Update: American Maddie Bowman earned a gold medal in the debut of Olympic ladies ski halfpipe, adding to the successes of athletes that trained at Sierra-at-Tahoe. Jamie Anderson, who called Sierra-at-Tahoe her babysitter, also took gold in women’s slopestyle.
As the Olympic Games play out 6,600 miles away, many of the athletes’ longtime supporters, coaches and competitors living in the Lake Tahoe region watch with a sense of pride.
With 12 of the 230-member 2014 U.S. Olympic Team having roots either north or south of the lake, the Tahoe region has proved to be a fertile ground for Olympians, say area boosters. Jamie Anderson, who won gold in the first women’s Olympic slopestyle competition, heads the list of locals at the games.
The region has the terrain, programs and people to continue to produce top-notch winter sport athletes, said Bill Clark, executive director of the Auburn Ski Club, which was founded in 1928.
“We all think it’s the best. Look at how many U.S. Ski Team members have come out of Lake Tahoe,” Clark said. “We are producing some athletes that are (succeeding) at the highest level.”
Much like Little League Baseball or soccer clubs for flatlanders, a menagerie of ski and snowboard programs, beginning at age 4 or 5, train kids first in the fundamentals before they begin discipline-specific training. The best-of-the-best earn enough points in regional competitions to be invited to test themselves at national events. Many Tahoe-area youths participate through a modified physical education class that puts them on the slopes three school days a week and on weekends. Resort teams also include participants who live as far away as the Bay Area.
Mark Faulkner, who has coached Placer High School’s snowboard and ski teams for 14 years, said the cost of the sport is probably the largest factor limiting participation.
Aimi Xistra-Rich, director of Heavenly Ski Resort’s competition program, said skiing takes a huge commitment from athletes and their families. Costs jump once athletes begin competing nationally, reaching as much as $30,000 to $40,000 a year.
“You wouldn’t believe how many pairs of skis you have to have,” she said. “They are going all over the place.”
She added however, that between support from ski resorts, community fundraisers and equipment sponsorships, few promising athletes slip through the cracks.
Todd Kelly, director of Squaw Valley Ski Resorts’ program, said he believes athletes who commute can compete with those living close to the mountain – if they are working out between weekend visits. But clearly those living close by have an advantage, he said.
“The mountain was basically their baby sitter. It was their basketball or baseball. As soon as you got out of school, you hit the mountain,” said Kelly. “Parents had no problem dropping their kids off and saying, ‘I’ll see you at 4:30 p.m.’ ”
By 1:30 p.m. Thursday, members of Sierra-at-Tahoe’s freestyle ski and snowboard teams were dressed on the mountain, after being dropped off by their school bus. After a quick meeting to discuss what skills each was working on, one-by-one they dropped in, chose their line and attempted to execute tricks while a team assistant shot the procession with a go-pro camera duct-taped to a ski pole. Once they were all done, they got back on the lift and did it again, and again, and again, until it was time for the middle- and high school-age kids to go home.
“It’s all about keeping it fun,” said Colby Albino, a ski coach at Sierra-at-Tahoe. “That is when the pressure comes on, when you’re not having fun. The whole mental training aspect is important.”
Anderson is one of three members of the U.S. team who trained at Sierra-at-Tahoe. The others are Maddie Bowman and Hannah Teter.
“We are just so ecstatic,” said Brady Gunsch, a Sierra-at-Tahoe snowboard coach who worked with Anderson for several years. “We all watched her grow up here. We feel like we had a lot to do with raising her.”
Kelly boasts three Olympians who trained at Squaw Valley: alpine skiers Julie Mancuso and Travis Ganong, and snowboarder Nate Holland.
He said the Tahoe region is burning the midnight oil keeping up with the Games.
“It’s pretty exciting. Our thing at Squaw is it takes a community to raise an Olympian,” Kelly said. “I have no problem staying up till 2 a.m.”
Call The Bee’s Ed Fletcher, (916) 321-1269. Follow him on Twitter @NewsFletch.