Tales from the Talon Crew: Volunteers who transform Beaver Creek into North America’s Downhill are as interesting as the athletes they serve — and in some cases, raised
Volunteer crew includes longtime locals, guests from afar and parents of U.S. Ski Team athletes
On Thursday morning, Tamara Negomir loaded the bus headed to Beaver Creek Village. Even in the pre-dawn darkness, she could make out the familiar faces of her second family. It’s a tribe consisting of longtime locals and guests from afar, tradesmen and women and CEOs, and former coaches and athletes.
She recognized the smiles belonging to parents of kids who used to race with her son, U.S. Ski Team athlete, Kyle Negomir.
“You know, immediately, you start recognizing people and meeting up with old friends,” she said about enjoying the sunrise on a 6 a.m. chairlift ride to the Birds of Prey course she’s grown uber-familiar with this weekend as part of the Talon Crew.
The 325-person fraternity, knitted together by their shared love of skiing — and course maintenance — make up a significant fraction of the almost 600-strong group of selfless event volunteers who help the Vail Valley Foundation pull off the annual World Cup races. The Beaver Creek Mountain Race Department, Snowmaking Team and Mountain Operations Crew and Ski and Snowboard Club Vail coaches are also critical pieces of the team.
- 3,602 cumulative years of Birds of Prey experience
- 50 Volunteers with 20 years experience
- 150 Volunteers with 10 years experience
- Volunteer Age Range: 18-90
- 241 Volunteers from Eagle County
- 164 Volunteers from outside of Colorado
- 35 States Represented
- 2 Other Countries (Switzerland and Canada)
“We are immensely grateful to all of our volunteers who come from near and far to support the Xfinity Birds of Prey each year,” said Mike Imhof, the president of the Vail Valley Foundation. “Like everything we do at the Vail Valley Foundation, none of it happens without our dedicated and talented volunteers — including this world-class ski racing event. It is a pleasure to witness the camaraderie and teamwork between the teams, and the family-like atmosphere that they have created.”
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Even though Tamara’ s vested interest figuratively hooks her to the icy slope — she mentally bookmarks Kyle’s training run slot, looking up from monotonous shoveling to see him fly by — her motivation for returning to volunteer a sixth time has more to do with what Imhof alluded to.
“Giving back to the community,” she answered when asked why she willingly donates dozens of daily hours to on-snow, vigorous manual labor. “All these people are out here, volunteering their time, working … they don’t even have kids racing. Everybody is out here for the benefit of the athletes and the sport and I enjoy being a part of that.”
Best seat in the house
“Hearing the guys go off Red Tail and the ‘swoosh’ of their skis fly by, it’s a great seat,” Tamara said after finishing lunch with her crew Thursday afternoon.
“And it helps keep me a little distracted — doing some work as Kyle’s racing — because, of course, I get very nervous for him in the downhills,” she added, with a chuckle.
Tamara, who lives in Littleton with her husband John, grew up skiing in Northern California. As a traveling nurse, she made her way to Colorado a few times. “I’d keep coming back and then I eventually ended up staying about 30 years ago” she said.
Though she didn’t race growing up, her and John got into “beer-league racing” and towed their two sons, Eric and Kyle, to various NASTAR events at Copper Mountain and Loveland. Kyle played lacrosse, football and was a waterskier before eventually narrowing his focus to Alpine ski racing. Both sons attended Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy during high school, temporarily relocating the family to Avon, and Kyle blossomed after joining Ski and Snowboard Club Vail full-time at 16. He captured U19 and U21 national titles and the 2019 NorAm overall.
Then, on Dec. 10 of 2020, he crashed at the finish line of a downhill training run at the opening World Cup in Val d’Isere, France. Though he posted the top American time, and eighth-best overall, he also sustained serious MCL and ACL injuries as well as three broken metacarpals. The memory remained in the background while Tamara — still in Littleton during Wednesday’s training run — made sure to have FIS live streaming on her computer during work.
“Coming back from injury, I have a little bit of extra anxiety going on,” she admitted. “I’m excited for him, you know. He’s been doing it for awhile. The first time I saw him go off (on a downhill run) he was kind of off-balance in the air and his leg was kind of out. And you know, he’s gotten a lot more solid riding through the rough stuff.”
She’s not the type who talks technique with her son — “that’s for the coaches and him,” she remarked — and has always refrained from helicopter parenting.
“I was around so many over-eager parents; I’ve always tried to not be that parent,” she said. “Kyle’s taken the lead — it’s the way he likes to do it — so we just support him in other ways. We’re there when he needs us.”
Interestingly, Tamara feels her Alpine education occurred via volunteering.
“When we were at Loveland or Copper Mountain doing NorAM or FIS races, we were always working the start or course crew or timing,” she said. “We just volunteered all the time and so we started learning the ropes through that.”
Pinpointing her personal favorite volunteer moment is easy. In 2018, Kyle made his World Cup debut at Birds of Prey, and Tamara — volunteering — had the best seat in the house.
“When I found out Kyle was going to be racing in the (giant slalom) that first time, and I was working that year anyway and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is a dream come true,'” she said. “That was huge and, of course, that’s my favorite memory of the race itself.”
Negomir is coming off a 23rd-place finish in the Lake Louise super-G on Nov. 27, notching points in just his 12th World Cup start and proving he’s on the way back from his 2020 crash. His mom prefers to stay out of the limelight, and when Kyle straps in for Sunday’s super-G, she won’t be searching for any made-for-TV moments to offer a last-second tip.
“He’s kind of in his zone and he’s got his schedule. So even when I’m volunteering for other races at the start, if Kyle pulls in, I’m kind of looking the other way, like ‘I’m not here.’ I definitely don’t want to distract him in any way,” she said.
“I tell him to have fun,” she said about her pre-race message. “Enjoy your race.”
Jim Sanders: the man in the cowboy hat
Perhaps the only thing more dependable than the Birds of Prey course getting voted No. 1 on the World Cup circuit by coaches and athletes is the attire worn by one of the events’ original volunteers. Ever since the security team was given black cowboy hats to wear at the 1999 World Alpine Ski championships, Jim Sanders, who has volunteered at every Birds of Prey, has made sure to rep it — no matter the weather.
“I’ve continued that tradition,” he said. “So, a lot of people recognize me through the hat year after year.”
Sanders grew up skiing the north side of Michigan’s lower peninsula. After high school, he and a group of friends worked a season at Purgatory in Durango and throughout that winter, they scouted Idaho, Utah and Colorado for the best snow.
“We deemed Vail as kind of offering the most,” he recalled. “That was in 1972. So, then I finished college and we all moved out here after that.”
He worked two stints for the Vail Recreation District — from 1977-2002 and then again from 2013 until he retired in 2019. In 1993, he started volunteering with the Vail Valley Foundation, doing security for Vail Associates’ smaller events. When he was approached by his neighbor, Ceil Folz, about helping out in the winter, he remembered saying, “I have time.”
“In the winter, I had more flexible time, so I took over the security aspect of the races for the foundation that year (1997) and I’ve done it ever since,” he said.
He started as venue security, but after the 2015 World Ski Championships, which had three large VIP structures, he pivoted to focusing solely on being the VIP security coordinator, his current position. He leads a tightly-knit — even by Talon Crew standards — group of volunteers.
“My volunteers have a running joke,” Sanders said. “If someone new wants to get on the VIP security team, someone else has to almost die first. So, I’ve had my team for years.”
Sanders said he mostly deals with high-rollers, sponsors and other vendors. Occasionally, someone looking for special access will claim to be a distant friend of Bode Miller.
“Oh yeah, for sure — name-droppers … that’s some of them,” he said. “I try to keep it light-hearted most of the time,” he said. “I figure, why not be happy and friendly? Because I mean, look where we are!”
Through his role, Sanders has bumped shoulders with ski legends like Miller, Daron Rahlves, Jim “Moose” Barrows and Billy Kidd. Back in the day, he enjoyed chatting with President Gerald Ford, too.
“It was always kind of fun to be around them. I’m not really a celebrity chaser type person, but I get to see them through these events,” he said.
The privileged access is one unique draw, but it’s not the main impetus for Sanders’ annual return.
“I had time and it was fun to work with the volunteers,” he said. “Some came back every year because they like the sport.”
Steve Prawdzik, the Talon Crew volunteer coordinator, and Sean Norris, the on-hill coordinator, echoed his sentiment, shared by Tamara Negomir as well, in the 2022 Birds of Prey program book.
“You see the same people year after year, so a lot of it is about camaraderie … and meeting new people,” Prawdzik said.
“The whole point is that it’s camaraderie. It’s working together with people from all over the world,” added Norris. By the way, the craftsmanship isn’t bad either.
“Vail Resorts staff and people and the foundation — no one knows what’s put on behind the scenes to put these events on,” Sanders concluded. “It’s pretty incredible and they do a really good job at it.”