In the summer of 2013, Bend Endurance Academy (BEA) Executive Director Ben Husaby made what some may have considered a strange company purchase. The two-time Olympic cross-country skier bought an old yellow school bus, painted a pale-blue stripe lengthwise down its side and inscribed the organization’s moniker where an educational institution name once was.
Why? Was he planning to shuttle BEA student-athletes to and from school during his spare time?
Not quite. When Husaby founded the nonprofit organization in Bend, Ore., in 2009 alongside Brenna and Bill Warburton, he and BEA advocated for the affordability and accessibility of sport to kids. The addition of a bus to the organization created a means of free transport and the potential to incorporate youth who might otherwise miss out. In the summer, the bus would run daily, with BEA athletes boarding from various pickup spots and being transported at no extra cost to practice venues. In the winter, bus pickups and drop-offs would move to three times a week.
It largely symbolized what he and BEA wanted to do: get a greater number of kids outside and active, without breaking the bank.
“We have figured out how to run the organization through program fees, and our program fees are on par with [Bend] Parks and Rec,” Husaby recently said on the phone. “Even though [BEA] is nonprofit and we have a board of directors, we try really hard not to fundraise … the entire organization is really pushed by program revenue. I think people appreciate that.”
While Husaby didn’t drive the oversized, yellow-and-blue streaked bus — he left that to retired school-bus driver Steve Delery — he valued providing a greater number of families with the option to participate in BEA’s programs. The bus was just one physical example.
The mission of BEA is another. With the primary goal of providing its members a resource in “teamwork, personal growth and community responsibility,” Husaby hoped the program he created eight years ago would attract an audience beyond just the superstar athlete.
In keeping with this model, the organization has grown from 20 youngsters in its startup years to just under 1,000 unique enrollments this year. Husaby attributed this participant surge to the affordability and accessibility BEA promotes.
“We’re not performance driven,” Husaby said. “It allows for a horizontal platform. All kids need to spend more time outside. All kids need to put their screens down. All kids need to have interactions with quality mentors and you can do all of those things without necessarily being competition focused.
“It’s not a top-down organization,” the 51-year-old Minnesota native continued. “It’s mostly about teaching kids to enjoy endurance sports and that message has worked all the way through.”
Even if Husaby prefers the Academy to remain less performance driven than other clubs, its program still puts out national-caliber athletes. In the realm of nordic skiing, Dakota Blackhorse-von Jess is one of them.
For close to 17 years, Blackhorse-von Jess and Husaby have worked together, originally while Husaby was still a coach for the Mt. Bachelor Sports Education Foundation (MBSEF) in the early 2000s — he was let go from MBSEF in December 2008 and started BEA the following month.
Prior to that, skiing came in the form of racing for Husaby. After moving to Bend in 1991, he qualified for two Olympics — 1992 and 1994 — and tried one final time in 1998 before focusing on marathon racing, including the American Birkebeiner, for the next two years.
“I was working for a friend in an automotive restoration shop when that fall [of 2000] the director of MBSEF contacted me asking if I wanted to coach the nordic program,” Husaby said of his start in coaching.
Husaby accepted the position, and while sitting in his office one afternoon, he met a visitor that ultimately influenced the rest of his coaching career. A stocky high schooler entered his room, voicing goal that made Husaby’s eyebrows go up.
“[Blackhorse-von Jess] walked in and said, ‘I want to win Junior Nationals,’ ” Husaby recalled. “I sort of laughed because he was kind of a pudgy little kid … I mean I didn’t even know who he was. But I said, ‘OK,’ kind of laughing, and ironically, two years later, he was at World Juniors.”
The two went to World Juniors in 2006, before Blackhorse-von Jess headed east to attend Dartmouth College for four years, earning a degree in computer science. Upon returning to Bend in 2011, Blackhorse-von Jess rejoined Husaby and BEA. He earned a job as the organization’s associate director, a position in which he was responsible for bookkeeping, building the enrollment system and managing the program’s website.
However, as Husaby admitted, being Blackhorse-von Jess’s boss and coach proved to be difficult. Blackhorse-von Jess had an intense training schedule, but the work he needed to complete for BEA was equally important. Husaby was caught in the delicate position of understanding his employee’s outside stressors and their significance while also being charged with overseeing Blackhorse-von Jess’s salaried work.
Though not the singular reason, this is one point Husaby brought up as he discussed his recent decision to leave his post as executive director. Though he will continue to coach Blackhorse-von Jess through this Olympic season, he plans to leave BEA by Sept. 1 of this year.
“I think me leaving is actually going to make [Dakota’s] ski career a little bit easier as he winds it down,” Husaby said.
According to the 31-year-old Blackhorse-von Jess, this will most likely be his final competitive season and he hopes to end with a bang by qualifying for the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.
“I’m looking forward to doing something different this season,” Blackhorse-von Jess said earlier this week on the phone. “I mean, I know in many ways what we do this year is the same, but it’s our last year and it’ll be, farewell tour isn’t the best way to put that, but I think there is something special and different about it. I’m just excited to see what it holds.”
Though Husaby considers BEA his “phoenix”, he departs the head position with a sense of respect for what’s been accomplished and an excitement to spend the final months of his ski career back on the ground doing what he loves most: coaching.
“I’ve already noticed that for me, it’s going to be a lot easier to coach [Dakota] if I’m not his boss any longer,” Husaby said.
“I think the organization is ready for a manager that perhaps doesn’t have as personal of a connection as I do to Bernie [Nelson, BEA’s nordic director], Dakota, Bill [Warburton, cycling director] and Mike [Rougeux, climbing director],” he continued. “I’m leaving now because I’ve been either an athlete, or a coach, or a leader, or a supporter for 30-some years and it’s just time … it’s taken a lot to build this organization and I really honestly believe that I’ve taken it as far as I can.”
The organization is certainly a far cry from the volunteer-run, single-sport (nordic skiing) nonprofit it was in the beginning. Since its inception, cycling and climbing programs have been added to the academy, 45 seasonal, as well as two more full-time employees added to the original staff of three, and program participation has reached capacity.
“It’s big now and it needs someone that perhaps has a little more experience with growing the organization fiscally,” Husaby said. “We’re kind of through the whole founders’ phase. We were a scrappy, scrappy startup, and I was comfortable leading that, I think I just reached my capacity with the organization.”
Husaby will continue to aid BEA with coaching and moving into a new leased facility through the summer. Though no particular candidate has been singled out as of yet, the BEA’s Board of Directors is looking for someone who supports Husaby’s original mission and vision for youth.
“The biggest contribution Ben gave is defining a culture of the organization that is really long-lasting,” BEA Board President Cris Himes said on the phone. “What Ben has really done for BEA is to emphasize fun and joy and getting outside for kids at all levels, making it fun for them and helping them find their intrinsic drive.
“Really that’s been his number one contribution and that’s not going to go away,” she continued. “We are all expressing gratitude to Ben for what he has given this community and organization. It’s quite a legacy and a gift.”
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.