When the University of Nevada-Reno (UNR) announced that its ski team would be dismantled in 2010, the nordic-ski community in the greater Tahoe region realized it was in trouble.
Although the region, also known as Far West, was competitive at the junior level, it was lagging behind the rest of the country in terms of development post-high school. A relatively small number of juniors extended their skiing careers once they graduated while the majority looked for opportunities outside of the ski community.
UNR had been a clear representation of the path young athletes could take upon the completion of their junior years. However, with the loss of the program, the ski community needed to take action.
That’s when Ben Grasseschi stepped in and created the Far West Farm Team. With the help of August Teague and Martin Benes, Grasseschi looked to create a program that rivaled the best elite teams in the country. There was also the hope that the addition of an elite team would create a strong foundation for youth skiers and beyond.
“[What happened at UNR] was an indication that we needed to do more in this area, and we didn’t want to see that happen to other programs,” Benes said in an interview. “Obviously it was a huge loss … but it made us realize that we needed to do something.”
Even though the program found success with several skiers, such as current APU athlete Chelsea Holmes, the Farm Team never gained a foothold in domestic elite racing. However, its creation helped encourage the further development of nordic skiing in the Sierra Nevada.
A major part of that development can be attributed to Benes.
Benes, a native of the Tahoe area, returned to Truckee, Calif., in 2011 after coaching for both the Dartmouth and Bates College Ski Teams. He became head nordic coach of the local Sugar Bowl Academy and worked with the Farm Team when he could.
While he gained valuable coaching experience on the eastern collegiate circuit, one of the biggest assets Benes brought with him to Truckee was his ability to recruit.
He used his connections to recruit numerous college skiers who were looking for a summer training program. While its beginnings were small, the summer program grew at a steady rate as skiers from Bates, Bowdoin, Dartmouth, Middlebury, Colby, the University of New Hampshire and University of Vermont journeyed across the country to take advantage of what Far West had to offer.
With copious amounts of skiers coming to Truckee each summer, the elite program began to attract more interest.
As a result, the 2013/2014 season marked a new beginning for the program. It had a new look and a new name – the Far West Elite Team.
The team had no official coach (Grasseschi and Teague had left the program to pursue other endeavors), so Benes took on the duty of creating training plans and taking care of each skier’s athletic needs. He also recruited Patrick Johnson, a former NCAA standout at Middlebury, who skied for both the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation and Alaska Pacific University.
While the team’s most notable moment of the season was Johnson’s aggressive start to the men’s 30-kilometer mass start at 2014 U.S. nationals in Midway, Utah, the addition of high-achieving athletes and a new professional look caught the eye of many on the national circuit.
Soon, it became apparent that the combination of the summer program and the increased visibility of the team meant that further development was inevitable for the 2014/2015 season.
To speed up the process, the Far West Elite Team hired Reno, Nev., resident and Toko sales representative Roger Chaney to fill the newly created position of team manager. As team manager, Chaney takes care of the logistical needs of the Far West Elite Team athletes and aids them in their fundraising efforts.
“There has to be accountability for the athletes in terms of fundraising. That became the bigger beast than originally was expected … and there’s definitely a value in making sure that everybody’s expectations are being acknowledged and met,” Chaney explained of his position.
Benes agreed, stating that, because the team had no official director or coach, it lacked a necessary organizational component that Chaney now fulfills. Additionally, he said that due to his status as the head coach of Sugarbowl Academy it is valuable to have Chaney organize the logistics of training with other local clubs in the region.
“Because I’m affiliated with a club, it’s nice to have someone who is not affiliated with a club to take that on,” he said.
For the 2014/2015 season, the Far West Nordic Elite Team consists of six athletes: Johnson, Spencer Eusden, Wyatt Fereday, Anja Gruber, Emily Blackmer, and Sabra Davison.
This winter, Johnson will seek out success on the biathlon circuit while jumping into a SuperTour here and there. His goal was to make the U.S. IBU Cup squad this season.
Gruber, a German standout from UVM and 2013 NCAA Champion, will start her season on the SuperTour and later travel to Europe for the OPA Cup series with the goal of earning a spot on the German National Team.
Benes explained the strength of the team demonstrates how far both the program and the region have come since UNR cut its ski team.
“Four years ago, the majority of our athletes were based here for the winter, maybe one would go to U.S. nationals, but now we’re looking at a group where five if not all six will be headed there. We’re getting people who are committed to elite racing and elite results,” he said.
As the program develops, both Benes and Chaney are looking beyond season goals to future developments of the club.
“We’re looking at a vision that goes beyond one season. Ultimately we need to continue to develop that foundational presence,” Chaney said.
While there are still a few obstacles in the way, like the lack of a full-time coach, their main hope is that the Far West Elite Team will one day be a program that inspires local skiers to continue their athletic pursuits long after their junior years.
Lander Karath is FasterSkier's Associate Editor from Bozeman, Montana and a Bridger Ski Foundation alumnus. Between his studies at Middlebury College in Vermont, he is an outdoor enthusiast and a political junkie.