In a ski town, the first step in growing the next generation of lifelong skiers and snowboarders is creating a love of the sport, a love of the mountains—to sustain a culture where enjoying the snow is a lifestyle choice, not something you do once a year on vacation.
For hundreds of local little shredders, this journey begins, officially, as early as second grade. That’s when boys and girls are old enough to join Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation’s Development Team, or D-Team. Joining it has become a rite of passage for many local families. D-Team has been helping shape the skiers of the future for decades.
Doran Key has coached the valley’s aspiring racers and recreational skiers since 1978. She’s been head coach of D-Team since 1984. Many kids on her rosters in recent years are the children of children whom she coaxed down their first runs on Baldy a generation ago. She has worked with about 1,500 skiers over nearly 30 years.
During great snow years as well as less-great ones, the one constant for Key has been the enthusiasm and wonder of the children. Equipment has evolved and terrain has changed—why, who would have ever guessed 10 years ago that local kids would be training in a 22-foot halfpipe on Dollar? Encouraging that enthusiasm comes from the coaches. That starts with Key. With characteristic modesty, she prides herself on having a coaching staff dedicated to making the ski experience a positive one for each and every child, each and every Saturday and Sunday during the season.
“We are a community built on snow,” Key said. “We are all raising mountain kids. For D-Team we consider it our responsibility not only to teach the skills needed for children to become successful skiers, and racers if they choose, but also to teach a love for nature, a love for this lifestyle and culture. We usually get them hooked without having to try too hard!”
She and her coaches on D-Team work very hard to accomplish their goals for each season’s athletes. This year’s team of about 75 children, ranging in age from about 7 to 10, brought to the mountain a wide range of abilities and experience on their first day of training in December.
The magic of D-Team coaches is their ability to seamlessly weave together fun and learning. Drills generate laughter and smiles, and a trip through the trees is still a coached run.
I chased D-Team around the hill for a few days over winter break and learned that the true gift of more than 16 D-Team coaches is a willingness to dwell in possibility. The entire mountain is treated as a giant playground. Every type of run and snow surface is embraced by the adults, creating a mindset in the children that the possibilities for skiing enjoyment are as endless as the views across the Pioneers.
I tried to keep up with a group of six fast and fearless second-grade boys, seeing the possibilities du jour from the vantage point of long-time coach Orlie Sather. His spirited group literally disappeared into the troughs of the huge bumps on Fire Trail as they picked their line and yelled for joy all the way to the cat track. Next up? Chicken Lips, the short and steep mogul run on the old Seattle Ridge chairlift cut. But they had barely gotten going. The children got to vote and picked the Adventure Trail called Pine Marten Plunge as a follow-up. Sather, who likes these trails as much as the kids do, led the charge through the banking, fast and terrifying (to many adults) plummet through the trees.
Another more tentative group began its morning not on College, not on Ridge, not on other typical gentler trails, but on the bumps of Christmas Bowl. Though this group of five was not as daring as some of their counterparts, they skied that first run of the day with coaches Susanne O’Connor and Eltiena Campbell with grace, working on their technique and smiling the whole way down.
In true D-Team fashion, on that bright, sunny and warm winter’s morning, coaches O’Connor and Key went with the flow. After teaching a boot-skiing drill down the upper reaches of Roundhouse Slope, the children, hot from climbing up and down the run to practice, decided they needed a snow bath to cool off. Ten minutes of rolling in the snow, making angels and catching a little break in the sun revived everyone’s spirits.
Coaches rotate through groups throughout the season, but I learned they love these kids. They are strict with rules to keep the children safe, yet their personal encouragement to every child resonated all day long. Each coach found something positive to say to every skier, numerous times.
“The children are surrounded by the most dedicated, compassionate coaching staff in the country,” said Key.
This year’s coaching family includes Conner Bennett, Sara Berman, Bill Campbell, Eltiena Campbell, Brian Caulkins, Tina Cole, Susanne Connor, Jeff Enos, Pirkko Jenner, Doran Key, Kirk Mason, Orlie Sather, John Shay, Bryan Simcoe, Brett Stevenson, Lauren Street and junior coaches Joseph, Daniel and Neal Begovich, Gavin Blair, Lane Letourneau and Olivia Ott.
Their job is a labor of love. At crowded Lookout Lodge where the children gather to find their coach and start their day, seven-year D-Team veteran coach Lauren Street said with a laugh, “Some days it’s as much about wiping noses, making sure there are enough bathroom breaks and giving a little extra encouragement to a kid who may not have had a great night’s sleep as it is about technique in the moguls. But we love them. Every day is an adventure!”
Key finds that the things that truly matter remain the same.
“I never tire of experiencing a child’s joy in learning to make a turn in powder,” she said. “I love standing on a run with them as snow blows off the trees and surrounds us. What gets me out of bed in the morning is just watching the kids make progress and gain confidence. Each day I’m up there with them, I look around and think, ‘Look where we get to live, what we get to do and who we get to do it with!’ It just doesn’t get any better than this.”