Team’s legacy is his to shape |

Team’s legacy is his to shape

Devon O'Neil
Summit County correspondent
New U.S. Ski Team head moguls coach Scott Rawles inherits a program that has been one of the world's best for many years. (Mark Fox/Summit Daily)

ARAPAHOE BASIN ” Nothing about Scott Rawles gives it away. Not his eyes, not his expression, not his words. He sits still, focused, attentive as an interviewer peppers the new head coach of the U.S. Ski Team’s moguls program with ques­tions about the one-of- a-kind team he’s inheriting, and where it stands after losing five of the best male skiers in the world; about how he worked his way up from a 20-year­old ski bum who landed in Brecken­ridge in 1979 with only a passion for making turns, to the top moguls coaching post in America.

Rawles doesn’t allow the slight­est flinch when his anthem ” the song he routinely listens to while skiing ” starts blaring through the speakers in Arapahoe Basin’s A­frame lodge, a few feet away from the Sixth Alley Bar he knows all too well from spending so many years at the Basin. Were he in a different place, say the U.S. team’s bus in the middle of Europe during World Cup season, you can bet the 47-year-old with hat- head hair and deep blue eyes would be belting out Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” lyrics as loud as he felt them rivet through his mind.

“Well I’m as free as a bird, now.

And a bird you cannot change.”

But not here. Right now Rawles is demonstrating why the song he’s somehow ignoring has always been so him. His new job? Yeah, there might be more administrative duties and slightly less skiing and coach­ing. But it sure isn’t going to damp­en his spirit. Nothing can do that. At least nothing ever has.

His desire to spend time on the hill is no different now than when he was ripping on the Pro Mogul Tour back in the 1980s, the oldest of the three famed Rawles brothers. It is a love of skiing that stands out in a profession saturated with just such a thing, like an 8- foot basketball player in a roomful of 7-footers.

America’s 20- year- old moguls world champion, Hannah Kearney, tells a good story to characterize her new head coach. After working for months to put together a fall training camp in Zermatt, Switzerland, this year, Rawles and his athletes arrived to find somewhat cramped accom­modations. It might have presented a serious problem for a more for­mally run international program; as it was, however, Rawles’ inner ski bum kicked into gear and left the details no chance. “He was sleeping on the floor so that all the athletes could have a bed,” Kearney says. “He didn’t care.”

Rawles explains the reasoning behind his laid- back attitude: “Every day I wake up and go, man, I’m the luck­iest guy around. Just doing what I’m doing. I get to travel and see the world, have somebody else pay for it. Get to ski all the time. Doesn’t get much better than that.”

When Donnie St. Pierre resigned his eight-year post as U. S. head coach this summer, Jeff Wintersteen and Polly- Jo Clark, the higher- ups charged with replacing him, did not interview a single candidate. What’s the point when you already have your man picked out?

Rawlsie, as Wintersteen refers to the first U.S. coach he ever hired, had everything they wanted in St. Pierre’s successor. He’d taken all the steps up the program’s lad­der; signed initially as a contract employee after coach­ing at Team Breckenridge for a decade, he was soon promoted to C Team coach, and eventually to World Cup moguls/ strength and conditioning coach before becoming the team’s head coach.

” We have a term called ‘ institutionalized,'” says Wintersteen. “Rawlsie definitely falls under that.”

And so, after nearly a decade with the U. S. team, institutionalized Rawlsie finally has the legacy in his hands. What will he do with it? How will he compen­sate for the loss of Jeremy Bloom, Toby Dawson, Travis Mayer, Travis Cabral and Luke Westerlund? Can he help Kearney regain her confidence after a disappoint­ing and emotionally draining performance at the Olympics? Can he continue to get good results from aging female wonders Michelle Roark, 31, and Jillian Vogtli, 33?

Rawles admits his biggest challenge is likely on the men’s side. He’d never dispute that losing five of the top seven U. S. competitors is an easy hurdle to over­come. But he likes the hunger and potential he sees in up-and-comers Landon Gardner, Tim Preston and Mike Morse. Lest we forget, too, he still has David Babic, a past World Cup winner, and Nate Roberts, the defend­ing world champion ” who, in a show of the U.S. pro­gram’s strength in recent years, did not even qualify for the 2006 Olympic team.

“It may take some time for those guys to find their place,” Babic said of the younger team members, “but we’ve got a lot of talent still and I think we’ll still be competitive as a whole team, not just one or two guys.”

For his part, Rawles isn’t planning on sitting down his precocious squad and delivering a pep talk.

” They know what the legacy is ” like, they really do,” he said. ” And I think they’re looking forward to being part of it, and to creating a new chapter of it.”

Rawles addresses the Olympic season of a winter ago by saying he learned more about coaching that year than in any other, most of the lessons coming either at or because of the 2006 Winter Games. The U.S. men’s squad entered as an overwhelming favorite not just to win medals, but to dominate. There was even talk of an Olympic sweep, with good reason: The previous season the Americans filled five of the top seven spots in the final World Cup stand­ings, led by Bloom, who ran away with the title.

After Kearney won the 2005 world championship, then the first World Cup event last season, hopes were high on the women’s side, too.

At the games, however, tiny mistakes derailed the Americans’ chances and Dawson’s bronze medal proved the only consolation.

Being a driven competitor ” you should see him attack the boards in recreational basketball games ” it’s a good bet Rawles wants nothing more than to go to the Olympics in 2010 and earn a measure of redemption. He admits as much here in the A-frame lodge, though only loosely. “That’s a ways down the road for me,” he says of Vancouver. The primary goal now, he says, is just to see improvement day to day, week to week.

In the background, Skynyrd is starting to jam. The slow part of the song is winding down, the fast part picking up. And then, suddenly, it’s blaring, roaring, echoing through the A-frame air.

“And the bird you cannot change! Lord knows, I can’t change!”

Rawles says something about how much fun he had on the hill today, freeskiing with one of his younger U. S. team members from Denver. That’s the part he loves more than anything, he says, as if there could ever be any question.

He trails off for a moment, sensing the end of the interview. Then something hits him, and before there is time for another question to be asked, he answers one of his own.

“I’m ready for this,” he says. “Without a doubt.”

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