Gold Prospecting 

Sun Valley's new Olympic journey

A rare combination of factors has led to Sun Valley's production of champions: optimum elevation, world-class coaching talent and 100-150 inches of fresh powder each year.

Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation

A rare combination of factors has led to Sun Valley's production of champions: optimum elevation, world-class coaching talent and 100-150 inches of fresh powder each year.

November swept in with the season's first dusting of snow atop Bald Mountain just behind the headquarters of the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation. The building sits at the base of the mountain's Warm Springs lifts on Picabo Street, which takes its name from Picabo Street, one of 18 Olympians who have been trained by SVSEF coaches since the organization was founded in 1966.

For nearly half a century, another 35 U.S. Ski Team members and many more national and regional champions have also risen through the ranks of the SVSEF. In recent years, Sun Valley has served as a training ground for Morgan Arritola, Simi Hamilton and Andy Soule, who was the first American to win an Olympic or Paralympic medal in the sport of biathlon.

A rare combination of factors has led to Sun Valley's production of champions: optimum elevation for ski training, world-class coaching talent and 100-150 inches of fresh powder each year. The surrounding Wood River Valley also boasts 125 miles of groomed Nordic trails each winter, as well as 35 miles of paved bike trails for summer roller-ski training.

All of this added up to the long-anticipated announcement in October 2012 by the governing body of the U.S. Olympic Committee that the Sun Valley area would become an official Olympic/Paralympic training site for Nordic skiing, one of only 15 self-funded Olympic training sites in the nation.

The campaign to get the training site designation began several years ago, when former SVSEF Executive Director Don Wiseman and Wood River Ability Program Director Marc Mast recognized that the area was already operating as a suitable site, hosting important races and producing champions. The formal designation named SVSEF an official "operator" of the training site, in partnership with the Wood River Ability Program, the Blaine County Recreation District and the Sun Valley Company.

"This designation is huge for Ketchum and the Sun Valley Resort, as well as for the state of Idaho," said Dick Fosbury, former track and field Olympian and inventor of the "Fosbury flop" high jump technique, which he used to win a gold medal during the 1968 Olympic games in Mexico City.

Fosbury is a longtime valley resident and chairman of the Idaho Chapter of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Association. He was also on the steering committee of the years-long effort to win the official designation.

"We have the best Nordic coaches in the country, excellent facilities, clean air and stars at night, and great people," he said. "Now when visitors come here and see the Olympic rings, they will be reminded what a special place this is."

There was a flurry of activity recently inside the SVSEF headquarters as construction crews, with an eye on the weather forecast, hustled to complete an extensive remodel and expansion of the decades-old facility, adding wide-screen TVs, meeting rooms, workout facilities and a second floor of offices. All of this is being built with private donations, said SVSEF Executive Director Rob Clayton, adding that the goal is to be ready for a grand opening of the training site by Friday, Nov. 22. Idaho Lt. Gov. Brad Little and Wood River Valley politicos, business leaders and local athletes are expected to attend the ribbon cutting.

"We will have the best facility in the country for winter snow sports," Clayton told Boise Weekly. "Our main priority is to provide a high quality training venue for Olympians and aspiring Olympians. We will see a higher level of competition here."

Clayton had just returned from his first assembly of the U.S. Olympic Committee in Colorado Springs, where he began networking with committee members and other USOC training site directors to leverage the new designation status into further success at placing local athletes at the highest levels of international competition.

That success will likely mean garnering support from a list of official Olympic corporate sponsors such as Coca-Cola, General Electric and United Airlines, and a relatively new Olympic sponsor: Chobani Yogurt, which has a new manufacturing facility in nearby Twin Falls.

Clayton said he is only just starting the process of finding out what all this means as he works through the USOC to form partnerships with other organizations.

Clayton added the SVSEF is already in talks with Boise State University, hoping to enroll researchers and technicians to staff a planned human performance laboratory in Ketchum--the purpose of which is to expand the sports science research already under way. He said such research could grow with the help of USOC sports physiology researchers and may include the testing of athletes for maximum oxygen uptake levels and lactate testing for muscle endurance.

Of equal importance, according to Clayton, was getting more roofs over more athletes' heads.

"Our next priority is to develop housing that is affordable for athletes who want to train here," he said, adding that the new USOC designation should increase local Sun Valley athletes' exposure to some of the the best cross-country skiers in the world, many of whom have already discovered the Wood River Valley on their own.

Newspapers took notice when Norwegian cross-country skier, 11-time World Champion and Winter Olympic gold medalist Petter Northug encountered a mountain lion while training on the 19-mile Blaine County Recreation District's Harriman Trail, north of Sun Valley, several years ago. Northug's Norwegian teammates have followed in his tracks. The Norwegian national team used the Sun Valley Resort as a training ground in 2010, just a few weeks before Northug won gold at Vancouver, B.C.

"National cross-country teams from Italy, Slovenia and Sweden have also trained here," said Rick Kapala, who heads the SVSEF Nordic Program, ranked No. 3 in the nation. "We will be pitching the U.S National Team to come here. Right now, they are chasing snow in northern Canada."

Kapala and his coaches will be busy from now through January 2014, coaching a group of local Nordic skiers at races leading up to the selection of the U.S. Olympic Team for the 2014 Winter Games, in Sochi, Russia. Kapala said all six of his best skiers have a solid shot at the team, but that his best candidates are Miles Havlick, who grew up in Colorado and moved to Ketchum to participate in SVSEF; Sun Valley native Mike Sinnott; and Chelsea Holmes, from Alaska.

Paralympic competitor Jake Adicoff also has a strong chance of getting on the U.S. Paralympic Team.

Kapala said his big dream would be to have weeklong, year-end competition of the four big winter snow sports at Sun Valley: Nordic, alpine, freestyle skiing and snowboarding.

"It's never been done before in one place," he said.

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