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Give a few tips, gain some friends

Ian CroppVail, CO Colorado

VAIL – This isn’t a bad way to end a season. Or prepare for a future one. After the grueling schedule capped by the World Cup Finals and U.S. Championships, the U.S. Disabled Ski Team is in Vail this weekend for SkiTam – it’s annual fundraising event.”It’s almost like coming home from a long trip to see your family,” said U.S. Disabled Alpine coach Ray Watkins. “Everyone affiliated with SkiTam – they are our family. The athletes focus on their (performance) all season and now have time to come back and thank those people who make their seasons.”SkiTam, which started back in 1996, and has been held in Vail each year, is the financial lifeblood of the Disabled Ski Team, raising more than half of its operating budget.For the members of the team, it’s more than a fundraiser.”This is relaxing for us – we have intense races, non-stop all season long,” said Nick Catanzarite, a 5-year veteran of the U.S. Team. “And we get to come here and have fun with people who are excited about our sport. It’s fun for us because it’s fun for them.”Friday, some of the sponsors and sponsors’ kids took to a course on Vail’s Golden Peak to practice for today’s team races. Members of the U.S. Team were there to give a few racing tips.”I try and tell them stuff to get them to relax,” Catanzarite said. “Like look ahead – it makes things come slower. And turn above the gate instead of truing at it and sliding.”One racer who was listening attentively was Joe Rooney, the CO-chair of the event. Rooney, who is the Chief Marketing Officer for Cox Communications, has been involved with SkiTam for six years.”I heard it was a great cause and decided to come out myself one year, and I fell in love with it,” Rooney said.

Five years ago, SkiTam drew about 300 people, while this year the number could be more than 1,100, Rooney said.”It’s grown, but we’ve tried to keep the intimacy,” Rooney said. “We’ve made this a family event. We have hundreds of kids who come with parents. This is a chance for kids to absorb what it’s like for these athletes and spend quality time with them.”And the athletes, in addition to giving racing tips, share their passion for the sport.”We get out there and show people how to have fun again,” said local Ralph Green, a veteran of the event and the U.S. Team. “It’s nice to be able to open eyes and enjoy skiing with people I do business with.”Green, like most members of the U.S. Team has sponsors he’s in close contact with all season. Cox is one of Green’s sponsors, and he and Rooney speak together to Cox employees. “We try and do a lot here with the athletes,” Rooney said. “They teach us about racing, and they teach us about life at the same time.”

For a burgeoning racer on the cusp of the U.S. squad, like Ricci Kilgore, sponsorship is a big issue. “Financially it was tough for me to get around,” said Kilgore, who has only been skiing for one-and-a-half years and is on the Winter Park Team. “And it still is. I’m still trying to get known. And it’s really important as an athlete, letting people know who you truly are as a person – showing them your skills and interacting with people.”Years ago, Catanzarite was in the same position as Kilgore when he made his first trip to SkiTam.”Mom and dad were my sponsors,” Catanzarite said. “I was skiing with the Winter Park Team, trying to make the U.S. Team. I didn’t really know what it was all about, and this is a great way to find what the U.S. Team is about, how they get their money and what the future holds if you stick with it.”

Kilgore was hampered by concussions and broken ribs this year, a result of her ‘Go big or go home’ style. Still, she pulled in a second-place finish at U.S. Nationals in the sit-ski giant slalom.”I’m knocking at the girls’ doors,” Kilgore said.Next year, Kilgore will be skiing with her sponsor Sports Authority, but said, “I’d like to pick up more sponsors along the way to qualify for some races and really feel like I have a good chance to be up with the top dogs.”Breaking through and making the U.S. Team takes more than just results.”I have to raise my own money, work, find funding, but it’s part of the game and everyone has to start somewhere,” Kilgore said. “It’s been a really fun journey so far, even though I’m not on the team this year, I can’t wait for the moment.”

While different sponsors pick up individual athletes, the end result is massive for the U.S. Team.”It’s a way for athletes to get connected with people that care and can help facilitate their success and growth as an athlete in the sport,” Watkins said. “It’s been such a great thing. Back when I was on the team, the guy I guided picked up pine cones and sold tire chains in Lake Tahoe, (Calif.) to pay for his career. These guys nowadays have it so good, and can focus in on what’s important, which is being athletically prepared to compete.”With a giant financial base, the U.S. Team gets a boost above their competitors across the world.”An athlete in Austria may have a small sponsor, but work their job and do the World Cup as a vacation from work,” Watkins said. “Our (athletes) can completely focus on being an athlete.”SkiTam continues today with team racing from 10 a.m.-1 p.m. at Golden Peak, followed by the awards banquet and other events throughout the day.Sports Writer Ian Cropp can be reached at 748-2935 or icropp@vaildaily.com.


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