Last winter, I had the good fortune to live in Sun Valley, Idaho, where I was quickly absorbed into the large nordic community the area is famous for. My workweek consisted of coaching juniors with the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF), running a masters program through Galena Lodge, teaching private lessons through Blain County Recreation District, and working with the Vamps.
Nordic Town USA is crawling with good skiers: Olympians, NCAA champions, U.S. Ski Team alumnae, Junior National champions, Birkie winners, and Masters World Cup medalists can be seen cruising the valley’s extensive trail system daily.
If this sounds intimidating to the average skier training for a local race or just looking for a good workout, it’s not. It is inspirational. The skiing folks in Sun Valley know that these individuals make their sport credible. They also know the contributions many of these standouts have made.
Muffy Ritz, founder and director of the VAMPS program, has used her ski racing experience and love of the sport to become one of Sun Valley’s most prominent nordic leaders. Ritz got her start in cross-country skiing at the University of Colorado (CU). Tired of alpine racing, she tried out for the nordic team her junior year and discovered her passion.
In a phone conversation, Ritz, 56, explained how she quickly picked up ski technique following her CU teammates around in practice. She loved the challenge of the sport, but what really comes through talking to Ritz is her love for the nordic skiing family. Becoming a nordic skier changed her life, and in turn, she’s changed others’ through skiing.
A member of the U.S. Ski Team (USST) from 1982 to ’84, Ritz was also part of the rising ski-marathon movement in the 1980s as part of Team Rossignol. She proved her talent at endurance events by racing eight marathons over back-to-back weekends. She won the prestigious American Birkebeiner in 1985 and 1986.
Ritz has proved her toughness on a bike as well, holding the second-fastest time in the Race Across America, a transcontinental road-cycling race, in 9 days, 6 hours and 32 minutes. She also holds several age-group titles in National Marathon Mountain Bike Championships.
In 1990, Ritz left her position as a junior coach at the Green Mountain Valley School in Vermont and moved to Sun Valley. There, she connected with SVSEF Head Coach Rick Kapala and began a 10-year stint coaching juniors. In 2000, Ritz felt the need to turn her full attention to her newly formed Vamps, which stands for “Vimmen And Muffy’s ProgramS.” (The name came about in the program’s second year. Previously called “Ladies’ Clinic,” Ritz and her participants were looking for a catchier name, something fun and maybe a little racy. Playing around with one of the Swedish skiers in the group who called women, “vimmen,” they settled on Vamps.)
Her brainchild, Vamps is 130-women strong with 11 coaches. So how did the largest all-women masters ski program in the U.S. start?
It all began with one woman who requested biweekly private ski lessons from Ritz in 1996. A little worried about entertaining one student twice a week all season, Ritz proposed getting a group together to make the lessons more fun. This was the beginning of Vamps; four upper-intermediate level women who were committed to perfecting their skills and fitness.
Word spread, and the following winter, Ritz had 40 women who wanted a weekly program. She quickly added a couple more coaches to deal with the various ability levels.
By the winter of 1998-99, the Vamps grew to 60 and began to take on a life of its own. The popularity of the group rose from a fitness-driven, outdoorsy population of women who viewed cross-country skiing as a fun, social and sometimes-competitive way to spend the winter. The winter season was preceded by a dryland segment, which took place all over the valley in groups of eight.
Ritz has never advertised the Vamps program. Spread entirely by word of mouth, drawing in women from their late-20s to late-70s with a range of experience goals, Vamps classes were taking Sun Valley by storm. She recalls charging $15 per 90-minute session that season, a killer value for the participants. In keeping with the spirit of making the program accessible, Ritz has kept the cost somewhere around $300 for 12 sessions.
It became necessary to form ability and interest-driven groups in order to meet the needs of the growing program. Ritz and her team of coaches came up with names like the Amps, a competitive group looking for a weekly high-intensity workout.
There were groups for women who simply wanted to skate, as well as an all-classic group called the Scamps. The Super Tramps grew at the beginner-and-lower intermediate end to become a cohesive group of competent skiers with a keen desire to improve technically. The V2’s are a tight-knit group of friends, all over 60 years old.
Vamps classes were being held in different skiing locales around the valley, but by 1999, Ritz moved her programs to the Sun Valley Nordic Center, where they enjoyed the benefits of liability insurance, consistent grooming and a spacious meeting room.
She eventually capped Vamps at 130 participants, where it remains today. In 2002, it became mandatory to participate in the dryland program in order to be admitted into the Vamps ski program. Ritz explained that this was one way to screen participants and to keep the numbers under control.
Being a Vamp
It’s hard not to become infected by the Vamps spirit. The laughter, shouts of encouragement, and general party atmosphere that characterize a Vamps class are a reflection of Ritz herself.
She is an enthusiastic cheerleader of every Vamp, offering personalized tips and encouragement. She makes every participant feel important and shows them the baby steps necessary to meeting their goals. Every Vamp wants to be as physically strong as Ritz and many are emboldened by her confident example. The bottom line is that skiing with Ritz is just plain fun.
The coaches who work alongside Ritz have a deep pool of talent and experience. They are a cast of colorful characters who, between them, have a couple hundred years of racing and coaching experience.
Ritz has never had any trouble filling her coaching roster; in fact, there is sometimes a waiting list to get on the Vamps coaching team. While the coaching staff consists of women who have had some kind of connection with Ritz through ski racing over the years, not just anyone qualifies to be a Vamps coach.
First, Ritz requires that all on-snow Vamps coaches work the dryland segment. This is a several-month commitment in the fall, when the Vamps are gearing up for the winter season through some pretty hard-core workouts. Every coach is expected to lead some portion of the workouts, which consist of ski walking and bounding intervals, strength training, plyos, and technique work.
Ritz is looking for coaches with some sort of training, such as PSIA or USSA certifications, as well as racing experience. Above all, she wants coaches with a passion for skiing who have the skills to pass this on to others. Essentially, if you want to coach Vamps, you had better bring something special to the table.
In addition to Ritz, this season’s coaching roster includes: Brooke Hovey, Betsy Youngman, EJ Harpham, Mary Tess O’Sullivan, Joney Otteson, Joan Scheingraber, Colleen Hayes, Susie Quesnel, Katherine Sheldon, Kate Whitcomb, and Karoline Droege.
The success of the Vamps may be based on the attitude of the group. It is not required that Vamps participants become ski racers. In fact, only about 15 percent of the Vamps regularly tie a number on each season. Ritz estimates a few more, about 30 percent, spend the year working toward the high point of Sun Valley’s race season, the Boulder Mountain Tour.
Last winter, Ritz and 18 Vamps traveled to Asiago, Italy, to participate in the Masters World Cup for the first time as an official group. There had been casual forays of a small number of Vamps to the Masters World Cup in McCall, Idaho, and to Silver Star, B.C., but this was their inaugural international trip.
In Asiago, they made quite a splash in their stylish black-and-purple race suits. They picked up a few age-group medals and showed others how to have a good time at a major European ski event.
But the Vamps might be remembered best for one particular stunt at worlds. Somewhere along the course, one of the V2’s took a wrong turn, Ritz explained with a laugh. The rest of the V2’s gamely followed and they all wound up beating fellow American and master-racer extraordinaire Trina Hosmer. The results didn’t hold, of course, but the Vamps are still laughing about the incident.
What the Vamps share is a willingness to work hard and to try new things. For some, this means racing the Birkie. For others, it is being able to ski without stopping to the high point on the Sun Valley trail system or to finally learn the V2 timing. The reasons to join the Vamps are basic: learning to ski, fitness, friendship, and having fun.
For many, the Vamps experience is the beginning of a sporting life, according to Ritz. She has countless stories of women who have thrived by joining the program, many without any prior athletic experience. The older Vamps have bonded over the experience of taking up a new sport mid-life and pursuing it into their 60s and 70s. They ski together on days they don’t meet as a group, and use the summer and fall to meet for hikes and gym workouts.
The “Vamps Challenge” comes around during the fall dryland season and again in the winter. The challenge invites all Vamps and coaches to tackle a list of accomplishments on their own time. It includes a certain number of push-ups and air squats a week, hikes up local peaks or long ski routes, puzzles, and volunteer service. At the end, a party is thrown to honor those who completed the “Vamps Challenge.”
The Vamps are a big piece of the nordic scene in Sun Valley, and not just because they seem to be all over the vast trail system practicing drills and pursuing their challenges. Community service is a big part of being a Vamp, and Ritz has long been a proponent on giving back to the sport.
If you are a Vamp and not competing in an event, summer or winter, you should be signing up to help at an aid station or with registration. The Vamps are a cheerful presence at all the major Sun Valley races. Additionally, they are volunteers for Girls on the Run and other programs and are generous supporters at the annual Galena Benefit. The Vamps organize a scholarship fund each season to benefit women who might not otherwise be able to join the program.
Ritz admits that the Vamps are a consuming project. She works hard to make it the kind of program everyone wants to join. Traditions like the fall Pumpkin Hunt on Dollar Mountain, costume events, the Boulder Mountain Tour, and parties and gatherings are what distinguish the Vamps from other programs.
Every conversation I have had with Ritz about the Vamps has been filled with excitement and pride. In the end, she said it’s all about giving women confidence through sport.
About the Author: Nancy Fiddler is a two-time Olympian and 14-time National Champion. She has been coaching juniors and masters for 20 years in Mammoth Lakes and Truckee, Calif., and most recently in Sun Valley, Idaho. She lives most of the time in the Eastern Sierra with her husband and daughter and is currently trying to get in touch with her creative side through writing.