TRISH'S face broke into a smile as warm and bright as a sunny spring day. Her eyes sparkled as she shared the excitement of her first ski lesson two years earlier. ``You see, the instructor took one look at me and he saw I was really nervous. Well, he was laid back and very casual and he said anybody who wanted to learn to ski, young or not quite so young,'' she interrupted herself with a giggle, then continued, ``could be skiing on those long blue trails all over the mountain in a week.
``And you know what? I did.''
She laughed. ``Oh, it was such a wonderful experience for a woman my age.''
Ah, would Trish be willing to share the secret of her age?
``Maybe I shouldn't because I'm still working and you know what weird ideas people get when they think about someone my age. But, well, I'm 71.''
Why did she decide to take up skiing?
Trish says her husband had died a year or so before, and she had gone to Steamboat Springs, high in the Colorado mountains, to visit a son. The huge Steamboat Springs ski complex was only a snowball toss away.
``My son suggested it. He said maybe if I added something new and exciting it would help fill the void.
``It did, but I also discovered something else: It's a wonderful way of turning the clock back.''
NO one would agree more heartily that wondrous benefits await seniors who take up skiing than Billy Kidd, director of skiing at Steamboat Springs. Mr. Kidd won a silver medal in the 1964 Olympics, then captured the coveted World Cup in 1970.
``Getting started has nothing to do with age,'' Kidd says, tilting his trademark Stetson back on his head. ``You need the same thing at any age - good health.''
He points out that many non-skiers have a misconception that skiing is a wild and dangerous sport:
``You know, every major ski area has more novice runs than steep trails for experts. The real thing to understand is that you ski at your own pace, on the trails that you like. You set your own level of safety.''
Kidd adds that today's ski equipment is ideal for beginners who are spending pension dollars, as well as for noisy, enthusiastic teen-agers who are spending parents' dollars:
Bindings are the safest that have ever been designed, according to Kidd. Skis now are released during slow, rolling falls that once meant trouble because the skier turned and the ski didn't.
Today's novice skis are more responsive, more forgiving, and easier to control than any skis ever made, he says.
Boots for beginners are easy to get into and far more comfortable than they ever have been.
KIDD forgot one other important item: Seniors look just as dashing in colorful ski gear, jaunty caps, and nifty goggles as youngsters 50 years their juniors.
Dr. Jeffrey M. Schwartz, a New York orthopedic surgeon who specializes in sports medicine, agrees age is no barrier to those who would like to join the waiting lines at the lifts, or the apr`es ski life that glows after the lifts fall silent on winter nights.
``It's important for seniors to have good joint flexibility and muscle tone. If they're couch potatoes, it's especially necessary to shape up physically through an active exercise program before heading for the slopes,'' he says.
Lloyd Lambert, of Ballston Lake, N.Y., is perhaps the nation's best-known senior skier. His first skis were 7-foot-long pine slabs fastened to his hiking boots with leather toe straps.
That was in 1915. Now 87, he has been skiing ever since.
In his youthful 70s, Lloyd, at that time still an active ski reporter for radio stations, decided what this country really needed was another organization. The result: formation of the famed ``70+'' club.
Today ``70+'' has a worldwide membership of some 4,000 men and women. Membership requirements are rigid: Be at least 70 or be patient.
About the same time, three Colorado ski instructors were troubled by the disappearance of older skiers from the mountains. They started a high-spirited organization for older skiers known as the Over The Hill Gang. Now numbering several thousand members, these ski enthusiasts belong to local chapters mostly in the Western United States.
Both ``70+'' and the Over The Hill Gang sponsor wide-ranging ski junkets throughout the world for their members.
KATIE DILLMAN, a spokeswoman for the National Ski Areas Association, says resorts across the country are going further and further to welcome seniors. Lift ticket rates tend to drop sharply for the 60-and-over crowd, especially on weekdays, and an increasing number offer free skiing to the seven-decaders.
``70+'' charges $5 for a lifetime membership. For that, new members get an identity card, patch, and 10-page listing of where to ski at big discounts, or for free, in the United States, Canada, Australia, France, and Switzerland.
Ski experts generally recommend that the senior novice should start out like anyone else in a new sport: Don't buy anything, except necessary clothing, until you've tried it.
The best introduction might be to go to major areas that offer week-long, learn-to-ski programs, and rent the appropriate boots and skis and other equipment under the supervision of ski school experts.
``70+'' holds its annual convention on the snowy slopes of New York's Hunter Mountain in the Catskills. The hundreds who flock to the event are as frisky and high-spirited as any skiers on the well-groomed trails.
The annual race is no Nice Nelly affair. Skiers whose hair is as white as the snow battle ferociously down a world-class course with the determination of an Olympic racer.
Indeed, some of the 70+ers are former Olympic competitors, but others are still in the novice stage.
Paula Zuckerman, an adjunct professor of clinical psychology at New York University, a 20-year ski veteran, says the greatest benefit for seniors who ski is not the physical workout.
``It's emotionally wonderful. Older people often joke about their [physical] problems. What they don't talk about is the loneliness when friends and relatives and spouses are gone,'' she says.
``Skiing gives them a reason to be active, to travel, to meet new friends and discover new relationships.'' For information, write: 70+, c/o Lloyd Lambert, 104 Eastside Drive, Ballston Lake, NY 12019.