On Saturday, a fundraiser was held in Aspen, Colo., to help support local U.S. Ski Team cross-country athletes Simi Hamilton and Noah Hoffman and nordic combined skier Michael Ward in their quest for international success. A few hundred community members came through the doors over the course of the evening, the sense of pride in their hometown practically tangible. It’s rare, when covering a sport largely from afar, to witness the inspirational power athletes have so clearly, but for the Aspen locals in the room it was a simply another example of friends supporting friends.
“I know 95 percent of the people who came tonight, which is a testament to the type of community we grew up in,” Hamilton said. “It’s nice to be reminded it’s still the town where it takes two hours to bike home on a Saturday afternoon because you see so many people you know.”
The event was put on by the Rocky Mountain Nordic Angel Fund, a branch of Rocky Mountain Nordic that was created in 2011 in response to the USST budget cuts that effectively left sub-A-Team level athletes to find a way to pay for up to $25,000-worth of competition-related travel costs.
Different communities and organizations around the country have found ways in the last year and a half to help pick up the slack in the national team budget. The most visible example is the National Nordic Foundation, which is currently in the middle of its annual Drive for 25 campaign. NNF raised over $160,000 in 2011/2012 to help the defray the costs of competing in Europe for both junior skiers and USST members.
“The NNF and grassroots ski clubs are taking over the job that used to be performed by USSA,” RMN chairman Mike Elliott said.
The RMN Angel Fund works in concert with NNF and is a more local example of fundraising at work. Last year the Fund raised enough money to fill in the uncovered racing expenses for Colorado nordic athletes Hoffman, Hamilton, Tad Elliott and Sylvan Ellefson. Hoffman, for example, estimated that fund ended up covering 90% of his travel costs last winter.
On Saturday, the Fund came $15,700 closer to its 2012/2013 goal, a number that Mike Elliott characterized as a “very busy, very successful event.” The Fund will hold another event in Durango on November 9 for Mike’s son Tad and local biathletes Tracy and Lanny Barnes. For the season, the Fund hopes to raise $50,000.
The process by which these fundraisers come together reflects both the scope of the financial problem skiers face and the willingness local communities have to address it. The positioning of separate event in Aspen and Durango, for example, was based on the assessment that people will more naturally get behind hometown athletes. Successfully communication of the need for donations is something the Fund has to think about with an audience not intimately familiar with the sport.
“Fundraising is difficult for skiers who are going to these romantic-looking destinations in Norway and Sweden; athletes who people think are privileged to live that lifestyle,” Elliott said. “But they’re incredible role models to their communities, and the community gets behind them.”
The message may be a difficult one to convey, but based on the turnout at Saturday’s event, there are people out there who understand the problem and want to help.
“This is just about friends helping friends,” said Dylan Johns. “It’s got to be frustrating to reach that level and then have to figure out how to afford it. People realize that here and want to help; enough people ski and appreciate [the sport]. There’s a strong sense of community here, and this town definitely rallies around the people who need help.”
The event was billed as part fundraiser and silent auction, part send-off party for Hoffman, Hamilton on Ward on the eve of their departure for the first races of the season. With a line of kids sitting rapt on the floor in front of them, the trio took to the stage partway through the evening with emcee Mike Trecker to talk about their sport, their inspiration and their goals for the coming year.
Ward talked about the power role models have had in his own ski career. “I have teammates like Billy Demong who are gold medalists that I can now train with and learn from every day, and I hope it’ll make me the best as well,” he said.
Hamilton echoed the sentiment. “Role models play huge roles in where we are right now. And we all realize we want to become those people for the kids below us. We all care about the development of athletes in this community and in others as well.”
All three athletes thought that part of being those role models, especially in a town where Lance Armstrong owns a home, means taking a firm stand on purity in sport. Each spoke out against doping, and Hoffman in particular expressed strong intolerance for it.
“I have no interest in competing if I have to cheat to win. I get tested once a month and I wish it were more,” he said. “It’s going to kill endurance sports if we let it persist.”
With the ensuing applause, the message clearly resonated with the audience. “These kids represent Aspen,” said Susan Spalding after the athletes left the stage. “People here love the outdoors, and here are these awesome, wholesome athletes. Noah’s doping speech really reflects that. I completely want to support these role models for our kids.”
Though neither Hoffman, Hamilton nor Ward have much time to spend in Aspen any more, the turnout on Saturday clearly meant a lot to them.
“To see these people here — with their support it makes me more determined,” Ward said. “Their support makes a huge difference.”
The ideal that the podium is blind to income has always been complicated in skiing. Equipment alone costs several hundred dollars for beginners and thousands for the more experienced. The RMN Angel Fund and campaigns like those at NNF attempt to bridge the financial gap between success and opportunity for skiers in the U.S., a problem that doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon. Saturday’s event in Aspen showed that people are out there who want to help hometown athletes reach their goals.
“I think it’s about more than just the money,” Hoffman said after the event was over. “Having this presence in Aspen makes a big difference when you’re in Europe, travelling around, and maybe not thinking that anybody cares about what you’re doing. Seeing these people behind us as people rather than just as skiers is really important.”
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.