The chill of November has Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation staff and athletes thinking about snow, skiing and winter’s arrival.
One deadline on the immediate horizon for the 47-year-old SVSEF Nordic program is its hosting responsibilities for the 2019-20 SuperTour races scheduled for the valley on Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 14-15, preceded by two training days.
“It’s a high-level race series,” said SVSEF Nordic Program Director Rick Kapala, in his 33rd winter with the local cross-country team, founded in 1972 by Rob Kiesel. “We’re expecting 150 to 200 of the top athletes from the U.S. and Canada.”
SVSEF Nordic under Kapala’s direction is never idle. At the Lake Creek training center for cross-country athletes, work has been taking place through the fall on completion of the third and final phase of the program’s Nordic Legacy Project.
A broad-based, three-year capital development initiative that needed an array of donors to fund about $700,000 for various facility needs, the Nordic Legacy Project proceeded through three phases, Kapala said.
The first was installation and development of a roller-ski treadmill in a retrofitted building adjacent to the SVSEF Air Barn in the Dumke Family Sun Valley Community School Sagewillow Elkhorn campus.
Also completed last year was a second phase—paving about 2 kilometers of Sagewillow roads to provide wider surfaces for high-velocity sprint roller-ski training. The project included buying a bus to transport Development Team kids.
This fall, the SVSEF renovated its Lake Creek training center, which started as a small log structure along the Big Wood River north of Ketchum in 1982 and expanded into its existing footprint in 2003. No expansion occurred in the footprint, but plenty of work has been done.
Kapala said a key group of local contractors helped gut the building, and the lion’s share of staff and athletes worked to install durable new carpets, fixtures and lockers. A new front door greeted those attending the “grand opening” on Nov. 17.
“We needed to renovate the building because we now having 150 to 200 people using a 4,000
-square-foot building. It was time,” he said.
Kapala added, “The facilities and partnerships we’ve created are in a great place. We’ve been able to integrate all of the different levels of programming effectively under one roof. It helps demonstrate to all of our kids what’s possible.
“All these things, and whatever competitive success we’ve had, are all built on the efforts of profound change in the valley over the years—the Blaine County Recreation District, the North Valley Trails and our strong Nordic community.
“Younger skiers from all different schools in the valley become engaged, and all these things sustain our program and build a sense of identity and connection. We’ve been able to continue this culture of cross-country skiing that is an essential part of what our community is.”
Over many years of succeeding in its mission of providing a program with healthy lifestyle choices, the SVSEF has also succeeded in supporting athletes at the highest levels of U.S. Nordic racing.
“We’ve grown about 40 Junior National champions from this small valley,” Kapala said.
He said SVSEF has become one of five American Nordic programs developing the top U.S. racers. Others are Alaska Pacific University, Craftsbury and Stratton Mountain in Vermont, and Central Cross Country based in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Because of its financial, coaching and travel support, the U.S. national team has been the gold standard for skiers in the prime of athletic life competing at the World Cup level. There is a pipeline out of high school to making the U.S. team, and it basically consists of two routes, he said.
Making the U.S. Nordic Development team is a first step, one achieved for the first time in 2019-20 by 18-year-old Sun Valley Community School senior Johnny Hagenbuch. Last January at Lahti, Finland, he was a member of the first-ever U.S. Junior World Championships gold medal team in the men’s 4x5-kilometer relay.
Recently, two SVSEF skiers were on the list when the U.S. Ski and Snowboard (USSA) announced the 20 athletes of the Davis Cross Country National Team Program for the 2019-20 season. The team opens its World Cup season Nov. 29 to Dec. 1 in Ruka, Finland, and the SuperTour season Dec. 6-8 in Canmore, Alberta.
SVSEF’s Kevin Bolger and Hagenbuch were on the team, headed by a Hailey resident, USSA Nordic Program Director Chris Grover.
A second route to national team membership is racing in college. But what happens after college racing ends, especially since many Nordic ski racers mature in their mid- to late-20s?
Fourteen years ago, Grover had the foresight to start the SVSEF Nordic Gold Team for athletes aspiring to the highest levels of racing. Since then, the Gold Team has essentially become a professional racing team.
Gold Team racers can parlay success in competitions like the USSA SuperTour to gain FIS World Cup start rights. That’s why the upcoming SuperTour in Sun Valley is a showcase for up-and-coming Nordic stars.
The 2019-20 SVSEF Nordic Gold Team features four skiers. In past years, the SVSEF has accommodated up to eight Gold Teamers with its coaching and financial pipeline, Kapala said. They are usually asked to make two-year commitments to the Gold Team.
“It’s about athletic performance at the highest level,” Kapala said.
Gold Teamers are Middlebury College (Vt.) alums Katie Feldman, 23, of Ketchum, and Sam Wood, 23, of Harpswell, Me.; Kevin Bolger, 26, of Minocqua, Wisc., and the University of Utah; and Peter Holmes, 23, of Tahoe City, Calif., and the University of New Hampshire.
They are due to compete in the Sun Valley SuperTour, which has individual classic sprints Dec. 14 and individual distance freestyle Dec. 15.
SuperTour is a series of International Ski Federation-sanctioned cross-country events across North America produced by USSA together with its divisions and clubs as a developmental program.
Period No. 1 of the SuperTour consists of the Canmore and Sun Valley events during December. Period No. 2 begins at Houghton, Mich., Jan. 2-7 and Craftsbury, Vt., Jan. 24-26 and then goes to Minneapolis, Feb. 16-17 as a test event for the Minneapolis World Cup in March.
The American Birkebeiner in Wisconsin Feb. 19 and 22, and the SuperTour Finals at Vernon, British Columbia, on March 26 to April 2 complete the schedule. And, of course, this winter features FIS World Cup stops in Quebec and Canmore, Alberta, and Minnesota.
Here in Sun Valley, Kapala’s mind is always percolating with new ideas for growing the Nordic sport.
With the Nordic Legacy Project completed, he is embarking on what he calls the next critical initiative “to sustain the ecosystem of cross-country skiing in the community.”
It’s called Elite Performance Initiative—Cross Country (EPICC).
Short-term goals are to secure annual funding of $150,000 for the next three years to support SVSEF elite athletic strategies, travel expenses and development of coaching expertise. Long-term goals are to maintain levels of excellence for SVSEF elite cross-country ski athletes through the 2030 Olympics.