Snowboarding's Santa and son
AL ZAGOFSKY/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS Joel "Santa" Sager encourages son, Mike, to show off on his snowboard. Joel supervises snowboarding in the morning and Mike supervises in the afternoon. In between, they snowboard together. "I help him with moves. He helps me with my teaching," Mike said. "It's a good balance."
Snowboarding's Santa and son are Joel and Mike Sager, a father and son team who co-manage snowboarding instruction at Blue Mountain Ski Area.
Santa is the nickname for white-bearded Joel Sager who, with his 60th birthday looming, is the oldest snowboarding instructor at Blue Mountain. He likes "Santa" better than his old nickname, "Old Dog," which inspired him to decoratively print his snowboard with "Old Dog - New Tricks."
Sager supervises Blue Mountain's snowboarding operation several mornings each week. His younger son, 21-year-old Mike, supervises the operation in the afternoons, often leaving a two-hour break between morning and afternoon duties, for Santa and son to snowboard together.
"I help him with moves. He helps me with my teaching," Mike Sager said. "It's a good balance."
Santa's been delivering presents of snowboarding instruction for eight years and has only been snowboarding for two additional years - but he has been skiing since he was 10 years old and has been a ski instructor for 40 years.
It all started back in Sager's hometown in Michigan's flat Saginaw Valley. "There was a farmer that had an orchard and he needed irrigation ponds," Sager began. "When he dug the irrigation ponds, he put all the dirt into a pile. Somebody passing by said, you should make that into a ski hill. So, he did. That was back around 1960."
What Sager calls, "the world's only totally man-made ski mountain," was just four miles away from his home. It had a vertical drop of 180 feet and ran seven rope tows.
"It was the only mountain in the valley," Sager said. "You couldn't miss it."
"My uncle had given skis to my brothers and me," Sager continued. "We got tired of sliding in the backyard so we went over and tried the hill. I was one of the first people there. Lift tickets were 50 cents."
No one paid much attention to 10-year-old Sager, his twin brother Gene, and his friends.
"I learned from watching other people," he said. "I had gotten pretty good by imitating. I took my first lesson when I joined the ski patrol at 14, started teaching at 16, and became a certified ski instructor by the time I was 20.
"I would have been a snowboarder, except snowboarding hadn't been invented yet."
Taking a 15-year sabbatical from the slopes to pursue a career on Broadway, Sager performed as a singer and actor in "Camelot" with Richard Harris, and on a national tour of "South Pacific" with Richard Kiley.
His introduction to his present home of Jim Thorpe came as an invitation from Billy Paget, who had a vision of presenting Equity summer stock at the Mauch Chunk Opera House. "I came up and did some workshops at the high school," Sager said.
Sager met his wife, Janet - an actress and choreographer, at a Pocono Playhouse production. "After my second son, Mike, was born, we were planning on moving out of New York City," Sager said. "We drew a circle two hours out of the city."
As they approached the outskirts of their circle, Sager saw a sign to Jim Thorpe. He liked the town he remembered from his workshops, drove to it, found a home and moved there.
Having worked his way through college as an electrician, he opened an electrical contracting business - Blues Brothers.
Soon he returned to his outdoor sports which included kayaking and mountain biking in the warm weather, and skiing in the winter. Ten years ago, Joel took his sons, Ted and Mike, to Blue Mountain Ski Area. To get free passes to the slopes, Sager returned to being a ski instructor.
Seeing that most of the kids were favoring snowboarding over skiing, Sager decided to learn the sport. So, at 50 years old, he put away his skis and set about to master the snowboard.
"I had to work at my own pace," Sager explained. "My biggest problem was as anyone that skis and tries to pick up snowboarding will tell you, your skiing level is at a high level and when you start snowboarding, you start at the bottom. I put my skis in the closet for two years so I could devote myself to snowboarding."
"Everyone falls. I worked slower than a kid starting out because they have no fear. I worked at a slower pace. That's important for anyone who starts late."
"I've taught students from 7 to 70. Older people have a fear of falling, of going too fast, and not being able to stop. The idea is not to break them. We might stay on a more gradual hill to put them in their comfort zone and stay relaxed.
"When I first started to ski, I would ski with my feet together and it gave me a feeling of moving your whole body on one platform," he said. "In snowboarding, that's exactly what you do. Both feet are locked onto one piece of fiberglass and you are sliding down the hill. It's a feeling of being one with the experience, moving with the board, turning and controlling the speed."
"My goal," Sager said, "on my 100th birthday is to be out on the snow."