This is the time of year when the Tom Bradys of the athletic world get plenty of Sportsman of the Year recognition in national media. So it's always nice to be able to recognize the Wes Welkers of the world, too.
Ketchum's Mike Sinnott is one. He's the same height as New England Patriots receiver/punt returner Welker, 5-9, but about 40 pounds lighter. Both are smart and agile. Both are improving constantly and enjoy contributing to the team.
Cross-country skiers are usually taller and heavier than 5-9, 145-pound Sinnott, who will be 23 on Jan. 23. Case in point is Sinnott's Dartmouth teammate and friend Ben True, 22, of Maine, who generates much power at 6-0 and 170 pounds.
But, as True said, "He doesn't seem like he's 5-9. Mike skis like he's six feet tall. You can't push him around and he never wants to quit. He's a great competitor, always going for the win. And he's such a great all-around skier."
Sinnott contributed so much to Dartmouth College's remarkable run to the NCAA Skiing Championship last March that the Idaho Mountain Express named the homegrown skier as its 2007 "Athlete of the Year" for his determination.
Winner of nine of 12 races contested last winter on the Eastern Intercollegiate Ski Association (EISA) carnival circuit, Sinnott went on to earn All-American honors during the 54th annual NCAA Skiing Championships March 4-10 at Bartlett and Jackson, N.H.
More importantly, Dartmouth College's Big Green alpine and Nordic teams used their consistency, depth and balance to win the Ivy League school's first NCAA skiing championship in 31 years—and its first outright NCAA team title since 1958.
And Mike Sinnott, raised in Ketchum and a product of the Sun Valley Junior Nordic ski team, was the senior captain of the Dartmouth Nordic team. Three months later, in June, Sinnott graduated from Dartmouth College in just four years with a psychology major and a minor in neuroscience.
"When I went to Dartmouth, I thought I could have success skiing at the NCAA level," Sinnott said. "But I couldn't have expected that Dartmouth would win its first outright national ski title in 50 years."
Sinnott, co-valedictorian of Wood River High School's graduating class of 2003 in Hailey, progressed steadily as a skier and competitor through four years for Dartmouth's Nordic team, coached by Sun Valley native Ruff Patterson.
Year by year, he skied faster and faster. As a sophomore Sinnott consistently placed in the top five during the New England carnival season. As a junior he was in the top three. By the time he was a senior, he was winning a lot and placing second when he didn't win.
The 2007 EISA carnival season began Jan. 19-20 at St. Michael's College, Vermont. Sinnott won the 10-kilometer skate race by 21 seconds and was on the winning classic relay.
Sinnott continued on a roll Jan. 26-27 in the University of New Hampshire races at Jackson, taking the 10k skate by 20 seconds and winning the 10k classic event by 14 seconds over Dartmouth runner-up True.
The next two weekend events at Trapp Family Lodge near Stowe, Vt. were nearly as successful. Sinnott captured the 20k classic race by three seconds over True and placed second three seconds behind True, also in 20k classic. Both Sinnott and True were cogs on the winning relay teams.
Sinnott's eighth win came in the 10k skate race at the Williams College carnival Feb. 16. His ninth and final victory came Feb. 24 in the EISA Championships at Middlebury College's Rikert Touring Center. Sinnott took the 20k classic event by a mere two seconds.
He became the East's top-ranked collegiate cross-country skier for the winter and set the tone for the Dartmouth "Big Nordic Three" that included junior True and sophomore Glenn Randall of Colorado.
Sinnott said, "There were no weak points on our team."
Dartmouth was unbeaten with an unprecedented 6-0 record on the EISA carnival circuit. When the Big Green won the NCAA title, it was the first time an Eastern school won the team championship in 13 years, since Vermont did it in 1994.
True said, "Mike showed great leadership. He had a great start to the season and became a rallying point for everybody else to get behind. He showed Dartmouth where it wanted to be. At practices he was always out there rallying our team to put in the time. He did a lot through his example."
Sun Valley Junior Nordic ski team coach Rick Kapala has coached Sinnott since the third child of Ed Sinnott and Carol Sinnott took up the sport when he was in kindergarten. When he thinks about Mike Sinnott, Kapala thinks of two things:
And "a glue guy."
Kapala said, "It didn't matter how big Mike was, and he wasn't that big, he was always competitive no matter where he was physically and mentally. We could always tell that he loved the sport and was determined to just keep working hard with what he had. And he has always been a student of the sport, real smart about it.
"He was a late bloomer—always a good skier but never the most dominating junior. He didn't really get to win ski races until he was about 17. He never complained, though. He just made sure he was really good in a lot of different areas.
"That's one of the mistakes that sports at the development level sometimes make. Many studies indicate that the late bloomer may go farther. Now Mike has become a horse of a guy, strong, a frigging beast. A lot of it is because he really likes sports and enjoys the process of training real hard.
"He shows younger kids that a life in ski racing is possible. And the other thing, he's what I call a 'glue guy,' always in the middle of team building games. He just likes the team aspect."
At Dartmouth Sinnott said he tried to maintain the proper attitude toward skiing, college life and academics.
He said about skiing, "You can't have tunnel vision and be so focused that you sap the joy out of it. There was a time to go, gear down and focus. Arrive on time and take practice seriously. You have to be professional about being an athlete but still have fun with it."
The six-week competition season was demanding—strength training and intervals each Tuesday, a good distance session Wednesday, strength in the morning and travel on Thursday, racing Fridays and Saturdays, three or four hours of skiing upon the return Sunday and Mondays in active recovery with some team games.
But coach Patterson helped lighten the Big Green mood.
True, one of Maine's all-time best three-sport prep athletes in running and skiing, said, "Ever since my freshman year at school Mike and I were very competitive. We'd bicker and argue about things. Coach Patterson said we sounded like an old married couple. He started calling us the Bickersons."
"Well, it started out that whoever would argue the loudest would become Mr. Bickerson and the other one would be Mrs. Bickerson. Finally for the last two years we sat down and hammered out the fine print—so whoever won a race became Mr. Bickerson and the other one was Mrs. Bickerson."
You can't argue with the results of a NCAA team title, but Sinnott and True never got a chance to celebrate the actual championship with their 10 teammates last March in New Hampshire. They left immediately after their final races to travel to the 2007 FIS Nordic Junior World Ski Championships at Tarvisio, Italy.
"We left before the final run in alpine so we were in a car headed to New York," said True. Sinnott and True were eating lunch in a truck stop when they got the final news by telephone that Dartmouth College had taken first of 22 teams by 50 points over Western champion Denver University.
Sinnott said, "We missed a good part of the celebration and we were still in Italy when they brought the ski team down on the ice during a game at the Dartmouth hockey rink. But we did go to the White House."
On June 18, Dartmouth's NCAA champion ski team including Sinnott took part in the annual "Champions Day" celebration hosted by President George W. Bush at the White House in Washington, D.C. They toured the White House and posed for photos with President Bush, who received a ski team jacket and belt buckle.
"Politics aside, he (President Bush) was a pretty funny guy. It's not often you get to meet the president," said Sinnott.
So, what's next for Sinnott?
This past summer, he celebrated being a college liberal arts graduate by climbing Mt. Rainier with four other hikers. He has always enjoyed climbing peaks and getting out in the hills. Sinnott has also done a lot of strength and core training and started biking a little more seriously. He plays soccer, too.
Before his Dartmouth graduation he arranged with coach Kapala to spend this year training with the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation's Olympic Development Team. Both Sinnott and True, who took a sabbatical from his senior year at Dartmouth, are training at the Lake Creek site.
Competing in this year's USSA Super Tour, Sinnott said he has been doing more training, especially in the fall—along with a lot more resting. That is the advantage, he said, of the individualized training program that Kapala develops with each ODT athlete here.
"Fewer team practices, compared to the good structure we had at Dartmouth, and a lot more on your own," he said.
Sinnott and True are competing at this week's USSA U.S. Nordic Championships in Houghton, Mich., a double points Super Tour event. They wrap up the Super Tour at another double points event, the U.S. Nordic long distance finals March 28-30 at Fairbanks, Ak.
This will be the seventh year Sinnott has competed at nationals. His best finishes have come in the last two nationals including 12th in the 15k classic race at Houghton in 2007.
He will also travel to Szczyrk/Wisla, Poland Feb. 3-10 for the 2008 FIS U-23 World Championships. It will be Sinnott's third and final U-23 World Championship visit. Undoubtedly it will be less hectic than last year, in the rush and hubbub after the NCAA finals.
"We went from New York to Munich and drove to Italy—about 24 hours straight of travel. You'd be okay in the sprints but distances are tough with all that travel. And the competition is so much stiffer there, top level U-23s, a real world-class field," he said.
Still, Sinnott was the top American in the U-23 15k freestyle race at Tarvisio, Italy.
Besides his senior year at Dartmouth, Sinnott's competitive career includes a 2001 Junior Nationals 3x3k gold medal at Ishpeming, Mich. with teammate Robert Slough and Casey Simons of Park City. He said, "I made a bet with my father that if we won, I'd shave his head. And I shaved it."
As a junior on the national championship-winning Wood River High cross-country team, he also won the Junior National individual 15k classic gold medal in 2002 on a truly miserable rainy day at McCall's Ponderosa Park. Solid double poling was important.
"He won at McCall on one of the worst days I've ever seen," said Kapala.
Kapala said Sinnott's family has always been an important part of his success. His 28-year-old brother Patrick, now married and living in Santa Fe, N.M., was a captain of the University of New Hampshire Nordic team. Sister Kelley, 24, graduated from Bates College.
"Mike is the youngest," said Kapala. "I get the idea he always paid attention to his older brother and sister and benefited from watching them."
Sinnott said he appreciates where he came from. "We have an unbelievable program, coach and training facility that many colleges would envy," he said. "And the community is extremely supportive."
He added, "Skiing gives you confidence and opportunities and is a lot of fun. It has let me see the world and appreciate other cultures. It has also given me an appreciation for hard work and recovery and I've learned my body real well."