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Five women who inspire us

Lauren Glendenning
Theo StroomerSarah Will sits with a hand cycle at her home in Edwards. Will, a Paralympic athlete, and her company AXS are distributing the cycles to Valley residents. | photo by Theo Stroomer
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The county is full of successful people. From the ultra rich to those who struggle, there are signs of success all across the board.

Men seem to take up most of the spotlight ” the Bobby Hernreichs and Rod Slifers of the valley ” but there are many powerful and remarkable women in Eagle County who are equally deserving of recognition. In fact, we found so many qualified ladies it was hard to narrow this list down to just five.

But the five we chose seem to represent a wide range. We have businesswomen, politicians, an athlete and a cop. Their ambitions may be very different from one another, but their will is the same.

So here’s to five women who work hard, and who never give up on themselves or their communities, no matter what stands in their way.

Sarah Will is a name you may have heard before, and if you haven’t, remember it ” she’s doing great things for Eagle County through the nonprofit she runs.

Will is an athlete who lost the use of her legs in a skiing accident in Aspen in 1988. Instead of giving up competitive skiing after her accident, she learned how to use a monoski and was up on the hill the very next season. Will is one of the most decorated female athletes in the U.S. Ski Team’s history ” she’s won 13 medals in the Paralympics, 12 of which were gold.

Now, at 40, she’s focused on helping others who use wheelchairs get around Eagle County a little easier through AXS Vail Valley, a nonprofit committed to making Eagle County more accommodating to those who have physical disabilities. Will is the executive director, and right now she’s working on various partnerships that would not only provide physically disabled people better access to everyday places, but also an easier time doing all of the outdoor sports and activities this county has to offer.

The nonprofit is getting ready to launch its new Web site, axsvail.org, within the next month. The Web site will list all of the places in Eagle County that the organization has found to be accessible for people with disabilities. Will is optimistic the program will not only help people looking for such features, but she expects it to also help local businesses attract both locals and travelers.

“If (people with disabilities) find something that works for them ” we’re so used to not being accommodated the right way ” the chances of return visits are so high,” she says.

And making places more accessible for people in wheelchairs means that people in ski boots, delivery people using dollies and hand trucks, and parents with strollers will also find it easier to access, she says.

Will says the Web site will show restaurants, hotels, indoor and outdoor recreation facilities, and any other accessible places in the county for people with disabilities. When people don’t have to go out of the way to accommodate her and people like her, it takes away the social barriers and puts everyone on a more level playing field, she says.

“It’s so easy to focus on the negative, because it’s there all the time,” she says. “In some regard, the change of life (from becoming paralyzed) is incredibly inconvenient, but at times I think it’s the best thing that could have happened to me.”

Sara Fisher says she’s always kind of had a political bug. Fisher, one of three Eagle County commissioners, grew up in a Montana valley of about 250 people. Her mother was active in the local Republican Party and Fisher paid attention. When she moved to Vail, she was interested in town politics, but like a lot of people in their 20s living in the area, she was busy skiing and working in the hospitality industry.

It wasn’t until she had moved downvalley, to Gypsum, with her husband that she decided to throw her hat in the ring for a political position with the county. She was appointed to the county clerk and recorder position and went on to win reelection twice.

“Once I got involved, I knew I had found my niche,” she says.

It’s her love for her community that keeps her involved in politics, she says. She enjoys county-level politics because it really influences the community’s future, both locally and at the state level. She’s also experienced first hand some of the problems facing the county today, specifically affordable housing.

When Fisher and her husband, Bill, were ready to buy something, they had no choice but to move west.

“That reconfirmed for me the frustrations of the housing market. … And it’s only gotten worse,” she says.

Fisher is up for the challenge of continuing on with her political career. She isn’t finished trying to do her part as a public servant, she says. She is disheartened with some of the partisan political conflicts she’s seen throughout the past several years among the local parties ” so much so that it caused her to cross over to the Democratic Party a few years ago after having been a Republican for so many years.

While things like affordable housing and transportation are areas she hopes to see some change, she says the county can’t, nor should it be, the sole solution. She stands by the current board’s intentions to find a vision for the entire valley to live by, and she’s comfortable with some of the more controversial decisions she’s had to make since her 2006 election. One example was the board’s decision not to raise the mill levy, even though the value of people’s homes went up, causing the stagnant mill levy to appear as though it was actually a tax increase.

“That has provided us some additional funds we’ve been able to invest into things like workforce housing, and remodeling the jail and judicial center without having to go to taxpayers for a tax increase,” she says. “The money is being put toward things that are lacking.”

Fisher wants to make sure everyone in the community, from the young professionals to those who end up in the judicial system, are safe and well served, she says.

In the fall of 1977, Debbie Marquez moved to the valley. She came here for a job in the hospitality industry and loved the skiing and the quality of life she found when she arrived.

Originally from Colorado, Marquez, who is one of 15 Colorado superdelegates and a Democratic National committeewoman, has watched her interest in politics grow since the early 1970s. She pledged her support as a superdelegate to Sen. Barack Obama.

Her first memory of getting really excited about politics was in 1972, when the country made it legal for 18-year-olds to vote.

“I wasn’t 18 yet, but I was real excited about that, and I think a lot of young people were at that time,” she says.

In 1983, when Federico Pena was running for mayor of Denver, Marquez remembers her family, as well as many Denver-area Latinos, becoming more interested in politics. It was exiting to have a representative of the Latino community take office, she remembers.

That’s kind of when her political aspirations began taking shape. Her first job with the local Democratic Party was as a precinct captain when she lived in Eagle-Vail ” 20 years later, she’s playing a major role in the planning of the Democratic National Convention this August in Denver.

Why does she do it? She says our country’s politics are too important to just sit back and do nothing.

“Our government has an important role in how our country, our county and our cities are run,” she says. “If we don’t take a part in who those people are that are gong to run the elections, then we won’t have a say in what our government is doing.”

This year is a big year for change, which is why Marquez is getting behind Obama. He’s energizing people for the first time in a long time, she says with a smile. She stuck to her guns even when former President Bill Clinton called her on the phone a few months ago to try to change her mind. She says she was frank and direct with him, telling him she couldn’t support his wife because she had supported the war.

“I’ve been pro-change for a long time,” she says.

One of her goals as a committeewoman and a local politician is to get the Latino community more involved in the political process. She says the Colorado General Assembly has a 5 percent Latino presence, while the state’s Latino population is 20 percent.

“We need to get our issues taken seriously,” she says, pointing to issues like immigration and equality.

Aside from being involved in all-things politics, Marquez is a business-owner and the mother of a 10-year-old daughter Isabella Francesca.

Her business, Fiesta’s New Mexican Cafe in Edwards, is something she takes a lot of pride in as well, although she’s been so busy with politics lately that she gives her sister most of the credit for the business’s recent success. The reason she’s so proud of the restaurant: The recipes are all from the family and they cook everything the way her grandmother taught her.

“We’re still buying out red chili from the same farmer who has been selling chili to our family for generations,” she says.

After moving to Vail 15 years ago from a job at Walt Disney World in Florida, the native Coloradan felt right at home. She was working at a Vail hotel when she decided it was time for a change. She never had dreams as a little girl to become a police officer someday, but it just seemed like the right fit.

“I saw an ad for the police academy in the paper and saw it as a change of atmosphere and lifestyle,” she says.

Douglas, 40, who says she tries to work out at the gym every morning, was really drawn to the physical part of police work. Physical activity is why most people live up here, she says.

As a police commander, Douglas says it’s a job where women do tend to have to prove themselves more than men ” something she makes sure she does.

“Even with where society is today, policing is still very much a man’s world,” she says. “When I answer the phone, being at the command level, everyone assumes I’m the secretary.”

As for keeping her personal and professional lives separate, Douglas is pretty good at it. She admits she has to go to bed pretty late if she wants to have a social life. She’s on call 24 hours a day and works an average of 50 to 60 hours per week, but fitting in time for a good laugh is always possible, she says.

She says a great part about being a police officer in Vail is that the town fortunately doesn’t have a lot of hardened criminals to deal with, so most of the crime is fairly minor. The times she can’t leave work at work, though, is when children are the victims of crimes or witnesses to them.

“That’s when it definitely affects me,” she says.

Walking into Slifer Designs in Edwards, it’s obvious that Beth Slifer has built somewhat of an empire in the valley. After 24 years in business, her interior design offices feel like something you’d see in New York City or Los Angeles, not a quaint little place like the valley.

Slifer, the wife of longtime resident and former Vail Mayor Rod Slifer, has a business sense that has, at times, been successful to the point of overwhelming ” she had to cut back her staff in the late 1990s after the business grew very quickly in a short period of time.

She started with very small ambitions in 1983. She saw a void in the valley and envisioned a high quality interior design business that could fill it.

As the economy in the valley changed, and real estate prices continued to rise, people starting wanting to spend more to match their furniture to the value of their properties, she says.

She attributes her success to being able to grow the business slowly over time, rather than getting in over her head.

“That was really a blessing,” she says. “Had I jumped into a very vibrant competitive economy it would have been much more difficult.”

Beginning in a tiny office on Bridge Street, Slifer Designs has outgrown several locations throughout the years. Now the company is in a large space in Riverwalk at Edwards, a space that Slifer calls the company’s “permanent worldwide headquarters.”

Slifer, who is originally from Jacksonville, Fla., went to business school at the University of Chicago. It’s there where she learned the importance of developing a business with little or no competition, then start small and grow slowly, she says.

“This valley has been really good to me,” she says. “I’ve grown to love it and I can’t imagine any other place for my primary home.”

That’s why Slifer says she’s interested in bringing the community together, especially in the sense of making it one region. Slifer would like to see the valley operated under one government, she says.

“We need the youth and vitality and energy of all our citizens,” she says. “We need leadership for the whole valley to come from the neighborhoods where the young professionals are living. It would be so much more efficient and productive if we had one town government.”

Slifer’s interest in higher education is also obvious ” she sits on the board of education at the Leeds Business School at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and she’s also on the board at the University of Colorado Hospital in Denver.

She’s seen what her education has provided her, and she wants everyone to have the same opportunities she’s had. Slifer’s18-year-old daughter, Alexandra, graduated from Vail Mountain School last week.

“I think that the future of an individual and the future of this state depends largely on the level of their education,” she says. “For Colorado to maintain its prosperity, we need a very educated youth moving into jobs. … If you have a good education, you can fulfill your dreams forever, throughout life.”


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