The Nordic Character
An individual sport that builds a community
PHOTOGRAPHY Mark Oliver
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. >>>
Droege admits she was never the star of the team, racing with peers like Picabo Street, but she became an NCAA Division 1 competitor and an accomplished racer. More than that, she learned life skills and perseverance that have served her well in other endeavors. She took away “all those lessons that you learn being part of a team, like great camaraderie, even though it’s an individual sport,” she said.
After earning a master’s degree from Idaho State University, Droege went on to nine years practicing physical therapy with Koth Sports Physical Therapy in Ketchum. But even while working full-time mending the Valley’s many broken bones and torn ligaments, she stayed involved with the SVSEF. She coached alpine racing part-time and in 2006 became a Foundation board member. In July 2008, she left therapy’s weight rooms and training tables and took a full-time position as the Foundation’s development director.
“I feel I’ve come full circle,” she said. “And I feel very passionate about what this ski foundation does, in terms of the number of kids we are impacting.” Intoning the Foundation’s holistic message, she added, “It’s not just about athletics, but the lessons you learn being on this team.”
Despite all the talk about prioritizing life lessons over athletic performance, the SVSEF Nordic Team consistently produces winners.
“If you attract enough kids and do a good job, ultimately, you’re going to have a fair amount of kids move into the competitive level,” Kapala said.
The program starts kids young. The youngest are 7- to 10-year-olds in an entry-level after-school program. From there, the team progresses through middle school and high school and retains the most competitive collegiate skiers on the Olympic Development Team (ODT).
Last winter, the cross-country program served roughly 80 entry-level skiers; 40 on the middle school prep team; 25 on the high school competitive team; and about a dozen college-age athletes on ODT. In total, Kapala oversaw 150 skiers last season.
“The first priority is to provide development to all kids in the Valley,” Kapala said. “It’s expensive to be a ski racer, but at the younger level, there’s no question any kid can ski.”
The timeframe for skiers to reach peak performance is narrow. Elite cross-country careers rarely begin before an athlete is 22 years old and rarely last past 26. “Very few numbers of kids, even among our very best kids, will choose to continue ski racing in college and beyond,” Kapala said. >>>
Still, he believes the ODT is a crucial element to the Foundation’s efforts.
“Through our program, we’ll raise kids through school and get some high school kids who are some of the best in the country. At that point, why would we stop helping them?”
The ODT is geared toward 18- to 22-year-olds who want to compete at top levels in the United States and internationally. Because skiers who’ve come up through the Foundation need a high-level, competitive training program with equal peers to train with, the ODT also accepts a limited number of top skiers who want to relocate to Sun Valley from other parts of the country. This winter, of 11 skiers on the ODT, five have moved in from “typical Nordic hotbeds” including Vermont, Minnesota and Alaska, Kapala said.
These elite imports are a benefit to the community, Kapala said. They not only contribute to the Valley’s community, but also act as inspiring role models to the younger skiers in the program.
“The other kids who are part of the program go, ‘Wow, I’m part of this thing that’s bigger than any one of us individually.’”
At each level, the program boasts strong community support. At the elementary level, youngsters are introduced to skiing and taught the fundamentals in the after-school program at Quigley Canyon in Hailey. About 10 years ago, private landowners worked with the Foundation to develop the Quigley area, which is easily accessible just east of downtown Hailey. Today, the popular trails are managed by the Blaine County Recreation District (BCRD) and are open to the public. A generous, silent donor also provided the funds for a modular team center at the site for the young Nordic team members. The BCRD also runs a warming yurt for skiers on the Quigley trails.
Middle school and high school skiers train on land owned by the SVSEF at Lake Creek. Donations also provided for a 4,000-square-foot training facility there that houses offices, lockers, workout rooms and a ski-waxing room. In exchange for public access, the BCRD also grooms all of the Lake Creek trails.
Lake Creek and Quigley each offer 10 kilometers of groomed trails. In all, the Valley boasts a large, integrated cross-country trail system—including the Harriman, Sun Valley and Galena trails—totaling over 200 kilometers. It’s an extraordinary system for experienced athletes or novices, and roughly 3,000 people buy annual passes each year.
Meanwhile, in Sun Valley, the Ski Education Foundation was the first nonprofit ski club in the country, according to Kapala. The nonprofit corporate model, which allows the Foundation to raise money and receive charitable gifts, served as an economic model for similar programs in ski towns across the country. From fundraising to dry-land conditioning and on-snow results, the Foundation stands as a venerated model for Nordic skiers everywhere. >>>
PRODUCTS OF THE PROGRAM
Sun Valley’s Nordic stars, in their own words
Born: 5/13/1986, Bend, Oregon
Born: 09/28/1988, Sun Valley
Born: 05/25/1991, Seattle
Born: 08/13/1988, Sun Valley
Born: 01/23/1985, Sun Valley