Community October 12, 2010

Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation

The race arena for the fourth annual Janss Pro-Am, the flagship fundraising event for the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF), looks more like the set of Boogie Nights than the starting gate of a ski race. The organizers, in homage to the heyday of the Bill Janss era, chose a seventies theme for the event. Decked out in disco, from Bogner bell-bottoms to Astral Tunes, from Scott Comp boots to Spademan bindings, the participants are playing the part.

With bragging rights on the line, however, I’m taking this too seriously to dress up. After the preliminary handicapping runs, my Soul Train team is in second place behind Team X, an appropriately named band of retired coaches and athletes from the Sun Valley and United States Ski teams. I strip off my bibs and don a borrowed race suit. Then I hear a familiar voice say, “Try not to lean in, Leidecker!” It’s Nick Lewis, now a foe as Team X’s pro, but one of the best coaches I ever had during my racing days on the Sun Valley Ski Team. Leaning in is an old, bad habit of mine, and Lewis is using it to play with my head.

Being around Lewis and a small army of people associated with the SVSEF and experiencing the jitters of ski racing again feels like a run down memory lane. During the course of the Janss Pro-Am weekend I relive dozens of memories, fond or otherwise, about my years on the Sun Valley Ski Team.

I came up through all stages of the program, starting at age nine on Farm Team (now the Development Team), and progressing through to the upper “B” and “A” Team levels. When I was sixteen I qualified to participate in a national development program but never advanced to the next tier, which would have been a spot on the “C” roster of the U.S. Ski Team (USST). I faced the reality of not making the national team and enrolled in Dartmouth College, where I raced on the collegiate circuit for two years. It was when I first arrived at Dartmouth that I realized the true value of the years I’d spent with the Sun Valley Ski Team.

The fact that ski racing helped me gain admission to an Ivy League college was something I simply took for granted. When I arrived on campus and observed prep school-bred freshmen, independent for the first time in their lives, engaged in full-spectrum destructive behavior, I realized how much I had grown up during my last few years of high school. Countless ski racing road trips exposed me to a slightly larger cross-section of the world. A demanding racing schedule required dedication. Team meetings, hotel travel, ski preparation, and the other less glamorous aspects of ski racing instilled punctuality, independence, and attention to detail. When, during my senior year in high school, I missed eight weeks of school for ski racing, I taught myself the first three chapters of calculus—an infinitely more challenging and rewarding experience than simply attending class. By the time I enrolled in college, I had been taught how to find a healthy balance between working hard and playing hard.

The ski team was an integral part of the growing-up process long before then. When I was in seventh grade I qualified for my first Junior Olympics, which that year were held in Alaska. The trip would be expensive, so teammate and longtime friend Tyler Ferris and I hit the streets, soliciting financial support from local vendors. I remember standing with Tyler in front of the post office (now Formula Sports), showing off a fifty-dollar check from Bob Rosso at the Elephant’s Perch. My agreement to pay the money back led to my first summer job. Relationships like this connected me to the community.

Back on Baldy, I hear the starter call out my bib number. It’s time to race but I’m still untangling the straps on my ski poles, artfully tied together by Lewis in another one of his psych-tactics. I manage to sort out the mess and then step into the starting gate against Adele Savaria, formerly Adele Allender, USST alumna and a twelve-year coach for Sun Valley. Adele’s husband, Pat Savaria, was director of the SVSEF alpine program between 1996 and 2000. Prior to that he was both an athlete and a coach on the USST. In a poetic cycle of family, coaching, and ski racing, it was Pat’s father, Jim Savaria, who was with the Sun Valley Ski Team at its inception.

Savaria, Betty Bell, Jack Simpson, Pete Lane, and Jane Kneeland pioneered junior racing in Sun Valley in 1966. In 1969 the young ski team, then an offshoot of the Sun Valley Ski Club, became the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation, a nonprofit organization that could better meet the administrative and fundraising challenges of the rapidly growing youth program. The nonprofit model proved to be a visionary one for skiing in the United States, and the USST later adopted a similar approach.

Initially the ski team consisted of an alpine program with four coaches and thirty kids. In 1971, Lane Monroe, an All-American ski racer from the University of Nevada in Reno, joined the coaching staff. Monroe left briefly to work with the U.S. Women’s National Team but returned in 1976 and assumed the position of head coach. Michel Rudigoz, a former French National Team coach, worked in Monroe’s absence and when Monroe returned, Rudigoz took over on the U.S. Women’s team. Rudigoz later returned to Sun Valley to coach and continues today as part of the alpine “A/B” coaching staff.

Under Monroe’s leadership the alpine team flourished. By 1996, when Monroe retired from the SVSEF as Executive Director, no less than twenty-four Sun Valley alpine athletes had joined the ranks of the USST. Racers Pete, Susie, and Barbie Patterson; Andy Luhn; Maria Maricich; Zac and Reggie Crist; Tyler Ferris; Clic Bloomfield; and Olympic medalists Picabo Street and Christin Cooper are among the graduates of what has at times been the most dominant junior ski-racing program in the United States. Today, the SVSEF includes alpine, nordic, freestyle, and snowboarding programs, and 60 coaches serve nearly 400 Wood River Valley kids.

The evolution of the program has not been without its share of growing pains. The once dominant and trademark alpine team hasn’t produced a USST athlete for ten years, and all disciplines have had to learn how to share financial resources and training space on Baldy. The team has also struggled with how to deal with parent involvement. In the early years the infant team relied heavily on parental support, especially for travel. As the team grew and became increasingly competitive, Monroe felt that moms and dads, some with “Little League” mentalities, were applying additional stress and pressure on the athletes, especially those in their early teens. Consequently, Monroe developed a “no travel” policy for parents.

Today, the sheer size of the program necessitates help from parents, whether for travel or for fundraising. Despite the increase in parental involvement, however, Don Wiseman, current vice president of the SVSEF Board of Directors, says, “Discipline on the mountain is still the full responsibility of the coaches and staff.” The SVSEF has drafted a code of conduct designed to address behavioral issues. “We’re trying to provide a positive, supportive atmosphere,” Wiseman says, “where our athletes know what is expected of them and whether certain activities and behaviors are in-bounds or out-of-bounds.”

Despite a few bumps in the road, the SVSEF continues to run a topnotch junior ski program. Last season the U.S. Snowboard Team named Claire Cetera and Graham Watanabe to its roster, while 42 percent of the alpine graduates and 60 percent of the nordic graduates received NCAA scholarships. The United States Ski Association honors the SVSEF yearly with awards such as “Club of the Year,” “Alpine Staff of the Year,” “Cross Country Coach of the Year,” and “Domestic Snowboard Coach of the Year.” “Our job,” says Wiseman, in reference to the SVSEF Board of Directors, “is to adjust and grow with the demands of ski competition, the community, and the athletes. Despite the growth of the team and some problems, the end results are still the same.”

Wiseman alludes to the fact that the development of high-caliber ski racers has never been the sole objective of the SVSEF. In reality, the vast majority of SVSEF athletes will not go on to compete in the Olympics. The “end results” to which Wiseman refers are less tangible than placing athletes on national teams or sending them off to college, but the SVSEF’s mission statement asserts the primary objective of the program very clearly: “By challenging our athletes both physically and mentally, we encourage the development of self-discipline, physical fitness, and personal responsibility. With the achievement of these personal assets, self-esteem and self-confidence will emerge and our athletes will leave us prepared to make wise decisions, choose positive paths, and succeed in life.”

Mila Riggio, the co-director of this year’s Janss Pro-Am and a mother with two children on the team, agrees with the mission of the SVSEF. She adds, “The value of the ski team is also in the opportunities of the mountain lifestyle. [The athletes] learn to appreciate the environment and the elements of nature.” The SVSEF connects its athletes to the trails, the rivers, and the backcountry that make the Wood River Valley a truly unique place to be a kid. Nordic skiers know about backpacking in the Sawtooths because Director Rick Kapala takes them there—cross training, if you will. Fall dry-land programs introduce kids to the backside of Dollar, Adam’s Gulch, and Fox Creek. And everybody knows Baldy, some intimately. Not surprisingly, the ski team, along with the outdoor playground that is its training facility, has launched many of its athletes—Olympians Reggie Crist and Pete Patterson, for example—into lifestyles of worldwide outdoor adventure.
Regardless of whether kids become great skiers, mountain climbers, or simply good citizens, the coaching staff is at the heart of their development. Of the SVSEF coaches, Bill Mann, newly hired Director of Development, says, “Fundamentally they’re our biggest asset.” The coaching staff is vital to the success of the program, and the job description, though not explicitly stated so, extends well beyond coaching. Coaches are van drivers. Coaches are teachers. Coaches are friends. Coaches are mentors. Coaches, much to their dismay, are sometimes disciplinarians. Coaches are course workers. Coaches are physical trainers. Coaches are ski technicians. Coaches are chaperones. And because the resources don’t exist for them to be coaches all the time, they are also carpenters, landscapers, realtors, insurance salesmen, small business owners, physical therapists, stockbrokers, and waitresses. Of course, many are also parents.
For their talents and responsibilities, they are paid a wage that doesn’t accurately reflect the amount of heart, soul, and hard work they devote to their jobs. “The ski team has always been 110 percent behind its coaches,” says Jeff Enos, former head of the alpine “C” team. “In order for the team to be successful, the community has to be behind them 110 percent as well.” Mann points out the fact that athlete tuition covers only about half of the SVSEF operating expenses, of which one third is coaching salaries. Annual fundraising activities, like the Janss Pro-Am or the Annual Fund Drive, make up the difference. “To better compensate our amazing coaching staff,” Mann says, “one of our primary fundraising goals is to increase our Annual Fund by $180,000, so we can increase salaries by an average of 10 percent.”
“When I think of coaching,” says Enos, “I think of being a mentor. That’s what I’m most proud of. Seeing alumni return to coach is reaping the rewards.” Indeed, of the sixty or so coaches in all disciplines, roughly a third are SVSEF alumni. One of them was Tyler Ferris, former U.S. “C” Team member and 1990 graduate from the SVSEF. Tyler coached for five years after his stint on the USST. “It was incredible working beside someone like Michel Rudigoz,” Ferris says. “We shared information, and sometimes he even sought my advice. Our goal is not only to produce athletes that compete at the highest level, but also to teach each one the love of the sport. I guess that’s one thing that motivated me to come back and coach—to pass on some of what had been passed on to me.”

“Good luck,” Adele says as we cross our poles over the black timing wand in the starting gate. I straighten my arms and bend my knees, building tension. “Red course ready, blue course ready,” the starter announces. “Courses clear, racers ready…go!” I kick out of the start, uncoiling from my semi-crouched position, and charge toward the first gate. By the time I’m past it I’m on autopilot. Every subtle body shift, every good habit, every bad habit—all are hardwired into some cerebral closet I haven’t accessed for years. I’m not thinking about when to initiate my turns or where my hips should be. I’m just trying to go fast. Before I know it I tuck through the finish and dart my hand forward to stop the timing light.

I hear the race announcer report Adele’s time and then mine. Adele beats me, but not by enough for her team to score any winning points. The Janss Pro-Am’s complex scoring system favors consistency and gradual improvement over flat-out speed. In the end, Team X and Soul Train don’t even make it to the second round of competition.

Thus eliminated, and lacking a groovy costume, I realize my competitive approach to this race was overblown. I’m sure that the winning team, dressed in Levi’s and classic Demetre sweaters, is having a chuckle over those of us who stripped down to our race suits. I’m over it, though, and ready to enjoy the post-race festivities, which, for my team, begin before noon!

Weeks later I hear the Janss Pro-Am raised $68,000 for the SVSEF. I was so fixated on racing that I forgot we were raising money for the kids. That’s ironic, since I learned a long time ago that, like the fundraiser that supports it, the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation has never been solely about ski racing.

Erik Leidecker spends as much time as he can in the mountains or on the rivers—whether it’s for pleasure or work (Sawtooth Mountain Guides and Sun Valley Heli-Ski). His writing is largely derived from these experiences, with new inspiration coming from his wife Gretchen and the home they built together in Hailey.




This article appears in the Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.