Dwindling team’s heart still beats
FRISCO – There are not many things that can dampen the perpetually upbeat spirit inside of Jon Kreamelmeyer. This is especially true when it comes to the U.S. Disabled Cross Country Ski Team, of which the 60-year-old Frisco resident has doubled as head coach and patriarch for the better part of a decade.The squad is filled with a neverending kaleidescope of heartwarming stories – rare tales of survival and self discovery which deliver a raw, unfiltered sense of achievement. However, these days Kreamelmeyer views the daily successes with apprehension. His disabled team is dwindling, the diversity has all but disappeared, and he is suddenly wondering whether all the good he’s watched unfold over the years is an endangered phenomenon.”I’m concerned,” he says, “I really am. We really need to find athletes. Our biggest challenge, for one, is people don’t know we exist.”That’s not a problem on the disabled World Cups. Last year’s U.S. racers, despite numbering far fewer than other national teams, finished the winter ranked fourth in the world, a mere 60 points out of third. American skiers Steve Cook and Chris Klebl ended the year in second place on the standing and sitting World Cups, respectively.Maintaining that level of success is what brought four of this year’s five active national team members – all of them male sit-skiers – to Frisco this week, for the team’s annual summer training camp. They came to get stronger, faster, better. Accordingly, the shrinking numbers and worries of extinction took a back seat for a few days, as strides toward improvement rode shotgun.
In their days here thus far, the four racers have roller-skied on improvised mountain boards and dryland sit-ski contraptions around Ute Pass in the afternoons, and paddled kayaks on glassy Dillon Reservoir to build core strength in the mornings.This is where they could be found Tuesday at 11 a.m., hanging out in the grass under the hot midsummer sun at the Frisco Marina.Sean Halsted, 36, who broke his spine when he fell out of an Air Force helicopter during a combat search and rescue exercise in 1998, explained that training on (nonfrozen) water provides a valuable cross training means, in that it disrupts the standard regimen they follow so religiously the rest of the year.”Bored’ isn’t the right word,” said Halsted, “but you overuse muscles if all you can do is roller-ski or handcycle. We’re limited to the number of exercises we can do; we can’t just put on running shoes and go running.”Nor do they end up training together very often, another reason why this week’s camp is a treat, said Andy Soule, 26, who is using the High Country stay to prepare for his first full season on the World Cup. A Texas kid who grew up south of Houston as a runner, Soule had never skied before December 2005. He made his debut seven months after a buried bomb blew up next to him in Afghanistan, where he was serving as a U.S. Army Specialist.
“Most of us end up training on our own for most of the year,” said Soule, who had both of his legs amputated after the attack. “Each of us has a different offseason regimen as far as what we do. But it’s really good to train together for a change, and with our coaches.”As Soule says this, the team’s star sits a few feet away, fiddling with his watch. While the others have come to elevate their performance to an elite international level, Chris Klebl is already there. If he could only find a way to beat Russia’s Irek Zaripov, a double amputee whose upper body is built like a safe, Klebl would be the best disabled sit-skier on the planet. As it is, he still has figured out how to make skiing his full-time profession, albeit with measly income; and Frisco’s stop on his training circuit is one of a number of trips he has planned this summer. From here he heads to New Zealand for three weeks of on-snow training, and later this fall he’ll train in a tunnel in Finland for a month.”It’s all part of a 12-month – or even 4-year – training plan,” said Klebl, 35, who broke his back snowboarding off a Crested Butte cliff. “That’s how you get to the top.”Bob Balk, a 41-year-old venture capitalist from Southern California and 15-year veteran of the national team, knows what it’s like at the top. He won a world championship in 2000, but he returned from a one-year absence this season for a reason other than winning.
After spending a number of years as the lone male sit-skier on the U.S. Team – “at nationals, they’d have a watch and a gun and I’d go ski a 10K race all by myself” – Balk is intent on helping his current teammates improve by providing counsel as well as competition.”I’m really interested in seeing the guys here do the best they can do,” he said, pausing to add: “You can never achieve your greatest success without competition.”As the four lonely world-class athletes grind away in anonymity, sweating against gravity like always, the fact that they’re doing it here, at least for one week, is fitting. For there is no county in America with more impact on the nation’s disabled cross country program than Summit. Not only is Kreamelmeyer a Frisco guy, but his top assistants – Scott Peterson and Jon Zdechlik, or “Petey and Zeke,” as their boss, “JK,” calls them – are both local products as well, having grown up skiing under JK and Nordic guru Gary Giberson. In addition, Sandy Metzger, USSA’s disabled program director, is a Breckenridge resident.You can understand why Kreamelmeyer’s look turns grim as he discusses the uncertain future. This team is too alive to die, especially when viewed here, where the roots run so deep.Most of all, there are still results to improve upon and teaching to be done. For as Kreamelmeyer puts it himself, “I learn from these guys every day.”
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