Veteran ski instructor, 74, bent on getting seniors out on slopes

by Yoichi Kosukegawa

Kyodo News

Ski instructor Fumio Hirasawa has been teaching seniors how to ski for more than 20 years, drawing on his strong belief that the winter sport isn’t only for the young and boosts both the physical and mental health of the elderly.

One of the major stumbling blocks to spreading skiing among the older set, however, is the lack of established techniques suitable for their level of physical strength.

At ski schools, students both young and old are taught the same way, although closer attention might be paid to seniors so they don’t get tired or hurt.

Taking the matter in hand, the 74-year-old Hirasawa wrote “Best Ski Text for Seniors,” a book about an easy turning technique he developed for people 60 and older.

“I think this is the first ski manual specifically targeting seniors,” Hirasawa said. “I’d like to take the leadership role in ski technique and teaching methods for the elderly because Japan’s population is aging so rapidly.”

Skiing’s popularity here is on a sharp decline, partly because of the falling birthrate.

The latest leisure white paper by the Japan Productivity Center for Socio-Economic Development found there were 5.6 million skiers in Japan in 2007, down 500,000 from the year before and less than half the 12.3 million in 1999.

Given the wide range of leisure activities that draw young people’s time and money, Hirasawa sees little chance they will again be hitting the slopes in large numbers.

His hopes are on the baby boomers, reasoning that many were once absorbed in skiing when they were young. Besides, there aren’t many other winter outdoor activities.

At the time of the last census in 2005, there were more than 25 million people aged 65 or older, accounting for about 20 percent of the overall population.

Also, a large number of the “dankai-no-sedai” baby-boom generation, born between 1947 and 1949 and estimated at more than 6 million people, began to reach retirement age in 2007.

“With the release of my ski technique manual, I’d like to make this ski season the start of the era of senior skiers,” Hirasawa said.

He said skiing can help older people maintain their physical strength, and getting outdoors helps reduce stress. At first glance, skiing would appear to be a difficult proposition for seniors. Unlike soccer, tennis or other sports, however, skiing does not require any particular muscle strength or hard movements like running, because it uses the force of gravity.

The problem is that not much attention has been devoted to developing techniques and teaching methods for seniors.

“From experience in my long career as a ski instructor, I have reached the conclusion that seniors need their own ski technique different from that of young people as they generally have less physical strength,” Hirasawa said.

Born in Niigata Prefecture in 1934, he was a first-generation demonstrator of the Ski Association of Japan.

He then helped Urasa Ski School turn out SAJ demonstrators by working as the school’s chief. He also compiled the association’s ski manuals. In 1986, he founded his own ski research institute in Tokyo and has since been teaching seniors how to ski.

The technique he has developed for seniors is aimed at enabling them to make turns as an easy extension of everyday movements like walking or making their way down a flight of stairs. It is also intended to place little burden on the knee and hip joints.

His technique is revolutionary: Skiers stand straight up in a natural posture, instead of the conventional rigid position with the upper body leaning forward and knees deeply bent.

In the new method, skiers make turns by focusing pressure on the little-toe side of the ski at the inside of the turn, instead of pressure on the inner edge of the outside ski.

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