idea put UNH on every sports page in the country. ~

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