New season, new coach
Jeff Kai had little intention of becoming a ski coach.After all, the Sandy, Ore., native didn’t even start skiing until the age of 12, and had never heard of the U.S. Ski Association until his senior year in high school. “By then, it was too late for me,” he joked Thursday.He would have been content harvesting the 20,000 Christmas trees dotting his family’s farm, and tending to the Black Angus cattle. But everything changed in 1985.A friend offered him the opportunity to coach a high school ski team near his hometown. Kai was enamored with the experience, one that sent his life in an unexpected, but rewarding new direction. “I loved the challenge,” Kai said. “It’s very rewarding and satisfying when you’re able to have an influence and help athletes.”For nearly 20 years Kai has coached athletes of all ages – from J5s to female World Cup giant slalom and slalom skiers – and traveled around the world. In October, following a six-year stint as head of development for the U.S. Ski Association’s Western Region, he landed in Aspen as new head alpine director for the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club.”This is an opportunity for me to work with a group of athletes and watch them grow and develop as athletes and individuals,” Kai said. “This is a great club. Others would be so lucky to have these training facilities and this staff.”Kai wears the smile and relaxed demeanor of a content man. It’s been only one month since he made the difficult decision to leave a job he loved and family in Oregon, but he said he can tell Aspen will be a great fit.Club executive director Mark Cole agreed.
“I’ve been impressed with his calm, thoughtful approach to things,” Cole said Thursday. “He’s been involved in dry-land training and is already getting to know the athletes.”Kai was the lone member of his family who picked up skiing. His father, a doctor from the Midwest, and his mother and four sisters had little interest, he remembered. But, at the behest of a friend that joined a local ski club, an intrigued Kai soon followed suit.”I thought it was cool and interesting,” he said. “I went for it. I broke some skis.”Kai started racing competitively three years later. His career never truly blossomed because he didn’t know about opportunities offered through the USSA, he said. That, and he, admittedly, wasn’t very good.Following his graduation from Portland State University, where he earned a degree in business and forestry, Kai was offered a ski coaching position at an area high school. His interest was piqued. He then took a position as race director for a small ski area near Mount Hood. There, he cultivated a relationship with the ski director for the Mount Hood Academy. He was hired as a coach by the academy in 1988. He worked there for seven years.In 1995, he signed on as an assistant coach and technician for the U.S. Ski team, working with female World Cup giant slalom and slalom athletes. During the season, he made seven trips to Europe and visited Chile. He also continued to learn a lot about his own abilities. “You progress a lot as a skier when you’re a coach at that level,” Kai said. “You have to set the example and work on presentation. It’s hard to ask an athlete to do something you can’t do correctly.”Kai parlayed his experience on the World Cup circuit into a job at Mission Ridge Ski and Board Resort in Wenatchee, WA. Following a brief return to the Mount Hood Academy, Kai was wooed by USSA in 2000 to work with the Western Region’s elite-level young athletes as head of development.
He also taught USSA certification seminars for alpine ski coaches to help bolster the performance of various ski schools.”I was impressed by his experience working with USSA,” Cole said. “There’s no question about the fact the Western Region has been one of the strongest. He helped make that happen.”AVSC severed ties with previous alpine director Dave Hjerleid on April 18. And while rumors concerning Hjerleid’s departure were rampant, Hjerleid told the Aspen Times on May 1 that the club simply chose a path that did not involve him. In order to fill its vacancy, the club embarked on a nationwide search, entrusting staff, board members and the USSA with the responsibility of identifying potential candidates. Kai was one of 15 potential replacements targeted.”I received an e-mail from Mark in June,” Kai said. “I wasn’t looking to make a change. I loved doing what I was doing. But I said, ‘What have I got to lose?'” AVSC marketing and Development manager Alan Cole, who helped conduct the nearly two-hour phone interview with Kai, told The Aspen Times in May that Kai emerged as the front-runner.”It was his depth of experience. No question,” Alan Cole said. “He has worked with elite-level athletes and has great experience running a program.”Kai, hesitant to leave Oregon and his two sons, 9-year-old Renn and 7-year-old Trace, mulled over an offer that would change his life. He had been to Aspen just six times, the last coming during the Sirius Satellite Winternational in December when he brought some of the country’s best J2 skiers to be forerunners. In 2002, he came to the valley with some athletes to compete in a NorAm event.
He knew little of the town, except for the athletes he coached during various developmental system camps. They were athletes who demonstrated tremendous potential, he remembered. “Would I say I knew Aspen well? No,” he said. “I had never been off Highway 82 except for in town.”I never thought I’d leave Oregon. I’m sure other people didn’t think I would either.”Mark Cole was confident, he said. After all, he had the perfect selling point.”One thing we had going for us was that we could provide better powder than the Northwest,” Cole joked. “We have a program and a setting here that is just outstanding. I was convinced that we could provide a great opportunity for him.”Kai had been approached by various organizations in the past, but showed little interest in making a change, he said.But AVSC was too enticing an offer to pass up.”This is an opportunity for me to grow as a coach and an individual,” Kai said. “This club is more multifaceted [than I’ve experienced in the past], and has the infrastructure to be truly successful. There’s tremendous support from the community here.”This club has been a player at times. I want to do my best to make it a nationally recognized club.” Jon Maletz’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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