Hitting the trails early in Vail
VAIL, Colorado Its Wednesday at the Vail Nordic Center, and there arent enough hands to go around.Eager elementary school kids are looking for someone to help them put on their tiny Nordic boots. Almost all of the instructors are busy registering kids, finding equipment and tying other kids boots. But the third-graders help the kindergartners and some high school kids take a break from waxing their skis to lend a hand.Ive been coaching at Vail Mountain School and with Ski (& Snowboard Club Vail) since the winter of 1999, and we started with probably a few high schoolers, and just a few lower and middle schoolers, said Karl Hochtl, who still coaches for both programs. The program is big enough now that we have four coaches who are designated especially for the lower and middle school age groups alone. Its pretty exciting to be in here on a given day and having 20 to 40 younger kids out there giving Nordic a try.In less than a decade, the SSCV Nordic program has grown from single-digit numbers to about 65 kids, almost evenly split between high school, middle school and lower school.The kids get their equipment, slip on their race bibs and begin to assemble outside. While they are waiting for their friends, some kids whisk back and forth with near perfect form. And of course, they take time to splash around in fresh powder off the groomed trail.I think its a simple matter of getting kids out in the snow and having fun, Hochtl said of the programs growth. I think that if Junior Joe goes out to Nordic and has a fun time he went out, played in the snow, skied around and played some tag he tells his buddy and it will have a chain reaction. And as you move down the line, you have 10 to 15 to 20 kids coming out.It doesnt take much effort on the instructors part to get the kids to move to the start line and get ready to race. As they head out on the 1 kilometer course, the kids dont break stride to look at their parents snapping photos.Its a little humorous to see them put on a bib and go out and do a race even though its a 1 kilometer, but they are out there smiling and having a good time, said Collins Canada, who raced Nordic in high school while at Vail Mountain, and is now a teacher there as well as an instructor with SSCV.Just in case the kids forgot the route, or what lay in store for them after the race, Canada was there to help.I went out on the course to make sure everyone got in, and I was saying to some kids, When we turn this corner, we can see the finish line, and then theres hot chocolate, Canada said.
The way the Nordic program is structured at the lower and middle school level with almost all activities on Monday and Wednesday kids dont have to choose between winter activities.We have a very small weekend program, Hochtl said. Its not really an issue and shouldnt be. If they want to go skiing with their family and miss a race, thats great. Nordic is a different beast. When its 10-below and its windy and your busting your tail, that may not be the most fun thing. To force kids into that too young is not good. Once they start maturing, and can deal with that thats when you make progress.Mixing the spots is even beneficial, as having an alpine background is useful in Nordic.Those (alpine) skills are irreplaceable on the Nordic track, with downhill and knowing how to be balanced, Hochtl said.Nordic skiing, like most winter sports, requires a lot of equipment, although SSCV has tried to make the sport as accessible as possible.
What weve done over the past eight or nine years is tried to start gathering equipment here and weve created a fleet of skis, Hochtl said. For a small rental fee, kids can have boots, skis and poles. It eliminates one more hassle for the parents. Were trying to make it as seamless as possible.
Part of the success of the program is that there is almost a Nordic culture at the Vail Mountain School.Youll be walking to class in the hall, and theyll look up and say your name and you give them a high five and they light up when you do that to them, said Rob Fitz, who is one of the top high school racers.And the high school racers take turns helping out with the lower and middle school practices on Mondays.Thats one of the highlights of the program, Canada said. They are able to connection beyond the academic building.While the Nordic program is becoming ingrained at Vail Mountain School they provide transportation from school to the Nordic Center there are only a smattering of younger kids from other schools participating.Thats a slow process. Because weve kind of established ourselves at the Mountain School. We have a kid from St. Clare, a few from the charter academy and a few from Red Sandstone. Its staring to become more diverse, and were noticing that at the high school level, Hochtl said.Glen Ewing, who coaches the Eagle Valley High School Nordic Team, likes the idea behind the program at SSCV.They are doing a great job of getting middle school and elementary school kids interested, he said. We need to get a middle school program started downvalley. Itd be nice to get them in high school when they know the technique rather than start them at ground zero.The Vail Mountain Nordic team, already one of the strongest in the state, stands to benefit from having lots of up-and-coming kids moving through the ranks, although Hochtl doesnt mind if some kids decide not to race in the competitive ranks.We try and tailor the program to each kid, he said. At least they come away knowing what a better lifestyle is and can continue it for the rest of their life. Thats the beauty of this sport unlike some other high school sports. More of these kids can go back four or five years down the road and try it again.Sports Writer Ian Cropp can be reached at 748-2935 or email@example.com.