Aspen turns out to support Nordic standouts | AspenTimes.com

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Aspen turns out to support Nordic standouts

Aspen's Noah Hoffman (left) and Michael Ward flash their smiles Thursday at the local fundraiser held at the Limelight Hotel. The two Nordic competitiors are preparing for the upcoming World Cup and World Championship season.

Their Nordic smiles beamed across the lobby of the Limelight Hotel.

Aspen's Noah Hoffman and Michael Ward, their faces reflecting snow-burned tan lines and World Cup dreams, returned to their skiing roots Thursday evening.

The two Nordic skiers and members of the U.S. Ski Team hosted a local fundraiser at the Limelight to raise money for their upcoming World Cup and World Championship seasons.

Hoffman, who represented the United States at the Sochi Winter Olympics in Russia last year, is gearing up for a Nordic ski racing season with newfound confidence based on his unprecedented international results last year.

Ward, facing even more uphill financial challenges, is heading into the Nordic combined season as a ski jumper/Nordic skier combination.

"This event is just incredible," Hoffman said of the silent auction and benefit Thursday at the Limelight. "It makes me feel so lucky to have this community behind me."

Hoffman, who raced among the leaders for most of the 50-kilometer cross country race in Sochi (eventually finishing 26th), said that he couldn't believe the number of messages he received from Aspen during the Olympics.

"This community supports its athletes unlike any community I've ever seen," Hoffman said before sitting down for a television interview.

Support from this same event last year helped Hoffman in his World Cup season and his Olympic breakout.

"Sochi was incredibly confidence-building," Hoffman said. "In the 50K race alone, I was skiing at the front of the pack for 48 kilometers."

A strong finish in the 15K classic at the Winter Olympics further boosted his confidence, he said.

"You realize that on any given day, you can be the best in the world. I can be one of those guys on any given day," Hoffman said.

Twice on the World Cup last year, Hoffman was timed with the fastest of the day.

"My career goals are extremely lofty … but they feel so attainable," said Hoffman, who continues to work on technique as well as consistency and versatility.

"You've got to be a diverse skier to be successful in this day and age," Hoffman said of the Nordic move to a combination of long races, short races, stages races — in classic and skating technique.

The Aspen fundraiser also brought a special smile to Michael Ward's face Thursday.

"Aspen is my home. I love it," said Ward, who just returned from a fall Nordic combined training camp in Europe.

"I know when I was growing up, I looked up to my dad, Craig Ward. He was an Olympian," Michael said of his cross country ski racing family legacy. "And I looked up to Noah (Hoffman) and Simi (Hamilton)."

Hamilton also skied for the United States at the Sochi Winter Games.

"Also, Casey Puckett, Chris Klug, Gretchen Bleiler," Ward said. "All those athletes were competing at the highest level when I was a kid in Aspen. They really inspired me."

Thursday's local fundraiser is even more critical for Ward's Nordic combined program that lost all funding from the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association last summer.

"All summer, we've been really working hard to try to find new sponsors, new revenue sources," he said of the institutional fundraising for the Nordic combined development program.

He said Olympic gold medalist Bill Demong postponed his retirement by a year to help lead the fundraising for the team.

"He's done a great job," Ward said, adding that Nordic combined may affiliate with USA Ski Jumping as an organizational base.

"That effort is more about money for the future of the sport," Ward said.

"This one is more personal," he said of Thursday's event, which included multiple generations of ski supporters in Aspen. "This will help pay for my travel expenses, my ground expenses over in Europe, race fees."

Ward leaned back and gazed across a lobby filled with Aspen's ski family.

"I have to thank all the Aspenites that are supporting us," Ward said. "Without their help, it would be impossible for me to go to Europe and compete this winter. They are keeping the dream alive."

dstrode@aspentimes.com