Like most other states, a cross section of athletes racing in the Colorado High School circuit (CHSAA) looks relatively homogenous when it comes to ethnicity. The field is largely white. However, in stark contrast to skiers hailing from affluent mountain towns like Steamboat Springs, Aspen, and Vail, a team from Denver might catch your eye for adding some color. Most of the Ridge View Academy Rams, all male, are Black or Latino, and line up amidst athletes with NCAA or even Olympic aspirations during their first ever season on snow.
“Our guys are like deer in the headlights [at the first few races],” said head coach Greg Townsend, recalling one such day at an interval start classic race in Vail in roughly 2007.
“One of our better skiers was lined up right behind a young Noah [Hoffman] — and Noah is warming up looking like a bunny rabbit: jumping up and down on his skis, and bounding, and doing all this stuff. Two or three of our kids are staring at him like, ‘Holy crap! I don’t do it that way.'”
The athlete came to Townsend feeling terrified to race against Hoffman, wondering what he should do. Townsend encouraged him to follow along with Hoffman’s routine and to remember what the goal is.
“It’s a ski race. Just do your best, go have fun with it.”
Townsend watched his athlete buck up the courage to head back to the start area. As Hoffman slapped his skis in the tracks to keep his wax from freezing, the Ridge View racer slapped his skis. As Hoffman flexed and stretched, so did the athlete from Ridge View.
“And then he got dusted — I think Noah won the race. But our kid came in with a big smile on his face and I asked how it went and he said, ‘It was fun. I think I did alright.'”
To provide further insight, Ridge View Academy, a Right of Passage (ROP) program, is an alternative education charter school that works with court-involved and at-need young men. ROP offers a holistic, strength-based approach to education, treatment and counseling, which focuses on the individual’s positive qualities and skills, and shifts focus away from past transgressions and toward overcoming adversity. Social services are also offered to help improve the lives of the youth served.
In addition to classes to support kids in earning a GED, Ridge View Academy offers skills and trade based classes, and students can elect to follow a vocational tract to learn bicycle shop skills, culinary arts, barbering, metal working, and more. Extracurricular activities and sports also play an integral role.
At the helm of the cycling, mountain biking, and nordic ski programs at Ridge View is Greg Townsend, who has worked with ROP programs since 1984. FasterSkier spoke with Townsend in June to learn more about the Ridge View Academy program and how cross-country skiing plays a role in the educational and therapeutic model.
Townsend is the type of person you could listen to for hours, and it was immediately apparent how his mentorship and support could help countless young men find their way out of difficult situations.
Townsend’s circuitous path to ROP had a waypoint in Japan. After several years of bike racing, Townsend found his way to Japan where he worked as a paramedic at a ski resort. He was looking for a way to stay fit for cycling through the winter season and was eventually introduced to the head coach of the Japanese national nordic ski team, who agreed to teach him to classic ski. He described the experience as an “eyeopener” as he found himself needing to slowly master one skill at a time to earn the respect of the coach, calling it “the Japanese way.”
“I had to double pole for like three weeks straight before they taught me the next step, which was double pole with a kick,” he laughed.
After moving back to the United States, he began working with a California-Nevada based ROP program, leading groups of young men into the mountains on winter camping and telemark ski trips alongside the head coach who was a former Marines mountain warfare instructor. He called this type of travel and skill development “Mount Everest stuff.”
To get kids on skis more regularly, he proposed starting a nordic ski program, and cobbled together enough gear to start a team. When he moved to Denver in 2001 to help start Ridge View Academy, he brought the concept of a nordic team with him. He explained that the first season, because of a lack of equipment, the team completed almost all of their training on dry land. It was not until the day of the first race that the team actually got to ski on snow.
Although most of his kids were born and raised in Colorado, very few came from families with the financial means to provide a ski experience and many had never been out of their home town or city. Consequently, it was not only their first day on nordic skis, but their first day sliding on snow in any fashion. They arrived early and rented ski equipment the morning of the race, spent two hours practicing, then the kids lined up with everyone else.
The best compliment Townsend overheard was, “They’re not very good, but they don’t quit!”
As the years progressed, Townsend helped find equipment and opportunities to support his kids. As he also teaches metalworking classes, he fabricated a fleet of skate skis and slowly collected pairs of classic. Townsend helped locate used equipment and connected with donors and sponsors to find skis, and Ridge View partnered with the YMCA of the Rockies at Snow Mountain Ranch, exchanging community service for trail time. Now ROP student-athletes are able to complete roughly half their training on snow.
Apart from developing as a skier, Townsend explains that the true value of the program is the impact of providing the young men with access to the outdoors and aerobic exercise.
As a self-described “huge believer in experiential education”, he’s led countless long-distance bike trips, including 600 mile tours from campus to the Grand Canyon or even all the way cross country. Along the way, he watches kids work through physical exhaustion and emotional anguish, pedaling under the weight of personal history of being passed through foster care, criminal records, teen pregnancies, or abuse.
Townsend explained that there is research supporting the role aerobic exercise can play in creating changes in the brain that reduce the risk of depression or psychosis, which can lead kids to make negative choices or engage in self-harming behaviors.
“Skiing has somewhat of the same effect… A lot of brain change takes place with aerobic activity, and sustained aerobic activity has more impact than short term activities,” said Townsend.“You get to see that firsthand with kids. Kids that were pretty self-destructive or using type-A behaviors — it can pretty much go away. There’s a lot of permanent change that takes place in the brain with that type of activity.”
Apart from having the cycling and skiing skills to facilitate these experiences, Townsend is able to connect with the young men and help counsel them through their journey at Ridge View. Though he spoke humbly, he acknowledged that some of his success in this realm stems from his own history within the system, which has shaped his ability to listen to and understand the challenges of others.
“Everybody has a story, every one of our kids is different. I get to make an impact everyday. I was a troubled kid when I was younger, and my brother died in the system a couple years back — he never made changes, and I made changes when I was younger. I wouldn’t call it an affinity, but I have an understanding, so I can connect and have a relationship with someone that is struggling. I can’t say better than some, but that would be something that my wife would say.”
Seeing this impact and supporting kids to become successful adults is what has kept him with Right of Passage for over 36 years.
“You have to love the kids, love what you do everyday. For me, some of my best friends were kids that I coached. They have five kids and a family and they’re doing well. They’re not dead, they’re not on the streets, they’re doing well. One of our lawyers was a kid for us… You never know when you have an impact. When you’re good, it’s a chess game sometimes, and I’ve learned how to play a good game of chess, where I’m not always the one who is going to help the kid. But if you know who your chess pieces are and you can set up success for the kid and put all the people in the right place, then that can sometimes come to success.”
He explained that the philosophy he aims to pass onto teachers he helps develop at Ridge View follows an old Chinese proverb: “When the student is ready, the teacher is going to appear.”
Townsend explained that one cannot presume when a young man enters the program whether or not he is capable of making changes. He reminds staff not to fall into the trap of becoming “pessimistic, antagonistic, and detached.”
“Keep being the teacher,” Townsend added. “You’re not going to necessarily know when the student is listening to you… A lot of these kids have had a lot of pain, have a lot of pride, and a lot of stuff they’re protecting themselves with, and they have a hard time making relationships that they trust as far as adult relationships. They may never let you know that they trusted you and they listened to you… I see our job as building the wall strong enough that it can stand on its own. When they get out there in the real world and have these negative influences again and lots of people trying to pull them down, they’re going to have to be able to stand on their own.”
He continued by explaining that not all kids “make it” in terms of making lasting changes in their lives and finding a healthy path long term, but that a large percentage are successful, and those are the ones that keep him hopeful with each new case.
In terms of his coaching philosophy, Townsend’s primary goal is for the kids to enjoy the sport.
“I stress the fun factor — that’s the hook. Once kids get some balance on their skis and have their first downhill without crashing, they tend to start having fun with it… I had a really great cycling mentor who said, ‘This is too hard not to have fun at it. If you’re not having fun, try something else.'”
From there, he encourages the young men to identify how the skills they are honing by overcoming challenges in skiing might transfer into their everyday lives.
“Apply that from the perspective of building the individual… As I tell the kids, it’s not about skiing, it’s not about cycling. It’s a fun thing, but how many of us are going to do it professionally? But we can learn a lot of lessons from it, and apply those same lessons in everything else that we do. Yeah, we need to double pole 20 times around the track, or whatever, but if you finish that workout, you’re going to get stronger and mentally you’re going to be stronger. I think the guys that don’t quit start to catch onto that and start to see the benefit, and that’s the hook.”
His metric for a successful training session on skis? Naps and positive energy on the bus ride home.
“I always know I’ve done a good job when they’re all just passed out on the way back from Snow Mountain Ranch and they wake up in a positive headspace. The only beauty of driving four hours [roundtrip] to go train is they get to talk and we get to do school work and build relationships on the way there, then they get to nap on the way back, or you have these long two-hour talks on the way back from practice. One of the beauties of being able to drive for four hours a day with kids that need a lot of talking with is the drive.”
At this point, our conversation headed toward a question I felt some trepidation about asking. I’ve never coached an athlete of color, nor have I trained alongside one. While I’ve typically had great kids, the exclusive private and public schools I’ve taught and coached for are filled with kids who have grown up with a significant amount of privilege. Heck, we race in Aspen Colorado through a neighborhood of homes that are each worth millions of dollars, [Currently, an empty lot is for sale for $3.9 million, and an estate is listed at $14.9 million.] while some of his kids’ entire multigenerational families live in an apartment the size of a one car garage.
How does this make a young man who is a person of color and has faced an incredibly challenging set of obstacles throughout his life feel? Is there bitterness? Anger? Envy?
On the contrary, Townsend explained that rather than looking around at others feeling spiteful, primarily his kids are just self-conscious that everyone else is looking at them.
“And I’m like, ‘So what?’ It’s a race, and everyone is looking at everyone else.”
He explained that the people they do encounter who may look down on the team or seem concerned about their participation typically don’t understand the variety of circumstances that have led the young man to the program. His kids might be “receivers” of broken families or hard situations that they weren’t able to process at a young age.
“Kids come from varied backgrounds and histories. We have kids where mom and dad were meth heads or sold meth, and the kids were taken out of their homes. They never did a crime in their life, but they’re part of the system. Then we have the other extreme where we may have a different level of kid that was a gang kid. To put a rubber stamp that all the kids are the same that we work with doesn’t do justice to the kids.
“People look at our kids from a couple of different lenses: a resource lens, a villain lens, and a victim lens. Some of these kids are going to be lawyers someday, or doctors, or firemen, or business owners… The way that they’re going to change is by looking at them like they’re a resource. I see these kids as a diamond in the rough. You see this dirty little rock on the ground, and if you just walk by it or kick it, you don’t realize that it’s a precious diamond — you just have to have the right cutter to expose the diamond under the dirty little rock. Our kids have the same ability, not necessarily the same choices, but they do have the same ability as anyone else, they just have to believe it themselves.”
Overall, Townsend concluded that his team has been well received and supported by other teams, and although his kids sometimes feel self-conscious about their skiing ability or how different they are from other competitors, racing in the CHSAA league has been a positive experience.
“Underdog is probably a standard. I always have a new team every year, and I enjoy the hell out of it. Once in a while, we have a phenom kid. Once we placed fourth in the state, and we had four guys in the top-10 at a race once.”
He explained that this anomaly took place on the Rams’ home course in Snow Mountain Ranch where kids felt comfortable enough to “let loose and go hard.”
That is not to say he has never coached a standout. He shared that one of his racers, Maxwell Burnell, was one of the fastest CHSSL skiers in Colorado and was able to earn a scholarship to Vail Ski & Snowboard Academy (VSSA) to further develop as an athlete. Burnell was also an accomplished Cat 1-2 cyclist.
“He was probably our biggest success story in terms of his ability to take the sport and run with it. He had a lot of fun skiing and ski racing.”
Townsend became emotional as he added that most importantly, Burnell was able to transform his life. He followed an upward trajectory to Ridge View Academy from a mental health hospital, then to VSSA, and on to compete at the top level of domestic cycling, racing shoulder-to-shoulder with men who went on to make the national team.
He concluded that each year, his goal is simply to develop whatever group of athletes join the team to become as holistically strong as possible at the end of the season.
“What are you going to take from the season? Our guys learn how not to quit. And I take pride if we get through the season and not one of my kids quits a race — they had a good season from that standpoint.”
From that objective, he added that the advantage of going out more to enjoy themselves rather than to focus on performance is that their conversations can revolve primarily around learning a new lifestyle.
“The goal is to enjoy life and learn some lessons. Teamwork is huge, getting along and building a family where these kids support each other is huge. Kids that are from opposite sides of the tracks — one’s from the south and one’s from the north and they’re in different gangs. At the end of the season, sometimes they’re best friends.”
Townsend concluded that overall, the nordic community has been welcoming and gracious toward his kids, and most importantly, have just treated them like kids. Racing hard at altitude ironically levels the playing field. His kids can leave behind their heavier suffering and just race, turning it into the hypoxic singular focus experienced by any other skier on the trails and being rewarded by the same post-race high.
“Everyone who has suffered through a Snow Mountain Stampede — the 42k that went over to Granby — that was brutal! And our kids went out and did the race. When they finished, everyone that finished has the same affinity — everyone went through the same struggle, no matter how good you are at it.”
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Rachel is an endurance sport enthusiast based in the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado. You can find her cruising around on skinny skis, running in the mountains with her pup, or chasing her toddler (born Oct. 2018). Instagram: @bachrunner4646