Over the last nine years, Justin Beckwith’s name has become synonymous with the Green Mountain Valley School (GMVS) in Waitsfield, Vt. Now, with the hiring of 2010 Olympian Garrott Kuzzy as nordic director and biathlete Katrina Howe as nordic coach, two other well-known individuals in the ski community have become the new faces of the program, and Beckwith has vowed to help with the transition.
But before Beckwith — a former Middlebury College skier, Junior World Championships coach and wax technician, J1 Scando Trip leader, and the New England Nordic Ski Association’s 2012 coach of the year — started as an assistant coach at GMVS, he built houses.
That’s one of the trades he’s returning to.
In August, Beckwith, 36, decided to step down as Green Mountain’s nordic director, ushering in a new era for the program, which started in 1981 under Jim Fredericks. Muffy Ritz took over as nordic director from 1986 to ’89, after which GMVS Nordic went by the wayside at the ski academy until Norwegian Jon Arne Enevoldsen started a biathlon program in 2002, according to the Vermont Ski and Snowboard Museum.
A few years later, Beckwith came into the picture. In a phone interview on Monday, he recalled how the current GMVS nordic program started with a Norwegian coach and core group of families. Through grassroots efforts, targeting local Bill Koch programs and creating a “viable option for kids from the [Mad River] valley to start taking up cross-country,” the private school’s nordic team began to attract more homegrown skiers from central Vermont. In turn, that spawned interest well beyond the state’s borders.
During Beckwith’s tenure, in which he led the program for the last seven years, he also united with local clubs to develop the Central Vermont Co-Op Race Series to elevate the level of nordic competition. His largest team size was 15. This year, its has seven nordic athletes, including one post grad.
“Over the years, I’ve been able to support some really awesome athletes in the program,” Beckwith said. “To be able to offer that opportunity, helping foster a passion for skiing and then to get to see them become young adults and continue to do amazing things.”
Sometimes, he had to dig into his own pockets to do so. And while he said it was a personal decision to step down, he felt the time was right to put the program into new hands for strategic planning and new energy.
That’s where Kuzzy and Howe came in.
Howe, a former national-development team biathlete who spent the last five years training with the Maine Winter Sports Center (MWSC) Olympic Development Team, joined Beckwith as an assistant coach in July. At 29, she had retired from racing this spring — her decision prompted by a loss of funding at MWSC — but she wasn’t ready to leave the sport.
“I knew I wanted to stay involved and I always knew I wanted to be a coach,” Howe said on the phone last week. “I contacted Justin and it turns out he needed an assistant coach.”
He hired her and the two went ahead planning the summer, including a fall training camp in Italy. Before she started, Beckwith and his then-assistant coach Shane MacDowell hosted an Eastern Regional Elite Group (REG) in June. MacDowell left GMVS to join Northern Michigan University as an assistant coach in July.
“There’s been a lot of change in the program [recently],” Beckwith said.
For the REG camp, Beckwith’s long-term goal had been to boost enrollment. New England has so many summer training options that it’s often difficult to unite the best juniors at a single venue, he explained. The REG camp attracted New England’s entire J1 and J2 teams, he said.
“It was a great success … I think we were missing two to three kids from the junior national team,” he said, adding that there were 38 participants. “I would say we had 95 percent of the best kids in New England together.”
That was a capstone on the previous open training camps GMVS hosted for the last eight summers.
“I just wanted to make sure I was handing it off [to the right people],” Beckwith said of the nordic program. “Katrina was awesome. … I’m really happy that Garrott stepped up,” he added. “We have had some great conversations.”
Howe started working for GMVS when school started, Aug. 17. The day before, she learned Beckwith wasn’t returning as head coach.
“It was a pretty sudden transition,” she said. “We had about two-and-a-half weeks of school and Justin was around so he definitely helped me with a basic knowledge and lay of the land.”
After that in early September, Beckwith, Howe, staff member Jere Brophy, and their athletes traveled to Mals in northern Italy for two weeks of dryland training — including hiking and rollerskiing — and on-snow skiing at the Stelvio Glacier.
When they returned in late September, Kuzzy had been hired as nordic director. In the time since — the last two weeks — he’s been working with Howe.
“This August, when Justin decided he was going to move on, the Green Mountain Valley School reached out to me and I decided it was a great opportunity to get back into the ski world and work with high-school age level kids,” Kuzzy said. “… It’s not a huge life transition. It’s just an opportunity to be more involved in skiing. I think they’ve got a lot of resources and are very dedicated to the nordic program.”
Kuzzy, 32, a Middlebury grad who spent the last several years in Middlebury and will continue to live there, previously served as product director of VBT Bicycling and Walking Vacations. While he explained it was a “very challenging decision to leave” VBT after four years, he always wanted to stay involved in nordic skiing. He did so by launching VBT’s cross-country ski tours and assisting local clubs, including Mansfield Nordic and Frost Mountain Nordic, at their annual camps.
“The experience I gained with VBT is an asset and something I can apply to my role as Nordic Director at GMVS,” Kuzzy wrote in an email. “My role consists of a balance between strategic planning, execution and ski coaching. As Nordic Coach, Kat Howe spends much of her time writing the training plan and training with the team.”
While he and Howe plan to discuss and determine the program’s overarching goals this month, Kuzzy said on the phone last week that they want to further integrate nordic within the GMVS community.
“Traditionally it’s been an alpine-heavy school,” Kuzzy said, explaining that of roughly 120 skiers at the academy, seven are nordic athletes.
Howe pointed out that a couple of alpine students had already shown interest in nordic. “The number may grow before too long!” she wrote in an email.
“At this point, my goal is to provide as much opportunity as possible for skiers who really want to see what they can do with nordic skiing,” Kuzzy explained. “One thing I really like about GMVS is the academic focus; it was recently rated the top academic private high school in Vermont [by the 2015 Niche Rankings]. … And this motto of, skiing is a metaphor for life. My goal is to extend the opportunity, to learn more about life through ski racing.”
Howe said she felt similarly.
“If I didn’t have the interest or the academic [background], I don’t think I’d totally appreciate the experiences I’ve had as a skier,” the four-year University of Vermont skier said. “The trips weren’t always necessarily about the racing. I think that carried over well for me.”
Already, Kuzzy said he’s been having a lot of fun with the athletes.
“That’s been the highlight, the workouts with the kids,” he said. “They’ve been fantastic.”
“They’re just all awesome, hugely motivated [athletes],” Howe said. “They have a huge world sense of adventure. That’s why I fell in love with nordic, and these kids just love that and want to get out there and do new things. It’s not just about specific training for them, and that’s definitely come from Justin.”
“They have a huge world sense of adventure. That’s why I fell in love with nordic. … It’s not just about specific training for them, and that’s definitely come from Justin.” — GMVS Nordic Coach Katrina Howe, on the team’s current athletes
While Beckwith was unsure what his exact role with the program would be this winter, he knew he’d be offering race support. So far, he’s filled an advisory role to help with the transition and was part of the recruiting process for a new director, he said.
Beckwith has also been the lead kickwax technician for New England at Junior Nationals for the last six or seven years, and he plans on doing that again this season.
“It’s definitely open ended and I want it to be a positive vibe,” he said. “It was hard to leave my current kids… [but] I’m not leaving, I’m still here, part of their lives, but it’s definitely a hard transition for sure.”
He’ll continue to live in Warren, near the school, where he can show Kuzzy and Howe the traditional time trial spots, and their starting and ending points.
“I definitely envision doing some workouts with them,” he said.
Meanwhile, he said he’ll be able to spend more time with his new wife, Brie Beckwith, a physical trainer for U.S. alpine skier Mikaela Shiffrin and the U.S. women’s alpine team, whom he married in April. He’ll also continue building with friends.
“It’s pretty fun to get back to that,” he said.
This winter, Beckwith said he’ll groom the Sugarbush golf course and help “the community in areas I was not able to before. … It’s exiting to not have the narrow focus of helping one program, but helping all programs out, and I definitely plan on being a part of the New England waxing staff.
“The last two years I’ve been with the World Junior kickwax staff so I’m leaving all doors open,” he added. “I plan on staying involved as a ski tech.”