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Slalom Skier Still Competes Despite Move to Flatlands

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

David Melkonian has come down from the mountain after living four years in Mammoth. The 14-year-old Junior Olympic skier decided last fall to move back home to Woodland Hills and attend school at El Camino Real High, a decision, his coach says, that counters a basic truth about competitive skiing: You can’t train only on weekends and expect to be the next Wheaties cover boy.

“It’s unfortunate,” says coach Noel Dufty, an Australian who lives in Mammoth. “He’ll find it hard to compete at a high level because of his lack of training.”

But that doesn’t seem to bother Melkonian, an honor-roll student with a pragmatic ‘80s outlook. “It hurts me not to be skiing as much as I did,” he says, “but I don’t want to grow up to be a skier. I just want to get an education and make a lot of money.”

Melkonian doesn’t want to follow in the ski tracks of older brother Michael, a more advanced Junior Olympian who has World Cup and Olympic ambitions. Michael, 18, lives in Mammoth with Dufty’s family and is a senior at Mammoth Lakes High. David couldn’t see himself living in a small ski town and attending a high school with only 200 students.

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“El Camino is as big as the whole town of Mammoth,” he says about the school, which has an enrollment of 2,600. “It also has blacks and Hispanics. More like the real world. Mammoth doesn’t.”

So far, the move has not damaged his performance in his speciality, the super-giant slalom. Recently, Melkonian finished a surprising ninth at the Far West Championships and qualified for this week’s Junior II level Junior Olympics at Ski Sunlight, Colo. Michael is competing this week in the Junior I Western Regional Championships in Red Lodge, Mont.

Behind every successful skier, of course, is a mother. Mary Melkonian not only chauffeured David five hours each way to Mammoth on weekends this winter, she gladly uprooted her family eight years ago to accommodate their skiing bug. In 1981, the Melkonians leased their Woodland Hills house and followed the snow, living full-time in Wrightwood for four years, then Mammoth. Vahe Melkonian, president of an investment management company in Woodland Hills, saw his family every other weekend.

“There are quite a few people who move to the mountains just for the skiing,” Mary says. “We’re not the only cuckoo family in the world. But if you would have said beforehand that we’d be in Mammoth for four years, I would have slit my throat.”

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The Melkonians had a normal family life until that fateful day in 1978 when Mary decided to go to Mammoth and learn to ski. “I wanted someone to ski with,” she says. So she recruited her three children, the eldest, Monica, barely a teen-ager.

“I plunked them into ski school,” Mary says, “and 15 minutes after their first lesson, they took off and left me behind. All of them are beautiful skiers now, but I’m just a terminal intermediate.”

After the family moved to Wrightwood, Michael became interested in racing and David “kind of dovetailed along,” Mary says. But Wrightwood is a place for weekend recreational skiers who are more interested in fashion and frolic than serious schussing. The mountains with the best coaches and best runs and biggest races are at Lake Tahoe and Mammoth.

Instead of moving to Mammoth, the Melkonians considered sending their sons to a ski academy, such as Romark in Park City, Utah. The cost, between $12,000 and $15,000 a year, was a deterrent, but Mary also didn’t want to break up the family. “We didn’t feel as if we should just pop the kids off to school,” she says. (Monica, now a sophomore at Cal State Northridge, has never been a serious competitive skier.)

Mary, who sends out press releases on her sons’ accomplishments, doesn’t consider herself a stage mother. “I’m more like a facilitator,” she says. It was her job to get the boys on the slopes. “I had a rule,” she says. “If I had to wake anyone up twice, he didn’t go anywhere.” Michael never tested his mother’s resolve, but David did. Once. “It took David only one Saturday of sleeping in to figure out there was nothing else to do in the mountains and all the action was on the slopes,” Mary says.

Unlike Michael, David has never been the eager skier. “They’re equally as talented,” Mary says, “but David is not as motivated.”

“I’m not better than he is,” David insists. “He skis good.”

David, 5-foot-7, 130 pounds, set the freshman-sophomore cross-country running record at El Camino Real last fall. This spring he will compete in five events in varsity track.

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“I’m not built like a skier,” he says. To which his mother says: “You’ll get there.”

Support, encouragement. What else are mothers for? “To succeed in skiing,” Mary says, “you have to have the right parents.”


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