November 21, 2015

COPPER MOUNTAIN, Colo. (AP) Her voice quivered but remained strong as she read a powerful poem about her son to a room full of skiers gathered for an avalanche awareness seminar.

''Do I look as though I'm all right?'' Cindy Berlack read. ''No, I'm not. It's still a fight.''

Nearly a year ago, her son, Ronnie, and fellow skiing prospect Bryce Astle were killed in an avalanche near Soelden, Austria.

On Friday night, Cindy Berlack watched a video with skiers of all levels - a video that showed how to stay safe in an avalanche.

It was difficult viewing.

This was emotional, too: Ronnie Berlack and Bryce Astle formally being named to the U.S. Ski Team on Saturday in a ceremony at Copper Mountain- a day both families always figured would arrive, given their skills on skis.

''It's completely heartbreaking, because he's not going to be here for this,'' said Ronnie's sister, Carolyn, a promising 17-year-old skier. ''I still feel like he's just kind of off somewhere skiing, which is pretty true. Because you can't get much better powder than skiing in heaven.''

Astle's father said his son was all about skiing - gliding through knee-deep powder, navigating gates, didn't matter.

''He'd look outside and if it was snowing, it was a beautiful day,'' Jamie Astle said.

Ronnie Berlack was 20 and Astle a few days shy of his 20th birthday when they were part of a group of six skiers who were descending from a peak near Soelden last January.

They were just a few turns away from the lift, Cindy Berlack said, with the groomed trails at the bottom of the hill still in sight. There were even tracks in the snow where they intended to go.

That's when they apparently set off the avalanche. The other four skied out of the slide and escaped unhurt.

''The snow could've loosened. Nobody knows,'' recounted Cindy Berlack, who said her son wasn't wearing an avalanche beacon or an air bag at the time. ''We don't want to know.''

In August, she and her daughter - along with the mother and brother of Bryce Astle - visited the accident site. They were escorted up the mountain and left in peace to pay tribute.

The Berlacks assembled rocks in the shape of a heart and placed coins - Ronnie collected foreign currency - all around in his honor.

''I'm hoping it will be there when we go back,'' said Cindy Berlack, whose husband is a ski coach and couldn't make the trip to Austria.

The ski team said this was the first time it has named athletes to the squad posthumously. Just one of many gestures to remember these two dynamic skiers.

Some athletes wear blue, plastic bracelets that have the initials of each skier and the saying, ''Good Vibes Only.''

There are also posters with images of each of them, too. Bryce's photo collage features him hoisting his ski on top of a podium and another of him at the beach and yet another flying through the air, his skis tucked behind him.

For Ronnie, there are shots of him zipping around a gate, getting ready to blow out birthday candles and petting his dog.

''All of us have felt great pain at the loss of Bryce Astle and Ronnie Berlack during the last 10 months,'' said Tiger Shaw, president and CEO of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association.

''It means a lot to our team, to our athletes and to the families that we remember these young athletes as a part of our 2016 U.S. Alpine Ski Team.''

Bryce Astle didn't start racing until he was 12 and won the first event he ever entered in Utah. It didn't take long until he was being considered as one of the next bright stars for the Americans.

His first World Cup race may have been the giant slalom in Soelden last month. That's why Astle's father couldn't watch the race.

The naming ceremony Saturday was difficult as well.

''Pretty rough, because you're watching where your kid would be,'' Jamie Astle said.

These days, avalanche safety remains a passion of Cindy Berlack. She recently assisted with an education seminar on the East Coast that attracted hundreds of people.

And while Friday's event at Copper Mountain wasn't put on by her, she did ask the organizers if she could read the poem about her son entitled ''Trouble at Sea.''

The presentation was all about how to avoid an avalanche and, if one does occur, how to try to remain safe. It was well attended.

''I love these kids,'' Cindy Berlack said, ''and I wanted make sure they knew that I was watching out for their safety.''

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