Five years ago, David Knoop was a self-described master blaster looking for a cause, and the National Cross Country Ski Education Foundation (NCCSEF) was going to be it.
His process of finding the NCCSEF didn’t happen overnight. In fact, the nonprofit had been more or less defunct since 2008, when founder Reid Lutter decided he was too busy to continue its mission of supporting junior development in U.S. nordic skiing.
After starting the NCCSEF, formerly based in St. Paul, Minn., 14 years earlier with Rick Kapala and evolving to the point where they could send American kids to Junior World Championships, Lutter simply had other focuses as a ski coach and owner of a custom-apparel company, Podiumwear.
Meanwhile, Knoop, who lives in Park City, Utah, and works as an insurance broker in Salt Lake City, was figuring out his own calling. In the spring of 2008, his 20-year-old son Matthew Knoop was killed by a hit-and-run driver while on a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Brazil. The oldest of Knoop’s two children, Matthew was a Park City High School soccer standout who captained his team to a state championship in 2006, his senior year.
After his passing, Knoop started to research charitable causes to devote himself to.
“My son didn’t get paid to go on a volunteer mission — it was something he wanted to do because he made a difference,” Knoop said on the phone this week. “He taught me a lesson there and I just decided I could give back.”
By way of the U.S. Ski Team, he found the NCCSEF. A regular donor to the team, Knoop eventually got a direct request from then-U.S. Ski Team (USST) director John Farra.
“Farra said, ‘I want you to take over the NCCSEF,’ ” Knoop recalled. “I was like, ‘I don’t even know what you’re talking about it.’ He was like, ‘I’ll help you with it for a couple of months.’ ”
Knoop remembered thinking about the potential of the sport and the ranging emotions people have when it comes to their perception of the USST or its national governing body, the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA). Instead of admiring the problem, he decided it was time to take positive action.
According to Knoop, the National Nordic Foundation (NNF), which came to be in 2011 out of the same 501(c) because “just saying [NCCSEF] is a mouthful,” started with a basic structure — not exactly a business plan.
“[Farra] said, this is junior development, this is how junior development works, these are the projects that are sorely in need of funding,” Knoop said.
From there, the former soccer coach and longtime nordic enthusiast began to immerse himself in U.S. cross-country skiing from the club to national-team levels.
Then, he got some help from Kapala. The head of the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF) nordic program, Kapala knew of a generous donor in Sun Valley, Idaho, who would likely support a national cause as well, and he connected him with Knoop.
“The first year I did a bit of wandering in the wilderness by myself — John Farra gave me a lot of guidance in terms of projects he felt were important … Rick Kapala had a few people he introduced to me,” Knoop said. “They were kind to me. They could tell I really didn’t know what I was talking about, but I had an idea and there was probably half a dozen donors that wrote some good-sized checks and said, good luck with your experiment.”
Knoop was not a professional fundraiser; he was a volunteer with a demanding day job. Once donors realized that and understood that he had little to gain, he said they became easier to approach and usually more likely to open their wallets.
In 2009, the NCCSEF came back to life with roughly $35,000 dollars in the bank. Five years later, Knoop as the director checked the balance from his Salt Lake office: the NNF had about $215,000 in reserves for cross-country skiing and about $43,000 for nordic combined. And that was more than three weeks before the Drive for 25 (D25) ended.
Annually the foundation raises more than half a million dollars in donations. With goals of raising $150,000 for cross-country and $50,000 for nordic combined in this year’s D25, the NNF was more than halfway there with 19 days to go. As of Friday, 75 percent of the target had been reached for cross-country and 14 percent for nordic combined.
While the discrepancy between the two sports might seem large, Knoop explained that it’s misleading: nordic combined parted ways with the NNF this summer, then returned to the organization three weeks before the D25 started Oct. 1.
When USSA defunded nordic combined in April, NNF board member and nordic-combined veteran Billy Demong devoted his offseason to fundraising to save his sport. One of his first moves was partnering with USA Ski Jumping.
According to Knoop, that led nordic combined — which was in search of top-to-bottom funding — to search for funding outside the NNF, which reserves financial support for national B-team athletes and those in the developing ranks below them and above Junior Nationals.
“My response to Billy [was], ‘You can leave the NNF, but we’re not kicking you out. There’s no hard feelings,’ ” he said, explaining that they kept their lines of communication and nordic-combined’s checking account within NNF open.
“We even funded a summer project for them with some remaining funds they had,” he added. “Kerry [Lynch] and Billy remained on our Board of Directors.”
Over the course of the summer, nordic combined generated most of the money it needed to get through the next season and put a renewed emphasis on development and future sustainability. As a result, Knoop said the program was probably stronger as a result.
“They’ve had a heck of a ride,” he said. “They got a fair amount done through [USA Ski Jumping] all summer long, then they kind of realized, we benefit from being part of the NNF. There’s no takeaway here — why wouldn’t we have three buckets of revenue?
“They came back to us three weeks before the Drive for 25 and you can see the result,” he added. “It’s not very scintillating, but they’ll be back.”
At the same time, the Drive is one of multiple nordic-combined fundraisers held each year. The then-NCCSEF added nordic combined to its support structure in the spring of 2011.
“Nordic combined historically has done really well,” Knoop said. “[As] Kerry Lynch said, ‘We might be small, but we’re mighty.’ ”
The Drive: what it is and how it started
In its fourth year, the D25 is one of two annual fundraisers the NNF holds for cross-country. Alternatively, nordic combined prefers to spread its efforts, and typically solicits donations in different forms multiple times a year.
The idea to encourage an estimated 4,000 U.S. nordic enthusiasts to donate in the name of development came to life in 2011 with founders Peter Vordenberg and Matt Whitcomb, then both U.S. Ski Team coaches. They reasoned if thousands donated $25 on a single day — Nov. 15 — it could make a lasting impact on developing cross-country skiers.
“U.S. cross country skiing is in financial trouble,” a 2011 press release for the D25 stated. “While we have improved from a nation that seldom put a single skier in the top 15 on the World Cup to a nation with World Cup and World Championship podiums we are currently operating at a budget of less than a tenth of our toughest competitors. And more importantly our budget shortfalls are making it impossible for our younger developing athletes to afford the racing opportunities they require to compete among the best.”
There were two ways to get involved: simply donate $25 on Nov. 15, or even better, become an ambassador and persuade at least 10 others to donate $25 on the same day.
The premise was solid, but NNF’s mailbox nearly couldn’t handle it. Knoop said it was a good problem to have, “Sure enough, on November 15, it rained [money] on that day … We raised like $50,000, like, holy smokes,” and the buzz surrounding the Drive was what left a lasting impression.
But there were questions. Knoop said he received checks in the months following with letters asking if the NNF would still accept donations. Of course they would, he always responded. And while the Drive took different forms in the years to come — from lasting almost three months last year, to six weeks this year — the goal was the same: to get “hay in the barn” so NNF’s board could allocate funds for the fast-approaching winter.
“Sure enough, on November 15, it rained on that day … We raised like $50,000, like, holy smokes.” — David Knoop, NNF director on the inaugural Drive for 25 in 2011
Before the Drive, Knoop said he focused on larger donors, and Vordenberg and Whitcomb drew his attention to the importance of a grassroots presence. What he later found was the NNF could have the best of both worlds, with big-time donors offering to match the amounts raised by grassroots donors.
Nordic combined currently has a matching challenge on the table: if it reaches $20,000, it’ll receive $20,000 in matching grants. As of Oct. 24, it had raised just over $7,000.
NNF’s athlete ambassadors sometimes have their own matching proposals to help them reach individual fundraising goals.
Katharine Ogden of the Stratton Mountain School led this year’s ambassadors in donations after exceeding her goal of $3,000 with more than $4,300 as of Oct. 24. The second-highest fundraiser, Paddy Caldwell of the USST D-team raised nearly $2,000 of his $2,500 goal in that time.
Knoop said those athletes went above and beyond their expectations as ambassadors, but he encouraged anyone who has benefited or could benefit from the NNF’s support to fundraise on its behalf as well.
And that’s the part of the Drive that hasn’t changed over the last four years. According to Knoop, the bottom line is, ambassadors are still expected to get 10 friends to donate $25 before Nov. 12.
While fundraising isn’t glamorous, it’s necessary, Knoop said.
“It’s about as tedious as your parents asking you to mow the lawn,” he said. “In terms of the timing of it, we run it a bit longer because all these kids are going to school, they’re training and to tell them they’ve got to get something done in one or two weeks, it’s not going to happen. We need to give these kids some time to build momentum.”
Not all of NNF’s roughly 80 ambassadors are developing athletes. USST Head Coach Chris Grover has raised the third-most amount of donations as an individual and USST Assistant Coach Jason Cork is fifth on the list after Team Gregg.
Several members of the USST A-team, the elite tier that doesn’t receive money from the NNF, are also ambassadors. According to NNF’s public-relations director Andrew Gardner, everyone on the USST with the exception of Andy Newell received NNF funds as developing skiers — and Newell supports the NNF regardless.
“What we’re trying to do now, twenty years later is say, there’s a whole development need and there’s a space between Junior Nationals and the A-team on the U.S. Ski Team that’s a funding void. In terms of development, that’s what you need.” — Knoop
Understanding the NNF
Last year, the D25 exceeded its goal of $150,000 for cross-country and raised $170,000 with 1,071 donors. That’s great, Knoop said, but what confounds him is how many nordic skiers still don’t know what the NNF is.
“I race a lot in the Midwest; it is master-blaster central,” he said. “Just imagine, part of our tagline is: generations helping generations. I wear an NNF patch on my hat and yet as a master blaster going to a fairly large citizen race, I can stand there at the starting line and easily 90 percent of the athletes will have no clue what that NNF patch is. That’s the potential. Whether or not we ever reach a broader base, that is the question mark.”
In a perfect world, he’d set a goal of half a million dollars for the D25 and the NNF could still “blow through that money” if it was all raised. The U.S. is competing in an international realm with players like Norway and Germany with multi-million dollar budgets.
“I’m glad that we’re a half-million dollar organization,” he said, referring to the $516,000 NNF received in donations last year (up from $192,000 in 2012 and $352,000 in 2013). “I’d like to see us one day get to be a million-dollar organization, but as you can see we’re competing against countries that are far more robust. … We’ve been able to do far more with far little, and the reality is that it’s never enough.”
Last year, the NNF’s expenses amounted to about $120,500 in administrative-and-fundraising costs like website development and maintenance, and two contract salaries with Gardner and full-time administrator James Southam. On top of that, NNF spent some $313,000 on athletics in 2013/2014, specifically pillar projects — the initiatives it stands behind and works to support year after year — for a total profit of about $82,000.
Since the foundation’s inception, helping athletes afford U23 and Junior World Championships has been a priority. This season, the NNF stated on its website that it aims to spend $80,000 on that event (70 to 80 percent of its cost to U.S. athletes) and $348,000 total on athletics.
“I want to say that’s a three to four-thousand dollar expense per athlete,” Knoop said. “We typically tell the athlete the event will cost you $700 or $500 … plus your airfare. We want you over there and focused on racing and not have your parents stressed about money.”
After the D25 ends in Nov. 12, Knoop said his eight-member board will meet over conference calls to discuss how to spend the money — and how much they should use.
“Let’s say we hit $150,000 — it’s going to be a fun meeting for cross-country to say we have $350,000 in the bank, what do you want to spend?” he explained. “They all want to know, here’s how much we have, how much do we want to spend? Let’s be careful, let’s be conservative … how much should we save? As a rule of thumb, with $350,000, we typically spend half of it.”
NNF’s funding goals for 2015 amount to nearly $350,000, between projects like U23/junior worlds, paying for a development coach, assisting World Cup skiers, and supplementing the OPA, Scando and U18 trips in Europe. Besides the D25, the NNF relies on other fundraisers throughout the year, like the online auction held last winter that raised upwards of $150,000.
“Let’s just say for whatever reason the Drive for 25 falls flat, we’ve got those other fundraising mechanisms,” he said.
The NNF also gets direct donations from certain photographers like board member Steve Fuller, who sells his nordic photos on FlyingPointRoad.com and gives all proceeds to the foundation.
Over time, Knoop has learned about the delicate balance of relying on loyal donors while searching for new support. For this reason, he writes handwritten thank-you notes to anyone that mails a check, and while online donations far outnumber those received by mail (and come with automatically generated thank-you’s), he tries to remember to thank online donors when he sees them in person.
When it comes to the timing of fundraisers, Knoop said it’s OK when others in the ski community are raising money simultaneously. The Stratton Mountain School T2 Team is currently promoting its own Matching Grant Challenge, where a private donor will match all team donations up to $25,000 before Nov. 15.
As a team, Stratton’s raised more than $7,000 for the NNF this year.
“If they’re donating to a club or some other cross-country initiative, there’s no need to cannibalize each other — that’s not going to further our sport,” Knoop said. “To the degree that people want to donate to the NNF and they see the value of what we’re doing, then I fully support that. If they want to support an initiative in another part of the country, then that’s great … and they should do it. We still win as a sport.”
The Greater Goal
In the years since its resurrection, Knoop said the NNF’s growth has been more gratifying than surprising.
“We’re not a huge nonprofit, but for our sport and the niche that we provide, I’d say we’re pretty successful,” he said.
“When you look at the entire potential of cross-county skiing, then I’m like, OK, I guess we’re never going to be like Norway where every citizen owns a pair of cross-country skis,” he later added. “But if we have a couple thousand people who get what cradle-to-grave skiing is all about, then we should have no problem getting our message across.”
That said, Knoop, in his late 50s, isn’t sure he’ll be onboard when the NNF reaches full steam.
“I’m going to get tired one of these days and I hope to hand the NNF baton off to someone who has the energy,” he said, noting his gratitude to Lutter for having the vision to start it.
With a cash fund to rely on for rainy days, Knoop said he dreams of finding enough money to start an endowment: a “big chunk of cash” that goes into an interest-bearing account and cannot be touched. Meanwhile, his example of a million-dollar endowment would generate $100,000 in additional cash each year — and he imagined what the NNF could spend that on.
At the same time, saving that much reserve money or finding a million- or half-million-dollar donor isn’t easy.
“I’ve never asked people for money in my life, and I’ve gotten more comfortable with it,” Knoop said. “I’m moderately comfortable getting people to write checks for $10,000 to $100,000 dollars so far…”
At the end of the day, there’s one thing that matters most to Knoop, and that’s whether the NNF is staying true to its mission statement: “to support athletic excellence in developing nordic athletes in the United States.”
Whenever there’s a question or debate amongst the board regarding what they should help pay for, he said that’s what they go back to.
Never Saw It Coming
In August, Knoop suffered a stroke that knocked him to the ground shortly after finishing a running-interval workout in Park City.
“Obviously that was quite a shock and it’ll probably take me a year to recover,” he said. “I had a brain aneurism. It had been there like a ticking time bomb … [that] dated back to youth football.”
At the time, he was only about a mile from USSA’s Center of Excellence (COE), located next to a hospital. Knoop had been feeling strong and striding along some single-track trails when he finished his last interval, walked for a bit, then began an easy jog.
“I walked about a hundred or two-hundred meters and then just about as I started to run, I got really dizzy and I had no feeling and I dropped in the dust,” he recalled. “[I thought], ‘Oh, that’s great, you look like an idiot here.’ I knew something was wrong, but I had no comprehension it was a stroke.”
He tried to get back to his feet, but fell down without any feeling along the right side of his body. He later learned he had 50 percent paralysis.
Within minutes, a mountain biker discovered him and told Knoop to relax. He could talk, but with the right side of his face not working, it was difficult. As the biker tried to call for help, his cellphone was dying. Meanwhile, thunderstorms started to roll in.
“I’m like great, the fire station is only a mile away, the guy’s cell battery’s dying, it was just a calamity,” Knoop said.
It took the paramedics two hours to get to him.
“These firefighter guys were totally city and they had no idea that the trails existed,” Knoop said, adding that he still intended to thank them personally and provide them with some info on the trail system.
They loaded him onto a stretcher with a single wheel and pushed him a bumpy mile to their entry point, which was about 500 meters away from the hospital. Knoop couldn’t remember when, but at some point, they transferred him to an ambulance.
Once inside the hospital, he was informed he had about 45-minutes left in a three-hour window to reverse his paralysis with an anti-stroke medicine. While there was a 97 percent success rate, there was also a slight chance that the drug could lead to complete paralysis or death.
“The way they read the riot act to you, it’s like, big gulp,” Knoop said.
With his 24-year-old daughter at his side, they decided to take the chance. Within three minutes of being injected, Knoop could feel the medicine starting to work with tingling sensations in his right arm and leg.
Fewer than three months later, he was working out three to four times a week at “low Level 1” to avoid raising his heart rate. “I’m glad I can do this,” he said. “Walking I’m a little dizzy and yet I can go for a run on a trail and I feel fine. It’s weird how your brain gets affected.”
Sitting at his desk earlier this week, Knoop explained his short-term memory has been affected, his right arm and one of his fingers still tingle, and certain nerves in his arm and shoulder muscles feel like they’re firing at all times.
“I’ve had a number of CAT scans and MRI’s that show me pictures of parts of the brain that have been damaged,” he explained. “I’m not sure how it all works but your brain will remap itself in terms of just sending nerves and neurons around the dead parts, but it takes months if not over a year for that to [happen].”
Regardless, he feels lucky and compelled to carry a cell phone any time he works out alone.
“I didn’t take a cell phone with me — I prefer to workout away from people. I love to be in the wilderness all the time, mostly because I’m working in an office in downtown Salt Lake City,” he explained. “Now it’s like, I cant work out anymore without having my cell phone on me.”
And with responsibilities like NNF, he was grateful to have Southam and Gardner around. While the “three amigos” planned for this year’s D25 well before August, Knoop said they finalized its structure and implementation without him in the weeks after.
“James worked for a number of months on new fundraising mechanism [for nonprofits]: StayClassy,” he said. “Andrew worked on photography and getting the message out.”
“I think this year we’re much more organized,” he added. “If there was ever a time for somebody on the team to take a hit … I’m glad to see it doing well. The NNF or the Drive for 25 really shouldn’t be about any one person or a few key people, it should be about a whole community putting it together. As long as there’s the right framework, there should be the structure to make it happen.”
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.