In late March, Ruff Patterson, 61, announced he was stepping down as head coach of the men’s nordic team at Dartmouth. This is a story of his impact and legacy as a coach, first as a U.S. Ski Team assistant and later at Dartmouth in Hanover, N.H.
“There were no non-heroes out there today.” — Ruff Patterson, after a four-hour rainy run with the Dartmouth men’s nordic team, circa 2007
Twenty-seven years ago, a group of men convened in the basement of Robinson Hall, home of the Dartmouth Big Green ski team. Veteran faces intermingled with those of eager newcomers — including the likes of current U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover.
Wisecracks and an accompanying chorus of chortles percolated amongst those assembled, drifting up into the stairwell. A few shuffled their feet as they awaited their coach’s arrival for the first fall practice of the ski season.
However, the figure that eventually greeted the gang beneath the building’s floorboards was not that of John Morton — the coach who recruited Grover the prior spring and whom Grover expected to work with during his four years of undergraduate study at Dartmouth.
That autumn afternoon, September 1989, the individual who approached the group was as novel to the Dartmouth ski team as any of Grover’s fellow freshman teammates. With time, however, he would become synonymous with the school’s ski program.
“This was all happening pre-internet, pre-email, pre-mobile telephones,” Grover on the phone of his recruiting process to Dartmouth. “There was never any sort of news release or anything that went from Hanover to where I grew up in Anchorage, that would’ve said, ‘Hey, by the way, John Morton quit and there’s a new coach named Ruff Patterson and he’s going to be taking that coaching place.’ So here I was that following September, expecting to see John Morton show up for practice, when Ruff Patterson rolls in … That was an interesting transition. We were all getting to know somebody new on the first day.”
The Patterson Siblings, Sun Valley and the USST
“You gotta love it!” — Ruff Patterson on skiing, racing and training with the Dartmouth men’s nordic ski team, circa 2013
Situated nearly 6,000 feet above sea level, the city of Sun Valley, Idaho, holds a unique history as one of the first destination ski resort areas in America. Famed names such as Dick Durrance, Ernest Hemingway and Picabo Street have carved the region’s mountainside slopes and the locals’ love for skiing, particularly alpine, goes almost unparalleled.
This held especially true for Susie, Pete, Barbie and Matt Patterson, Ruff Patterson’s four younger siblings. Surrounded by Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountain Range, and with support from their parents Joannie and Jim Patterson, all five developed a deep devotion to skiing. To many in the community, they became known as Sun Valley’s “First Family” of skiing.
In a way, however, Ruff was the ‘black sheep’ of the household. Susie became a two-time national champion alpine skier, Pete qualified for the Winter Olympics in downhill skiing twice, and both Barbie and Matt established themselves as adept alpine skiers. Meanwhile, Ruff chose a slightly different ski path than his siblings. He chose cross-country.
“[In] high school, I had a brother and sister who were both traveling, very young, for the national alpine team and I was kind of the guy in the background helping them get through school and fixing skis and stuff like that,” Ruff said in a phone interview in April, shortly after he announced his retirement from Dartmouth. “Contact with people, having to deal with traveling and and competing started really young for me, but [ski coaching] was not something I planned on doing after college.”
As a student enrolled at the University of Colorado Boulder (CU), Ruff originally intended to become a doctor. He placed himself on the pre-med track and graduated with a degree distributed in the fields of biology, chemistry and psychology. Ruff also competed for the Buffs’ ski team. During his undergraduate years, CU won four NCAA Championship titles — though in his senior year the title, ironically, ended in a two-way tie with Dartmouth.
Despite his initial plan, post-grad life did not leave Ruff pouring over MCAT entrance exams or medical-school applications. Instead, he found himself back in his beloved hometown, ski coaching with Rob Kiesel, the founder of the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF) nordic program.
The first few years of coaching for Ruff were far from glamorous. He spent most of his time supporting the SVSEF junior racing team and acting as a professional porter and nordic roadie for the U.S. Ski Team (USST).
“Rob hired me as the national team coach, and you know when you start out, you’re carrying a lot of ski bags and traveling a lot,” Ruff said. “Those first years I was traveling internationally with the team and just doing a lot of the groundwork. I don’t think a lot of the groundwork has changed for those poor guys. They earn every cent.”
Kiesel, the man who hired Ruff, influenced Ruff’s path into coaching. As Ruff put it, Kiesel was more than just a family friend. Kiesel was Patteron’s role model and mentor.
“I wouldn’t be coaching today, nor begun coaching if it weren’t for Rob,” Ruff previously wrote in an email after Kiesel passed away in 2011. “Both my sister Susie and brother Pete wouldn’t have had the Alpine skiing careers they had if it weren’t for Rob. My brother Pete wouldn’t be guiding in Greenland or Nepal if it weren’t for Rob. More importantly, Rob was an integral part of our family.”
As Patterson’s grip on the nordic race world grew, he began to move up in position and expertise. For 10 years, he worked for the USST, a better part of those alongside Mike Gallagher. While co-coaching with Gallagher, Ruff assumed the role of “primary assistant” coach to the USST, often working with the women.
“[Mike Gallagher] and I would worked really closely together and I was sort of his primary assistant as the year grew on,” Ruff said. “When we’d split up, I would end up taking the women and there were a few years where I was actually labeled the women’s coach. But for the most part, he and I were more of a team and I was more of his assistant during my primary coaching year.”
Ruff’s stint with the USST brought him to the Olympics, alongside Kiesel at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y., and with Gallagher at the 1984 and 1988 Games in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia and Calgary, Alberta, respectively. He mentioned working alongside U.S. Ski Team coaches Torbjørn Karlsen and Peter Ashley as major influencers in his career as well.
His work for the USST helped women like current Methow Valley Nordic Team head coach, Leslie Hall –the sister of Patterson’s future Dartmouth College co-coach, Cami Thompson-Graves — to the Olympics.
“He was one of the main coaches at the 1988 Olympics, my first Olympic experience and the main memories that stick with me are his smile, laugh and bad jokes!” Hall wrote in an email. “My relationship with Ruff has evolved so much over time, from being an admiring junior who wanted his attention and help, to being a friend on mountain biking trips to Moab, to being the sister of his co-coach at Dartmouth.”
He also helped current Middlebury College assistant coach and University of New Hampshire alum Patty Ross, and Bates College alum Nancy Fiddler to Olympic levels of racing.
“Ruff was always there with a joke or someway to diffuse a tense situation,” Fiddler said on the phone. “Everybody gets so caught up in [skiing] and if you were feeling kind of involved in a way that wasn’t healthy, he just brought you back and reminded you that, ‘Hey it’s ski racing it’s supposed to be fun, and if you’re not having fun, what the hell are we doing.”
Changes To Hold Onto: Skating and the Mental Breakthrough
“Weight shift, weight shift, that’s the key.” — Ruff Patterson during a skating technique workout with the Dartmouth men’s nordic ski team, circa 1989
Little did Bill Koch know that when he entered Sweden’s 1980 Worldloppet marathon, he would rock the ski world forever. During that winter’s fated 50-kilometer ski race, Koch witnessed what has since become a staple in cross country skiing: the skating technique.
After Koch began to implement skate skiing into his own national and international races, the sport changed forever — a change Patterson perceived first-hand.
“I was incredibly fortunate to live through the skating revolution,” Patterson said. “To see the live world change, everybody else’s world change and how people react to that, that whole thing was, man, something to live through.”
“You can sort of compare it to — right now there’s this big double poling thing,” he added. “Skating was very much the same thing. It was a complete unknown. So for everybody, including sports staff like myself, it was like, ‘What’s going to happen here?’ ”
What happened was rattling to some and rectifying for others. Patterson pointed out that he saw many attempt to prevent the change, but the skating technique, ultimately was here to stay.
“You know, they were trying to do everything possible to make it less possible to skate,” Patterson said. “A lot of the controls they tried were almost laughable now.”
As Patterson sees it, there are certain circumstances when evolution of the sport is inevitable. Occasionally, adaptation outweighs resistance.
“What I’ve discovered during those periods is … if you’re here to play the game, you have to figure out a way to go with it,” he said.
Skating and double poling aren’t the only areas Patterson says he has seen development in skiing. To Patterson, the mentality of American ski racers is what has changed the most. Especially for the U.S. women.
“When Kikkan [Randall] opened the door, the barrier, for Americans to do well in Europe, I think the whole mental game changed,” Patterson said. “I’m hoping that this mindset moves into the boys’ group [in the U.S.], that mentality of just, ‘Hey, we can compete and win against the big boys and the big girls.’ That’s probably one of the most significant changes I’ve seen since I’ve started coaching.”
Dartmouth Dudes and Loving What You Do
“Boys, I want medals!!” — Patterson to the Dartmouth men’s nordic ski team, circa 2012
Freezing rain. Mosquitoes. Heavy, humid heat. The Northeast Coast makes many westerners go weak in the knees. Patterson was one of them. Located in the heart of Hanover, N.H., a move to Dartmouth promised Patterson the very bipolar weather, bug bites,and Vitamin-D deficiency he dreaded the most.
“When I first took the job I was a western guy and I thought, if I lasted three or four years I’m going to be lucky,” Patterson said. “I was terrified of bugs and humidity and once I got here the bugs and humidity were terrible, but then I realized that the road biking and other stuff in the East were just incredibly great. But I never planned on being here as long as I did.”
Patterson’s original estimated three-to-four-year window turned into seven, soon 11, and eventually 27. Overcoming his fear for East Coast climate was only part of it. His deepening devotion to the Dartmouth men’s team also drew him to stay.
“I just kept saying over and over again ‘I love what I do,’” he said. “Just absolutely love what I do and I just felt that it stayed like that all the way through.”
Patterson’s philosophy to love what you do and see it through transferred to his athletes. During his 27 years at Dartmouth, he coached three men to individual NCAA Championship titles — Glen Randall in 2008, Sam Tarling in 2011, and Patrick Caldwell in 2015 — and he also helped Dartmouth to an NCAA team title in 2007, with All-American athletes Mike Sinnott and Ben True.
“When I came in as a freshman, I was very hesitant to fully buy into his philosophy of training,” Tarling, a 2013 grad, wrote in an email. “After my first year working with Ruff, our relationship strengthened and I decided to stay in Hanover for the summer and work with him. I discovered that some of the silly things we did in training had the most influence on my performance, and that what seemed like random workouts and drills had a purpose. I ended up staying every summer after that to work with Ruff.”
Tarling was not the only athlete who at times questioned some of Patterson’s practices. Both Grover and Carl Swenson, a 1992 graduate and three-time Olympian, recalled recovery runs with Patterson as conclusively easy, in spite of athletes’ attempts to do otherwise. Patterson wanted his skiers to be fast when they needed to be and to step back and enjoy training the rest of the time.
“We’d go out for a ‘Ruff Waddle’ recovery run,” Swenson said. “Ruff would make us run behind him. It was to teach us to go easy … because all we wanted to do was race every workout.
“He was just the right coach at the right time for me,” Swenson added. “He kept me at it, really. I think it’s a period where a lot of people get interested in other things and, as everybody knows it takes some time to develop as a distance athlete, and he really kept me on track as best as anybody could have in a period when I was not on track by any means.”
Gaining credence with athletes like Tarling and Swenson and witnessing their progress, for Patterson, was another piece of what made college coaching worthwhile.
“Winning over athletes and gaining their trust, I can’t tell you the rewards behind something like that,” Patterson said. “That’s just another piece of this overall puzzle, but sort of everything. Once again, it’s the people and stories behind them that have made it for me.”
Though Tarling, who is now working as a software engineer in Denver, Colo., indicated he’s “happily enjoying being a recreational athlete for a change,” he still feels indebted to Patterson for all that he’s helped him achieve.
“Our relationship began with many conversations about how we could best work together to help me achieve my goals in ski racing, but progressed to the point where Ruff was much more than my ski coach,” Tarling wrote. “He was – and is still – my mentor, my confidant, my hero, my friend.”
Patterson was much more than a coach to many of his athletes. He was a pillar, the adviser and ally searched for not only on the trails, but off them as well. He did not force his athletes to grow. He fostered them to take the steps on their own. As numerous athletes indicated, his door was always open to whoever happened his way.
“Ruff impacted my life on so many different levels beyond skiing,” Patrick O’Brien, current head coach for Stratton Mountain School T2 Team and 2010 graduate, wrote in an email. “He wanted you to grow as an athlete and an individual. He was always there for support when you needed him but understood many decisions or choices had to be yours alone to make. He asked for, and brought out the best people had to offer.”
Patterson did bring out the best people had to offer, but in ways beyond just results. He saw value in every athlete, carnival circuit caliber ski racer or not.
“The guy who never makes it, the ones who just make these incredible strides … the really talented guys,” Patterson said, “All athletes are rewarding.”
Patterson’s ability to work with athletes of all kinds, stems from his coaching style. Passionate, patient, perceptive, he held the unique capacity to turn the complexities of cross country skiing into common sense.
“Ruff has that elusive quality you see only in the very best of coaches — he makes skiing seem simple,” Packer, who graduated in 2012 and is now racing for Alaska Pacific University (APU), wrote in an email. “He has the ability to use just a single suggestion to make really dramatic improvements in your skiing.
“Hand in hand with that, Ruff really believes in the importance of building a quality training group, and holds that at the core of his coaching philosophy,” Packer added. “You learn from the group, push the group, and rely on the group. In an atmosphere like that, when everyone is working together, pushing each other in a competitive but also fun atmosphere, everyone improves.”
Humor and having fun was also a training philosophy greatly prized by Patterson.
“I call them the kids.The gang. The team. I’ve been so lucky to be able to work with these guys. Even the ones that have been nightmares, looking back that’s what’s kept me here. The people, for sure.” — Patterson on his 27 years as the Dartmouth men’s nordic head coach
“One of my favorite memories started about midway through my time at school when he would finish every pre-race meeting with a story from his previous coaching experiences,” O’Brien wrote. “All would have you rolling over laughing and reminding you that although the sport may change over the years, the spirit of it never did. It made you feel connected the people who have come before you, understanding the challenges they faced were the same as the ones in front of you now.”
However, Patterson’s impact on the nordic community cannot be pinned solely to skiers he worked with directly. As Sinnott pointed out, numerous of individuals have been influenced by the former Dartmouth head coach, whether he realizes or not.
In two words or less…
“A Mentor” — Thompson-Graves
“Unassuming” –– Tarling
“Wise” — Tarling
“Passionate” — O’Brien
“Remarkable” — Sinnott
“Solid” — Grover
“Supportive” — Grover
“An Icon” — Packer
“You go through his office and he’s got handwritten thank you notes from John Nystad from when John Nystad was skiing for UVM [University of Vermont],” Sinnott said on the phone. “Ruff had these powerful impacts on skiers that he wasn’t even mentoring or that weren’t in his program.”
With the women too, Patterson was — and still is — a hit.
“Ruff used to get more Valentine’s Day cards than anyone else on the team,” Sinnott reflected, referring to the Dartmouth Carnival tradition of ‘Carni Crush.’ “Everyone on the circuit felt the warmth and the magnitude of Ruff. And that’s the cool thing. It’s not just the people that are obvious on a piece of paper, but it’s everyone else that might have glossed by him.”
While many of Patterson’s athletes cite him as the reason they are where they are today, Patterson is adamant that his athletes are the ones who’ve kept him in the game.
“I call them the kids,” Patterson said. “The gang. The team. I’ve been so lucky to be able to work with these guys. Even the ones that have been nightmares, looking back that’s what’s kept me here. The people. For sure.”
Dartmouth’s Dynamic Duo: Patterson and Cami Thompson-Graves
“Are we having fun yet?” — Patterson to the Dartmouth men’s nordic ski team, circa 2010
Bonnie and Clyde. Ernie and Bert. Starsky and Hutch. Cami and Ruff. While not many modern day duos find themselves in competition with the infamy of the previous pairs, Cami Thompson-Graves and Patterson are two that do.
In a coaching partnership that’s lasted longer than some marriages, the two have carried each other through the numerous highs and lows of coaching a Division I college ski program.
“We’ve been together longer than most people have been married,” Patterson said. “We’ve definitely had our ups and downs, but because of it, the two of us have become incredibly close.”
Though the two admit they’ve spat like siblings at times, they also agree that what they have gained out of their 27 years together is irreplaceable.
“She’d be the first one to tell you, it’s not like it was all wine and roses the whole time,” Patterson said. “ It’s just we’ve been through a lot together.”
The two have also supported each other — and their teams — through the loss of Dartmouth athlete, teammate and friend, Torin Tucker. Tucker, who died of a heart anomaly while competing at the Craftsbury Marathon two years ago, was also from Sun Valley and described by many as having a similarly contagious smile.
A rare verve to come across, no loss the magnitude of Tucker’s is easy. For Patterson, learning to live in the memories and moments of Tucker as the epic adventuring, intellectually curious and compassionate mountain town-er he was, no matter the time it took to get there, helped he and the Dartmouth community move forward with Tucker in their hearts.
“There’s no way you can tell somebody to get over stuff,” Patterson said. “You just have to deal one day at a time, one minute at a time.”
The support and history between Thompson-Graves and Patterson, therefore, goes far beyond just van rides, wax benches, and debates over who’s who.
“We had some great moments, talked about skiing endlessly and also fought and bickered like siblings at times,” Thompson-Graves wrote in an email. “But, along the way, there were many fun race days where we worked hard, shared our nerves, and when things had to come together, they did!”
More than anything during their time together, Thompson-Graves was a firsthand witness to the dedication Patterson put towards his athletes and coaching.
“Ruff loved his guys, they meant everything to him,” Thompson-Graves wrote. “He was there, day in and day out and knew them all well. Some of them might have driven him crazy but, even with the frustrations, he loved the times when it all came together for them.”
All in all, it takes a special circumstance for two individuals to work together toward a common goal for that length of time.
“When you sum it up, I wouldn’t have traded that for anything,” Patterson said. “Because being able to figure out a way for two quite different people to work together and do as well as we have done together … boy, that doesn’t happen very often in life.”
“Don’t overthink it.” –Ruff Patterson to the Dartmouth men’s nordic ski team, circa 2006.
Forty years ago, Patterson — clad in a black graduation cap and gown — strolled across the CU stage to receive his diploma. Like many of the student athletes he would eventually coach, he had post-college plans that would inevitably change, a passionate fervor for cross country skiing, and an anything but linear trajectory ahead.
Forty years later, with his final cohort of college senior skiers before him, not much has changed. As Patterson departs Dartmouth, there is a piece of him that feels as if he is once again striding across the graduation stage, leaving school behind to discover what’s next.
“It wasn’t until the day before I resigned that I actually knew I was going to do it,” Patterson said. “I didn’t sleep that night, I can tell you that much.”
“It sort of feels like I jumped off a cliff doing this,” Patterson said of his resignation. “I was in a little bit of a shock for a few days, but I’m going to sell my place here, pack up a U-Haul and return west, which I’ve been wanting to do forever. And then stir the pot up a little bit and try to find something else to do. I have no idea what that’s going to be. I feel like a college kid again.”
Even if Patterson is now physically distanced from Dartmouth — he headed west last week Tuesday — his legendary role and presence is not. His impact extends beyond Dartmouth, into the lives of past, present and future mentees — some of which he will never meet in person. Many he will have infiltrated with his coaching philosophy alone.
“Ruff was really responsible for creating that atmosphere with the [Dartmouth men’s] team, in terms of camaraderie he created in the group,” Grover said. “And certainly, as you know, that’s a big thing for us these days with the USST. The team and the athletes are quite successful on an individual basis because we tend to try to build a family atmosphere around the team. Ruff really did the same.”
Patterson’s stamp survives in the USST, the skiers who are now software engineers, lawyers, coaches, writers and more.
“You know, I came into a great group early on,” Patterson said of his first few years coaching at Dartmouth. “It took a while to establish my own style. It doesn’t mean that the style that Mortie [John Morton] had way back when was, there’s no way you could say it was bad or good … I absolutely know that the next person that’s going to come in in my place is going to be exactly the same; have their own style … I got to put my stamp on things and the next person here is going to put their stamp on things.”
Semi-uncertain of what his future holds beyond bike trails, mountain towns, and some RV roaming, Patterson is certain that Dartmouth has green grass ahead and he, a wanderlust for western blue skies.
“I know they’ll find somebody good,” Patterson had said of prospective coaches for the Dartmouth head coaching position, prior to the hiring of Brayton Osgood in May. “And I know that the school will always support skiing … My personal opinion is that they’re going to just keep going and there’s nothing wrong with that … Field of dreams.”
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Gabby Naranja considers herself a true Mainer, having grown up in the northern most part of the state playing hockey and roofing houses with her five brothers. She graduated from Bates College where she ran cross-country, track, and nordic skied. She spent this past winter in Europe and is currently in Montana enjoying all that the U.S. northwest has to offer.