Not your average club
December 11, 2006
Depending on which longtime local you ask, Aspen has either lost its soul or put up a permanent “For Sale” sign.The Red Onion, a favorite local watering hole and restaurant for the past 23 years, is set to close in March. Cooper Street, another popular eatery housed in a historic 106-year-old building, will likely succumb to the wrecking ball in the coming months to make way for more high-end retail space.
Before City Council stepped in, the historic Isis Theatre was in danger of extinction, and the future of Explore Booksellers remains uncertain.The list goes on, and on, and on.In the midst of what at times feels like a systemic assault on Aspen’s history, lifelong resident Pat Callahan takes comfort in the fact that one of Aspen’s oldest institutions – and arguably the one that most embodies the town’s soul – is thriving.The Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club, as it is currently known, continues to define Aspen as a community. It has been this way since 1936, when famed Swiss engineer Andre Roch helped organize a club to help reshape a sleepy mining town by building a rope tow on Aspen Mountain. This town’s history as a winter sports Mecca can be traced back to that initial spark.
“I think it’s almost the basis of the town, that and the ski company developing the mountain,” said Callahan, who began racing for the local ski club at age 14 and now works as an assistant alpine coach. “The ski club started before there were even chairlifts. There wouldn’t be skiing in Aspen without it.”The club has evolved over the years from a small, competitive ski-racing outfit funded by spaghetti dinners and bake sales into the valley’s largest nonprofit, with a budget of $2.7 million. Its operations have moved from two outdated buildings below the base of Aspen Mountain into a spacious clubhouse that sits across the way from Aspen High School, with a private lift up to Aspen Highlands out the back door. More than 1,800 Roaring Fork Valley youth participate in its various offerings.With all those changes, AVSC has looked to its history to help provide guidance for the future, and to remain grounded.”I think we’ve been the beneficiary of some truly visionary individuals,” said current Executive Director Mark Cole, who singled out icons like Bob Beattie and Judy Benson for helping to broaden the club’s mission by adding recreational programs.The ski club remains a top-flight factory for developing young, aspiring athletes who have dreams of competing at the highest levels in their respective sports. But, beyond that, it has become a pioneer in outreach, continually striving to bring skiing and snowboarding to all of the valley’s youth – not just those who can traditionally afford to participate in such sports.The club’s enterprising Latino outreach program – more than 250 Latino children are enrolled in the recreational Base Camp program – is one of things Cole said he’s most proud of during his five-year tenure.”Our mission statement, it’s more than just words on paper,” he said. “I think we have the leading outreach program in the country among similar organizations. When I see the community come together to support that goal, it becomes crystal-clear for me: You know you’re making an incredible difference in kids’ lives because we’re helping these kids become locals.”
While its recreational programs account for its largest number of participants, AVSC continues to embrace its tradition of competition and its knack for churning out elite athletes. In February, Gretchen Bleiler became the first former AVSC athlete to win an Olympic medal. That Bleiler’s silver came in women’s snowboard halfpipe shows how much the club has evolved since its inception.It wasn’t until 1993 that snowboarding became a full-time program, after what had long been called the Aspen Ski Club merged with the fledging local snowboard team, Team Tiehack. That same winter, the club also merged with the recreational Aspen Winter Club and the Aspen Nordic Team to become the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club.
According to The Aspen Times’ archives, the decision to merge the various organizations broke down to simple economics: Instead of fighting for registrants and donations, all four groups were better off working together.The merger was not a fix-all, however. The various factions led to disorganization and a string of directors in a few short years. In 1995, sensing the club needed new leadership, former local racer Toby Morse suggested to the board of directors that he take over. Morse helped define the club’s current dual role as a recreational hub and a competitive training headquarters for alpine and nordic skiers and snowboarders.Former racer and club president Tom Moore helped unite the organization in another way – by offering up the land near the high school for a new clubhouse. Moore originally offered money and land for a new nordic warming hut, since his son, Travis, was a nordic skier, and the team at the time used an old cramped bathroom near Iselin field for changing before and after practices.The idea for an all-purpose clubhouse grew from there, and Morse worked to establish an endowment to fund its construction and the club’s programs.
In 2000, AVSC’s staff moved into the spacious 10,000-square-foot Friedl Pfeifer Clubhouse.By the time he arrived in 2001, Cole said the club had clearly defined its dual mission. His job was just to keep the momentum rolling.”I feel like it really had a good idea of where it needed to go, and what was important to it,” he said. “If anything, I just helped bring more emphasis to it.”Moore said Cole’s leadership is on par with past club leaders and Aspen icons, among them Morse, Max Marolt, Pfeifer and Darcy Brown.”He’s just the best there is to keep the thing rolling,” said Moore, an Aspen icon himself who was instrumental in bringing World Cup races to Aspen in the 1970s while serving as club president and who also helped get the chairlift installed behind the current clubhouse. “It’s unbelievable what they do. They have a past presidents’ luncheon, and they show us the financials and the enrollment numbers – and it’s pretty astounding.”
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Enrollment numbers and budget figures are one thing, but Cole said that isn’t the true measure of the club’s success. On the competitive side, one of the seven core objectives is to provide the Team AVSC’s 270 athletes with all the resources they need to reach their full potential. During the club’s transitional period in the early 1990s, that wasn’t always the case. As Cole puts it, “If someone wants to get on the U.S. Ski Team, we ought to be able to make it possible for them.”To help accomplish that mission, AVSC has aimed to realize one of its other objectives: To hire – and, more important, retain – the best coaches in the country.
“We’re looking at what’s our retention with our staff each year,” Cole said. “You get good people onboard and the longer you have them, the more likely you are to have continual success.”The club’s history of producing national team members and Olympians speaks for itself.Bleiler and Basalt boardercrosser Jason Smith are just the two latest names on a long list that includes Max Marolt, Dick Durrance, Andy Mill, the Tache brothers, Tom Simons, Whit Sterling, Terry Morse and Dave Stapleton.There’s also longtime local John McBride, who first skied at the club and then returned as a coach before jumping up to the national team in 2002. Since then, he has worked day in, day out with the country’s fastest male skiers. “We’ve got to be able to provide clear paths of advancement,” Cole said. “We want to make sure that our athletes have all the resources they need here to reach their potential, without feeling like they need to go somewhere else. … When it comes to achieving athletic excellence, it’s everything from disciplines providing year-round programs to measuring how many of our athletes qualify for Junior Olympics, national-team berths and college scholarships.”
Callahan is also a firm believer of the club’s tradition. Through the years, whole families have grown up competing with AVSC. A number of former club participants, as he and his brother John (the club’s nordic director) have, came back to coach. Others have served on the board or helped in other aspects.While AVSC has undergone numerous face-lifts over the years, it has remained successful because it has held onto its core values, Callahan said.The lessons he learned from his coaches helped prepare him for four years of college racing at Middlebury in Vermont – and they are the same lessons he tries to pass on to his pupils.Plus, they’re lessons that extend way beyond simply how to ski fast or fly through the air on a snowboard. “Ski racers are always some of the most mature kids, just because they’ve traveled a lot, and they have to be responsible and focused,” he said. “They’re good about not wasting time.”
Cole echoes Callahan’s sentiments, noting that the club’s first objective – and arguably its most important- has been to mold its participants into respectful citizens. That extends to everyone, from the year-round team members to the recreational participants who only ski with the club six days a winter.”It’s not enough to simply help develop outstanding athletes,” he said. “We want them to help them be outstanding people. Every child should be better off for life because of what they learn here. An athlete’s behavior has to be consistent. We survey our athletes at the end of each season as to whether they feel like they were taught our core values, and we ask parents the same kind of questions. We’re measuring our success. I’m just a big believer that you become what you measure.”Measuring the last 70 years and looking to the future, the “basis” of modern Aspen still looks to be in good hands.Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org