The Nordic Character
An individual sport that builds a community
PHOTOGRAPHY Mark Oliver
(Left to right) Will Spiller, Danny Sundali, Emily Williams and coaches Chris Mallory and
Rick Kapala meet to review the day’s training schedule.
(page 1 of 4)
Asked about their experiences with the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF) Nordic Team, the squad’s brightest stars rarely talk about skiing. They talk instead about challenges, life lessons and character. They talk abstractly, as if struggling to convey in words a mystical experience.
“The program is more than just skiing,” said Mike Sinnott, an alum who went on to an All-American career at Dartmouth College. “It’s having the strength to attack the impossible,” he said.
The team’s teenagers and twentysomethings talk like wizened old-yogis. It may be just a snow sport to some. But invariably, the athletes of the Sun Valley Nordic Team think of cross-country skiing as the defining formative experience in their young lives.
One might look at Morgan Arritola and Mike Sinnott and get the idea that the Foundation’s Nordic Team is an exclusive program to develop elite athletes. But the list of 16 Junior National champions is no gauge for success, said Rick Kapala, Nordic program director and head coach. Focusing on medals or even skiing misses the point. Kapala’s team experience is much more. The Nordic Team and the Foundation it’s a part of exist to serve and develop the Wood River Valley’s youth.
“Sport is sport,” Kapala said. “The fundamentals for making it a positive endeavor remain the same. With our program, we strive to be the best youth sports program in the Valley. The vehicle we’re using is skiing.”
Kapala’s goals are simple: get youngsters outdoors, teach them about healthy lifestyles, commitment, goal setting, teamwork, overcoming daunting challenges and bouncing back from failure.
“Resilient kids go on to be successful adults,” Kapala said.
Beyond the proper V1 technique needed to crest a steep hill, Kapala is conscious about developing character. Like any good coach, he works to develop strengths that will endure throughout an athlete’s lifetime, regardless of what is achieved on-snow or in competitions.
Like any good youth mentor, Kapala takes the long view. “We develop kids into great human beings; along the way we might win a few ski races.”
Kapala is a dynamic and passionate director and is respected by his peers as one of the best cross-country coaches in the country. Hailing from a south-shore Lake Superior town in Michigan, he wasn’t involved in Nordic skiing until college. When it became clear that he wasn’t a top competitor, he started coaching and found a new passion in athletic mentoring.
Kapala worked in Washington State and Alaska before landing at SVSEF as head coach of the Nordic program in 1987. After traveling to meets and races the world over, he thinks Sun Valley is the perfect geographic venue to run a premier cross-country program.
“If you can’t have a good cross-country program in Sun Valley, something’s wrong.”
Great snow, great terrain, great ski and hiking trails (for dryland training), and a community that truly cares about the sport make Sun Valley an enviable location. Numerous former U.S. Ski Team, Olympians and SVSEF alumni call the Wood River Valley home.
These athletes understand and appreciate the values associated with cross-country skiing—endurance and commitment to long-term goals.
Kapala thinks of the Valley and its community as a nurturing backdrop for his athletes. His team is “part of our community.”
The Foundation’s development director, Karoline Droege was a product of the SVSEF alpine program back in the ’80s.
“I feel like it’s made a huge difference in my life, certainly a defining thing,” she said. >>>