Don't look now, but the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation's Olympic Development Program is starting to attract several of the country's top endurance athletes, those who want to train at altitude.
Ben True is a good example.
Most Westerners don't know Ben True, who turns 22 on Dec. 29. But they know about him in Maine where he was one of the state's finest three-sport schoolboy athletes ever. They know about him at Dartmouth College, where he is a senior.
Rather than being in Hanover, N.H. or his hometown of North Yarmouth, Me., True is here in Sun Valley for the 2007-08 winter. He is training with Dartmouth cross-country ski teammate Mike Sinnott of Ketchum in the SVSEF Olympic Development Program.
True is doing it for the high altitude training, but he's also taking a break before finishing his senior year for the Big Green so he can focus entirely on one sport. True is an archaic thing in college athletics—a three-sport athlete.
He excels as an All-American in men's cross country running, cross-country skiing and track. Boston Red Sox fan True has been skiing competitively for only six years but has come a long way since his proud days at Greeley High School in Cumberland, Me.
As a sophomore True led the Big Green running squad to the Ivy League title. He is a two-time All-American in Nordic skiing. True and Sinnott helped Dartmouth to its first NCAA Skiing Championship in 31 years last March.
And in track as a 1500-meter running ace, indeed, a two-time Ivy League champion in that race True has become a legitimate Olympic hopeful. His personal record is 3:40.17. He doubled up as the Ivy League champ in the 5000m last year.
True also ran a sub-four minute mile, 3:59.99, in winning the USATF New England Outdoor Championships June 17 at MIT in Cambridge, Mass. It broke Dartmouth's 13-year-old mile mark by over two seconds.
On his new fasterskier.com blog, True said this is "the first ski season in which I have ever trained specifically for skiing."
His blog stories will continue "as I go through the collegiate track season culminating at the Olympic trials and hopefully a ticket to Beijing," he has written about his quest for an Olympic 1500m berth.
That is special stuff for Sun Valley, which has seen its share of special athletes.
"He's the real thing," said SVSEF Junior Nordic head coach Rick Kapala, in his 21st winter as the head of the respected program.
Each year in warm weather training, the SVSEF program stages its Harper's Hill Climb time trial on a two-mile course near the team's Lake Creek training site north of Ketchum.
The record had been a very respectable 12 minutes and two seconds by Aspen Valley's Noah Hoffman, the reigning J1 Junior Olympic 10-kilometer classic king. Hoffman, incidentally, is now part of the 13-skier SVSEF Olympic Development Team with Sinnott and True.
A lanky 6-0 and 170 pounds, True came along and shattered Hoffman's record with a time of 11:30. "He's running 5:30s, uphill," said Kapala about True. "That's pretty good. Guys like that who can be your training partner don't grow on trees."
That's what the SVSEF Olympic Development Program has come to mean—train with the best.
In the past few years Sun Valley has instituted the post-graduate program to provide a training base and targeted financial support as a bridge between junior and national ski teams, Kapala said.
"There is some financial support but mostly it is the logistics and having the framework of a team," he said.
"We provide day-to-day coaching and support, the sports medicine aspect—monitoring health and fitness—and we create enhanced training opportunities with camps. Finally, we bring the best technical support we can on Race Day, things like ski and wax that really matter."
Similar programs exist at Alaska-Pacific in Anchorage (run by Erik Flora), CXC in Hayward, Wisc., at Maine Winter Sports, in Bend, Ore. and at Steamboat Springs, Colo.
Kapala said, "There are about six programs like ours around the country, plus Northern Michigan, the resurgence of the Middlebury program and one at University of Utah.
"With our seniors we don't accept just anyone, just skiers with proven records of results. We also look for people who will help enrich our community as a whole—people like Kate Whitworth, who volunteers as a teacher at Hemingway Elementary."
This year's SVSEF ODP is a blend of 13 athletes who are homegrown—like Sinnott and Fairfield's Morgan Arritola—and also from other parts of the U.S. like True and Hoffman ("Noah is one of the strongest distance guys in the country," said Kapala).
Sinnott, True and Colin Rodgers are U23 World Championship competitors pushing each other to get better. A robust group of post-grad ODP men include Sun Valley's Taylor Sundali, Reid Pletcher and Scott Krankkala plus Aspen's Hoffman and Ben Page from Park City, Utah.
Pletcher, Sundali and Krankkala were members of the 48-skier Intermountain Division team that won the Alaska Cup team championship of the 2007 Chevrolet Junior National cross-country ski competition march 10 at Soldier Hollow, Utah.
The ODP senior women's group is nearly as impressive.
It boasts Community School graduate Arritola plus New England products Whitcomb (Middlebury) and Kate Underwood (University of New Hampshire) plus Nicole DeYong, a NCAA silver medalist for the University of Alaska-Anchorage.
"We have four great senior women plus Mali Noyes, an advanced junior," said Kapala. Sun Valley native and Community School graduate Noyes was a relay gold medalist at March's Junior Nationals.
Kapala added, "We have some of the top men and women in the country. It's really a great thing going on right now. Our goal is to keep it going and to provide a final steppingstone for our homegrown athletes after being on our junior team."
Junior team prospects
Coming off the Intermountain Division's first Alaska Cup championship in nine years last March, the 2007-08 SVSEF Nordic team has welcomed a record turnout of 155 skiers plus the 13 ODT racers.
The all-important Development team head-coached by Dave Bingham has 87 skiers, the Prep Team head-coached by Kelley Sinnott has 43 kids and the Comp Team head-coached by Kapala and Holt 25 skiers.
Prospects for the Comp Team (J1 ages 16-18) are good, Kapala said, but there are some question marks. "It's definitely a younger squad. How do you replace a (Alexa) Turzian, (Mali) Noyes, (Reid) Pletcher or (Taylor) Sundali?" he asked.
The coach added, "Out of the 25 kids on the Comp Team, we definitely have at least seven who have demonstrated they will continue to make progress. It's time for this group to do the year-round work that's necessary to have success at the J1 level at Junior Nationals."
And that usually means over 500 hours of aerobic training over the course of 12 months. "It's how hard they work and how they grow," said Kapala.
First-year J1s include Max Durtschi, Travis Job and Scott Phelan. Durtschi was the J2 (ages 14-15) silver medalist in last year's Junior National 5-kilometer classic race. Job was fifth in J2 5k classic and fourth in J2 5k freestyle at JNs.
Three others who have grown quite a bit are Community School senior Connor Brown along with juniors Sam Farnham and Sean Dumke.
More first-year J1s among the girls, all with decent aerobic capacities and experience in endurance sports, are Courtney Hamilton, Bronwen Raff, Makayla Cappel and Julia Bowman. Joining them in the training push are Rosie Gilchrist and Marissa Dreyer.
Cappel stepped up with a standout week at last March's Junior Nationals. Kapala said, "Actually, all the girls posted pretty good results as J2s. Now the jump happens."
Sun Valley doesn't have a big crop of J2s this coming winter, but Emily Williams and Claire Bowman have come up through the Prep Team's middle school program.
First-year J2 boys include Andrew Pfeiffer and Brandon Wade. Second-year J2 boys like Danny Sundali, William Spiller and Chase Caulkins are also expected to compete for Junior National spots.
"We've got some kids coming in each age class so that's promising. Really, our program is on such a run. It's so rewarding and enriching to have all our levels of kids and coaches under one roof. The younger kids have a chance to work with J1s, J2s and Olympic Development skiers," Kapala said.