Profiling skiing icons Bobbie Burns, Chuck Ferries, Rick Kapala, Langely and Wiz McNeal, Phil Puchner and Penelope Street.
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About Rick Kapala...
When Rick Kapala sustained an injury during a pick-up football game in college, he was told he could no longer participate in contact sports. The news instantly put an end to the dream of being an Olympic wrestler that he had harbored since high school.
But having grown up with a love for the outdoors and having learned the discipline and passion for an active lifestyle from wrestling, he began Nordic skiing with some college buddies as a way to keep healthy. Little did he know that the challenge and solitude of the sport would draw him in and provide him with a new future far from the world of wrestling.
In 1987, after having coached a team in Alaska for a couple of years, Kapala moved to the Valley to take a position as the head coach of the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation’s (SVSEF) cross-country program. Now 52, Kapala has coached students such as 2010 Olympian Morgan Arritola and many others who have gone on to earn national and international titles.
The SVSEF recently awarded Kapala with the 2010 Jack Simpson Dedicated Coaches Award and he also received the 2011 Al Merrill Award for Nordic Leadership and Commitment to Excellence from the United States Ski and Snowboard Association. In almost 30 years of coaching, he has worked individually with more than 400 athletes.
Kapala’s initial interest in coaching came from his high school wrestling coach, Tom Kroll, and a couple named Tom and Sue Duffield, who guided him one high school summer on a trail crew with the Student Conservation Association. Kroll made him feel welcome on the wrestling team from day one, even though he wasn’t much good. “I was this fat little kid who couldn’t do anything very well, and I got talked into this sport by some other kids on the street,” Kapala says. “I felt like it didn’t matter if I was the best guy on the team or the worst guy on the team. It was obvious that this coach valued everybody equally. To me that was a huge, huge lesson, and I never forgot it.”
That lesson, along with his time with the Duffields, taught Kapala to be curious about the world and provided him with exceptional examples of how to empower teenagers. Drawing on those experiences, Kapala began developing the views on coaching he still holds today. Kapala tries to coach with what he refers to as a servant-style leadership. He sees it as his job to help his athletes find the strengths within themselves to succeed.
“You have to really understand your athletes. It’s my job to adjust my coaching style to them, not theirs to change their personalities to suit me … so I have to figure out how to help their essential elements add to what they’re doing. My job isn’t to make them somebody else,” Kapala says. “At the end of the day, what you’re really trying to do with coaching is get people to awaken themselves.”
Mike Sinnott, 2011 Super Tour Champion and one of Kapala’s long-time students, says that Kapala’s efforts to adapt his coaching to each individual and his ability to infuse hard work with fun are what initially kept him on the team.
Looking back, Sinnott says, “I don’t think it can be overstated how great a coach Rick is and how important he’s been to the community. He’s very much affected my own life … I couldn’t imagine what I’d be doing now, probably would be stuck in an office somewhere, without him.”
Kapala says that one of the most rewarding aspects of coaching for him is seeing kids who struggle initially with cross-country skiing stick with the sport and undergo a personal transformation until, at some point, they finally succeed.
“We get tricked into thinking that the end result is where knowledge, competency or ability comes from. But it doesn’t come from getting the answer. It comes from working to get the answer,” Kapala says. “We never say to anyone, ‘You’re not good enough.’ We just keep saying, ‘You can be.’”
He also enjoys seeing old students out training, even years after they have moved on from the team. Kapala hopes that if his students leave with any lesson in particular, it is how to maintain a healthy lifestyle. -Hailey Tucker