Unlike the 500 or so students who will be part of the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation's programs this winter, Don Wiseman, the foundation's executive director, didn't grow up ski racing. In fact, it was no small feat for him to seriously participate in the sport at all.
Raised in a military family, Wiseman moved frequently, both in the United States and Europe, sporadically learning to ski along the way. His father returned from his second tour in the Vietnam War at the beginning of the 1970s, moving the Wisemans to Great Falls, Mont., where he was commander of an Air Force base. Despite only being there for 18 months before his father was transferred once again, this time to Stuttgart, Germany, Wiseman fell in love with the West, and the mountain life in particular.
That passion led to a difficult decision for Wiseman in 1973, when he was supposed to begin his matriculation at Texas A&M, as was his father's wish, and chose instead to enroll at Montana State University.
"He went ballistic," Wiseman said of the conversation in which he broke the news to his father, via the special phone line necessary to access the commander at his European base.
While he wasn't quite cut off, Wiseman's dedication to his choice was tested, as he received little financial support from his family due to the transgression.
"I got to know the women in the financial aid office on a first-name basis," Wiseman said with his seemingly ever-present congenial smile.
While he wasn't at a high enough level to ski race for the school, he got spent plenty of time on the snow, training with the team, coaching the peewees, and teaching skiing to other college students. To help pay the bills, Wiseman helped run a ski and bike shop, managing everything from personnel to accounting to product ordering. With this practical experience, he went after a degree in accounting with the intention of becoming a certified public accountant, but quickly realized his aversion to corporate life.
"For me, it was all about skiing and cycling," Wiseman said while sitting in his office, surrounded by ski equipment, budgetary spreadsheets and vintage pictures of the Tour de France in the 1920s.
In 1982, two years after graduating, Wiseman made the move to the small mountain town he would call home from then on: Sun Valley.
With partner Mark Deffé, Wiseman rented a small space where Ketchum's post office now stands, tuning enough skis to pay off the debt assumed to start the shop, a business that evolved into Sun Summit, now located on Warm Springs Road.
"It was a long, extremely busy day," said Wiseman, who also took over the Sun Valley masters race program around the same time. "I was in the shop by 7 a.m., then up on the mountain for about four hours, then back at the shop around 2 p.m."
Along with frequently waxing more than 100 pairs of skis a night, Wiseman also bore the tribulations of all ski coaches.
"I stood around and froze my butt off, and the little green hut the ski team used smelled like a bad hamburger joint," he said. "But I was living the life—things were blossoming faster than I could imagine."
For Wiseman, those hectic days are remembered fondly, especially the atmosphere that pervaded the town in the early 1990s.
"There were a lot of people between the ages of 27 and 35, and they would come hang out in the shop at night after the bars closed down."
Familiar with all the characters in the valley's racing scene, as the ski school and junior race programs all used the same area on Bald Mountain, Wiseman was asked to join the Ski Education Foundation's board in 1999, becoming vice president a year later.
Soon after, he sold his share of Sun Summit, a move catalyzed by his marriage and the fact that he'd spent the previous 30 years in the retail ski industry. However, his involvement in the sport was far from over, as he effectively began running the Ski Education Foundation's ski team in the summer of 2002 due to the absence of an executive director.
Heading the foundation became a permanent position in August, a move that Wiseman saw as the culmination of a skier's life.
"It's been unbelievably satisfying for someone who's seen all sides of the sport," he said. "I've tuned, taught and sold. This is the final part—a return to the fundamentals of the sport, what it's all about in the first place."
Wiseman said that the last five years have been spent refocusing on the foundation's main goal of creating an opportunity for students to participate in competitive snow sports.
"We've never set requirements based on success," Wiseman said, explaining that there had been some dilution caused by recreational programs. "We had to refocus on competition, emphasizing conduct, physical standards and commitment."
With more than 500 students expected to participate on either the alpine, Nordic, snowboard or freestyle teams, it's clear that the young athletes don't mind putting in the hard work, which includes off-season training that starts in June for those 14 years old and over.
"It's not an easy thing anymore—everyone's raised the bar and it comes back to being conditioned and well-prepared," Wiseman said, adding that teams in Utah and Colorado have tryouts for teams down to the development level, inherently pushing up the level of competition. "We want the kids to take ownership of it and for it to become self-selecting as they get older and begin to prioritize their sports and extracurricular."
The foundation's focus has found its way into the academic realm as well, which maintains standards students have to maintain in order to participate. With an academic program director to support and oversee the students, the average grade-point average for the travel teams is around 3.2, Wiseman said.
Of course, participation is not cheap, with fees for the different programs ranging from just under $500 to nearly $5,000 annually. But in its attempt to make sure every athlete is afforded the opportunity to compete, the program has become aggressive in its fundraising for scholarships.
"We have $212,000 budgeted for scholarships this year, compared to approximately $40,000 five years ago," Wiseman said. "Without the fundraising, tuitions would be two to three times higher."
This help from the community is a major reason Wiseman and the foundation have high expectations for the conduct of their athletes.
"This foundation is owned by the public. Since 1966 it has helped thousands of kids enjoy snow sports," Wiseman said of the altruism directed towards the foundation. "These kids are ambassadors of the program and really understand how much the valley gives back."
While Wiseman said the foundation is looking to raise around half a million dollars to cover its "operational meat," such as insurance, vehicles and ski passes, he added that generous donations received over the summer will allow it to soon reap the rewards of a revamped Rotarun ski area, located just west of Hailey in Croy Canyon. The hill will have a new lift, courtesy of the Sun Valley Co., which donated its Dollar and Quarter Dollar lifts, and a lodge, in the form of the Sun Valley Helicopter Ski Guides building, which is being donated by the developers of the property where the building now sits. Most importantly, however, will be the addition of snow guns, which will enable the ski area to become a viable and consistent venue for training.
"Our kids waste so much time traveling up and down the valley. They won't want to hear this, but hopefully we can get to the point where they don't have to get out of school early," Wiseman said, adding that around 70 percent don't live in Ketchum. "Rotarun is a cherry down there waiting to be picked."
After receiving an anonymous $180,000 donation in September, Wiseman originally hoped to install the snowmaking guns for this winter, but administrative details between the county and Croy Creek property owners have yet to be worked out, making the winter of 2008-2009 the likely start date for substantial race training south of Baldy.
For Wiseman, this would be one more step toward, what he calls, "a well-rounded exposure to mountain life."
"We get to create a venue for kids to get into the sport. And they, in turn, get to create their own special moments that will be with them for life."