Conquering the mountains: Role models help young athletes achieve their competitive goals |

Conquering the mountains: Role models help young athletes achieve their competitive goals

Laura Bell
Special to the Daily
Abi Elizade, mountain biker.
Todd Thiele | Special to the Daily |

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Vail Health magazine. Read about young athletes featured in last week’s installment of the series at

When kids compete at regional or national levels, they need support not just from their coaches, but also their families, which includes chauffeuring to events, packing lunches, booking hotels, playing psychologist and just basically being there, win, lose or crash.

Last week we introduced you to three young athletes who excel in their individual sports of slacklining, barrel racing and rock climbing. Here, read about four additional competitors who are making waves on the trail, on the water and on the track.

Abi Elizade

mountain biker

Biking around the neighborhood was always a fun way for Abi Elizade to blow off some steam and enjoy time with her friends. So when she heard that a local mountain biking team was forming in the area, Abi went to a meeting for Cycle Effect, a nonprofit organization dedicated to “empowering young women through mountain biking to achieve brighter futures and build stronger communities.”

Since joining the organization, Abi, now 18, has forged lasting friendships, triumphed in her sport and determined her long-term career objective: to work with children.

“I really like helping the younger girls,” said Abi, whose sister Dariana is a teammate. “I feel I can encourage them not just to mountain bike, but to know there is a chance that they can do things — things that people didn’t think they could do.”

She takes pride in knowing that she is often referred to as the Hispanic face of the mountain biking community and believes her strong family ties have helped her succeed.

“My parents never miss a race,” Abi said. “They always come and support me and cheer for me. My dad gives me tips, and my mom tries to help me eat healthier.”

A “second mom” is Cycle Effect’s volunteer head coach, Tamara Donelson.

“Tam is my role model. She is a strong woman; she connects with us and helps us. I just want to be like her and be a good sport,” Abi said, then adds with a laugh that Tamara’s husband and the group’s founder, Brett, “motivates you to do your best. The first year you may hate him because he keeps pushing you; he does that because he knows you have the potential to do well.”

In 2015, Brett did push Abi to train some days at 5 a.m. in order for her to qualify for the USA Cycling 2015 Mountain Bike Nationals in Mammoth, California. And train she did, not only at 5 a.m. but also in the afternoons with teammates. In April, she qualified for nationals.

The experience was eye opening for Abi, who had never been to the area and was shocked to see it was a ski resort. She enjoyed bonding with other girls and the experience has motivated her to find a college where she can compete.

As a senior this spring, mixing education with practice was a little tricky as Abi took a dual enrollment Colorado Mountain College class for high school and college credit.

But just like the mountains she climbs on her bike, (“You are already dying when you get to the top,” she says ruefully), she knew the entire ride was worth the effort.

“I feel I can encourage them not just to mountain bike, but to know there is a chance that they can do things — things that people didn’t think they could do,” she said.

Jack Arnot


Jack Arnot grew up casting a traditional spinner reel with his mom, Katie Mazzia, a registered dietitian nutritionist at Vail Valley Medical Center. At 10, his dad gave him a fly-fishing rod and he became, well, hooked.

After completing several mandatory clinics in North Carolina and Pennsylvania at age 13, Jack won a spot on the U.S. Youth Fly Fishing team. And then last summer, at age 14, he entered The World Youth Fly Fishing Championships in Vail, filling in as a “ghost angler” at Sylvan Lake where the U.S. Youth team finished with a gold medal.

While he is just starting his competition career, Jack is already ranked seventh nationally. His ultimate goal is to make the travel team for U.S. Youth and compete in Spain this year and Slovenia next year.

Jack’s family welcomes the sport as an opportunity to travel, as most of the events are throughout remote places in the United States and, in fact, Jack is the only team member who lives west of Georgia. According to his mom, it is planes, trains or automobiles. Competitions can last one to three days and anywhere from four to 15 hours total.

When he’s not on the road, Jack can walk down to Brush Creek and fish, or he’ll go with his mom or friends out on the Eagle River.

“When we first started going into this, I was kind of green. There were times when we were out all day until 7 at night. I thought, ‘I need to bring my Camelback and more food.’ We’ve taken road trips all over Colorado and fished amazing lakes, creeks and rivers, which is great,” Katie said.

Jack, a student at Vail Christian High School, said his favorite place to fish is on the Eagle River. He thinks it is one of the best rivers in the world for trout and likes the sport because, as he said, “It’s independent and there are changes that can happen. You have to be prepared for a lot of situations.”

When not fishing, you’ll find Jack tying flies and hanging out with his friends. He also likes to give back to the sport by mentoring up-and-coming fishermen and women.

“When you are on the U.S. Youth team, you help other kids. You can’t do the sport by yourself, and you need a mentor. There are good people who are willing to help you out. And I like being a part of that,” he said.

Benno Sheidegger Jr. and Kira Sheidegger

BMX racers

At least once a week — weather permitting — Benno Sheidegger Jr., 11, hits the Eagle BMX track with his younger sister Kira, 7. BMX — an abbreviation for bicycle motocross — is a fast-paced sport that Benno likes not only because he’s competitive but also because he gets to hang out with his friends, as well as make new friends.

In 2003, the International Olympic Committee made BMX a full-medal Olympic sport for the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, and though he’s still a few years out from qualifying, that’s Benno Jr.’s goal.

Competitions take Benno and Kira across the country, and the duo’s parents, Kristi and Benno Sr., are fine with that. Thanksgivings are spent in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where the Grand Nationals are held.

“It is kind of strange to be in Tulsa for Thanksgiving, but since a lot of my friends are there, it is fun and there’s a lot of racing going on,” said Benno Jr., who cites the race as the biggest in the country. It was in Tulsa that he took first place at the Race of Champions in the 10 Cruiser Division in 2015. Kira came in sixth in her division and finished ninth amongst all 7-year-old girls in the nation.

And it was at the Grand Nationals in 2012 where Benno Jr. took top honors and a 6-foot trophy in his age group. The trophy is taller than he is.

“He’s told us that if the house was on fire and he could save one thing, it would be that trophy,” said his dad, laughing.

With both of their children riding, Kristi and Benno Sr. are “pit crew, nutritional crew and hydration crew.”

Trips to Greeley and the Front Range occur most weekends, and there are races throughout the year. But that doesn’t stop both Benno Jr. and Kira from playing hockey, skiing and just hanging out with friends.

Benno enjoys hockey because it is very aggressive and offers the opportunity to be part of a team, whereas BMX riding is an individual sport.

“I spend the whole year biking and the only time I’m off is in December,” said the young racer. “When I’m not racing, I miss it a lot.”

Support Local Journalism