Five years ago, five ski buddies got together and founded Team HomeGrown. The idea back then, according to Sylvan Ellefson, was to create a sort of all-comers club.
Kevin Hochtl, Josh Smith, Paul Gorbold, Dan Weiland, and Ellefson had all grown up around Vail, Colo., and this was a “homegrown” team they could lay claim to, no matter what stage of life or what stage of their ski career they were in.
“We also wanted to provide a sort of support to the young kids growing up in the sport in the valley,” Ellefson explained. “Being able to look up to somebody, whether it is work or sport, is a very important part of keeping someone engaged in it. That was our belief.”
Two years later in 2011, HomeGrown — the elite offshoot of Ski & Snowboard Club Vail (SSCV) — reached a new level with the addition of then-U.S. Ski Team members Noah Hoffman, from Aspen (still on the team), and Tad Elliott, from Durango.
In 2012, Ryan Scott, a Montana State University grad from Boulder, came on as a sixth member with Ellefson, Hoffman, Elliott, and postgrads Christian Shanley (from Vail) and Max Scrimgeour (Steamboat Springs).
“It became more of a Team Colorado, but still homegrown in the sense that we all grew up racing each other every weekend through middle school and high school,” Ellefson wrote in an email. “Racing ‘as a team,’ at Junior Nationals really gave a sense of unity. From that point, we wanted to help inspire the next generation of nordic skiers in the state of Colorado. Help them realize that nordic skiing can become a career, and if anything more, a way to develop an amazing tolerance for pain, mental strength, and an iron-clad work ethic.”
This spring, Ellefson, 27, retired from skiing after making a run for the 2014 Olympics. Scott returned to Boulder full time to network and make a living in graphic design and web development.
In a phone interview last month, Scott said he’d been training when he could, despite revving up to 30- to 40-hour work weeks by fall. Since parting ways with SSCV in the middle of last winter, he wasn’t sure what he’d do for support this season.
“I might be figuring it out last minute, or racing independent and racing for Madshus,” Scott said.
Neither Scott nor SSCV Head Coach Eric Pepper chose to elaborate on why Scott left the team.
“I wasn’t involved in that conversation too much,” Pepper said.
Despite battling mononucleosis symptoms as early as last October, Elliott was cleared to race in November and got in two distance starts in West Yellowstone, Mont., and Sovereign Lake, B.C. He placed 14th in B.C. (one place higher than his finish in West Yellowstone), then returned home to Durango, where a doctor diagnosed Elliott with the Epstein-Barr virus — best known as the cause of infectious mono.
In January, he flew to Park City, Utah, to give the 30-kilometer skate mass start at U.S. nationals his best shot, but he didn’t finish.
“I then took from January until July off of any training,” Elliott wrote in an email. “Really light training in August now a bit more structured training into the ski season.”
Elliott, 26, is making a comeback this season, although he’s not sure how strong he’ll be.
“The doctor who finally diagnosed me was nervous I wouldn’t be able to race again for a really long time,” he explained. “So being out 7 months off of my feet has been really small. I might not get back 100 percent, so there is really no expectations or goals I have to hit. I am coming back because I love skiing especially for Team HomeGrown, and Salomon, Honey Stinger, Caldwell Sport and Oakley. Without them saying get well and we will see you when you are ready, I probably would have retired from racing.”
“I might not get back 100 percent, so there is really no expectations or goals I have to hit. I am coming back because I love skiing.” — Tad Elliott, SSCV Elite member
During his recovery last winter, Elliott coached Durango Nordic juniors once a week.
“That was all I could manage I felt so terrible,” he wrote.
He worked for Salomon Running this spring and summer, and at a Durango mountain-bike shop called Mountain Bike Specialists, where his employers where empathetic and let him rest whenever he needed to.
“All of my sponsors have stayed the same and showed their unconditional support,” Elliott explained. “My support team has stayed the exact same, and a piece of that has always been [coach] Zach Caldwell. We are using Firstbeat training systems in joint with my Suunto [heart-rate monitor] to track my heart rate variability to see how I am responding.”
On Oct. 8, Elliott wrote on Facebook that he had been cleared to train.
Out with the Old, In with SSCV Elite
This season, Elliott will be one of two seniors on the SSCV Elite team — Hoffman being the other.
Hannah Hardenbergh and Cameron Bobb joined the squad as its two postgrads, and for the time being, HomeGrown is no more.
“We always knew that model is not sustainable if we want to grow the program,” Pepper said on the phone in early October.
Compared to the last two years, Vail’s top-tier nordic team has downsized, and SSCV’s emphasis has shifted to local junior programming. In the grand scheme of things, developing younger skiers is what will make its program thrive, Pepper said.
“We had talked to a number of potential people in the spring and what we really decided was we wanted to stay with who we had and not expand upon that this year,” he said. “Last year was obviously a really big push with Sylvan, being away from junior programing and athletes and families here, and with him not being in the mix anymore, and with Noah really needing minimal support from us, and Tad kind of coming back and seeing where he’s going to be at, it didn’t seem like there was a need for us to really pursue it this year.”
A year-round world traveler, Hoffman stops by Vail a few times each year when he can — most recently working out with the SSCV juniors and Summit Nordic Ski Club earlier this week. Like Elliott, Hoffman also works with personal coach Zach Caldwell.
Pepper has been Team HomeGrown’s coach for the last two seasons; Weiland, the longtime nordic program director at SSCV, coached the first two years before that.
Ellefson said Weiland, Pepper and assistant coach Lenka Sterling essentially waived all coaching fees and worked pro bono for HomeGrown from the beginning.
“I think they saw the potential of being coaches for what had the potential to be one of the best clubs in the nations, which I believe, to a degree we were one of the most competitive clubs, at a least in the men’s division,” Ellefson added. “They had full coaching schedules with the development team, high-school team and club team, so for Eric and Dan to even come out to our training sessions in the summer every single day was pretty instrumental.”
When HomeGrown started in 2009, it was “basically unfunded” for the first year, Ellefson said. The five original team members scraped money together — from savings, their parents and personal sponsors — to self fund.
The next year was better. The Rocky Mountain Nordic Angel nonprofit, which preceded HomeGrown, continued to supplement the team, and SSCV extended its support. The club initially let HomeGrown use its facilities, and by the next year, it granted its two athletes — Ellefson and Gorbold — access to additional training facilities and blew manmade snow for them in November. In 2011, Hoffman and Elliott came onboard to extend HomeGrown’s appeal to broader Colorado.
“To grow the culture in nordic skiing is way bigger than just trying to keep growing team HomeGrown,” Ellefson said. “If you grow the culture, I think the team will grow.”
“To grow the culture in nordic skiing is way bigger than just trying to keep growing team HomeGrown.” — Sylvan Ellefson, one of Team HomeGrown’s founders and SSCV Nordic Future Stars Head Coach
That’s why he wasn’t disappointed to see the name go. Above all, he wanted to see a team that enticed athletes after high school or college to pursue a professional career in ski racing.
“We are also moving more into how to fund these athletes better, and that we can do with the growth of the sport as a whole in the United States,” explained Ellefson, now a part-time coach for SSCV’s nordic future stars program (responsible for 40 to 60 kids ages 6 to 11) and vice president of sales and marketing at Cirque Mountain Apparel.
“To this point we had all athletes that grew up in Colorado,” Pepper said of HomeGrown’s recruiting pool. “Most of the kids that came to us this year were ones we had an interest in and relationship with, but they weren’t Colorado kids.”
That’s where SSCV had to make a decision. Ultimately, it resolved to focus on developing Colorado juniors rather than open HomeGrown to top skiers across the U.S., like several other elite teams do.
Ten years ago, Pepper estimated SSCV had 10 total athletes.
“Five years ago, it probably had 25 kids and now this year, it’ll probably be close to 80 with all our age groups,” he said. “[We’re] trying to establish a culture and improve trails … We have a ski academy now.”
The Vail Ski & Snowboard Academy, a public school for grades 5 through 12, was founded in 2007 and has nordic, alpine, snowboard, freeski, and freestyle teams as well as NCAA college programs, with seven kilometers of cross-country trails right outside its doors.
This year, Vail’s two postgrads are from the area and decided to take a year off college. Hardenbergh deferred from Harvard, and Bobb grew up racing for the Summit County Nordic Club. Both are coming back from injury, Pepper said.
“Its unfortunate when a racer post-grads in the U.S., it seems to be the feeling of World Juniors or bust,” he said. “We’re de-emphasizing it a bit … trying to give them more experiences, like a [SuperTour in] Bozeman. Their schedule isn’t that different domestically than a top-level junior, with western early season races, nationals, local races, [and] junior nationals … then [we’ll] look at opportunities.”
SSCV did not go to Spring Series last year in Anchorage, opting for French and Swiss nationals (for the same price of a plane ticket to Alaska) instead. This season, Pepper predicted they’ll have a similar option for postgrads and seniors, depending how each athlete is doing.
2015 SuperTour Finals in Sun Valley, Idaho, is a much more feasible trip from Colorado, “but Europe’s pretty appealing, too,” he said.
Former postgrads Shanley and Scrimgeour are now entering their sophomore years skiing for Denver University and the University of Colorado-Boulder, respectively.
And in terms of Vail’s male-to-female ratio: “We probably have more females than males, which is an interesting flip,” Pepper said, alluding to HomeGrown’s all-male status for the last four years. “In our U16 and older program, we have more females, but it’s pretty close to 50/50. In our older guys’ program, that was mostly coincidence.”
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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.