Jake Adicoff of Ketchum couldn't quite grasp the meaning when he was presented the prestigious Dave Quinn Award at the conclusion of the 2011 USSA Cross Country Junior National Championships at Minneapolis, Minn. in March.
Adicoff, 16, a Wood River High School sophomore, has been skiing with the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation's Junior Nordic ski team since the second grade. Never before had he received such attention in front of hundreds of onlookers. He needed to learn more about its significance.
"I didn't understand what the award was for, or who it was named for," said Adicoff last week. "When I did, it was pretty overwhelming."
The award has been presented 27 times since 1985 to the outstanding cross-country skier at the Junior Olympics by the USSA Cross Country Sport Committee. It is presented in memory of U.S. Ski Team racer Quinn, who died in 1976 at the peak of his athletic career. U.S. Olympians like Kikkan Randall and Kris Freeman have been among the recipients.
Dave Quinn recipients are honored for contributions that exemplify the ideals of cross-country skiing—love of the sport, leadership, overcoming hardship and strong work ethic. There were about 380 skiers ages 14-19 at this year's Junior Nationals. Only one, Jake Adicoff, was named.
As his coaches Rick Kapala and Ashley McQueen stated in their letter of nomination, "Jake is an honor student, he trains hard year-round to reach his goals in skiing, and he is not afraid to push the limits of his mind and body. However, Jake does face a test of character every day.
"He has a profound sight disability.
"The Intermountain Division coaches did not nominate Jake because of his disability, but rather because of his attitude....What we have learned on the Intermountain and Sun Valley ski teams is that it is never a matter of whether Jake can do something—it is simply a matter of how and when."
SVSEF Development Director Alex Sundali said, "Jake is legally blind. He skis anyway and skis as a fully able-bodied skier. If you didn't know Jake, you wouldn't know he cannot see. He has overcome so much and has been an inspiration for skiers on our team and for others around the country."
Kapala, the highly-regarded head coach and program director of the SVSEF Junior Nordic ski team for 24 seasons, said, "I can't say I've ever seen a kid accomplish what he's accomplished and do it so gracefully. He's a committed and dedicated athlete. Attitude is really the defining characteristic, and at the end of the day Jake is just a great, normal kid."
One of the reasons Adicoff was so blown away by the Dave Quinn Award was because he's unaccustomed to being the center of attention. In fact, he strives to stay out of the limelight so he can focus on his training and performance.
Kapala said, "We found out pretty early that Jake would function well in a group, but he doesn't want to draw attention to himself. Much of the time when I'm around him, I forget we're dealing with a kid who has profound visual limitations. You wouldn't realize it.
"Maybe it's because he's such a 'Glue Guy,' someone who pulls the group together around him. Jake is always in the middle of something. He has the respect of the team not just because of the challenges he faces, but because of all his other personal qualities."
Adicoff is the youngest of three children of Sam Adicoff and Sue Conner. They moved to Ketchum in 2000 from San Jose, Ca. in large part because Jake was just entering kindergarten and the family sought more personalized attention for the youngster in his schooling.
Jake's father had been president and CEO of the computer networking company Sarcom based in San Jose, and had sold the company prior to the family's move to Idaho 11 years ago.
The decision has been a good one for Jake and the Adicoffs.
He was born with low vision, the result of chicken pox Sue suffered during pregnancy. His right eye stopped developing and was much smaller than his left. Jake has no vision in that eye and wears a fake eye, his mother said. Also scarred was his left eye, which has similar symptoms as macular degeneration—although his sight has improved as he has aged.
Throughout his young life, the combination of education and athletics has provided a structure that has enabled Jake to develop normally.
His mother said former Hemingway Elementary School principal John Dominick and teachers like Anita Cleveland and Pam Wells were very reassuring when the family first arrived in Ketchum. "Their attitude from the beginning was they were on our side," said Conner.
In middle school, the Blaine County School District gave Jake a laptop computer with an enlarged screen. High school resource teacher Janet Dennis has provided Jake with what he needs to succeed. For the most part he's independent. Like many skiers, he takes online courses in the summer to free up periods of school during the year when he can leave early to train.
His mother said, "Jake is very good in science and math, is a conscientious learner and has very good grades. He's taking Advanced Placement in History and is still able to ski four days a week with the Nordic team. (Wood River High co-valedictorians) James Paris and Andrew Pfeiffer have given him great feedback and have taken Jake under their wing."
It's remarkable what Jake has been able to achieve in athletics. He can't play sports with a ball and will never be able to drive a vehicle. Yet the endurance and ski training have been anchors in his life. He eagerly looks forward to training each day that he's in school. He'd like to ski in college.
Adicoff said, "Our coaches on the ski team spend a lot of time working with us not only in our athletic careers, but in our lives. It's fun to be on the team and have good friends. We all work together toward similar goals and have a good time while we're doing it."
His year-round training includes participating on the Wood River High School cross country and track teams. This spring, Adicoff ran the 800-meter and 1600m distance runs for the Wolverines. He doesn't particularly like the 3200m because it's too long.
But the spring track season is problematic to start with, since it comes on the heels of the lengthy and demanding cross-country ski season—and Jake feels a little worn down.
Wood River boys' track and cross country coach Monte Brothwell said about Adicoff, "He is a great kid. I've had him for two years and he has improved dramatically this year. He dropped from 24:41 at district cross-country his freshman year to 21:49 this year."
Brothwell added, "He is flat footed and that does cause some issues with distance running. But he is hard working when he is at work out. He has a Nordic mindset though and will ski over running. Yet Jake brings a lightness to our team in his joking way."
Stories of Sarah and the Montana hike
The Adicoff family is a close clan that for several years won the Family Division of the 1.78-mile Baldy Hill Climb—"unchallenged," Sue said with a smile, "because we were the only entries."
Encouraging Sam, Sue and Jake to do the hill climb was Willie Adicoff, the family's middle child, now completing his freshman year studying geology and environmental science at the University of Denver. Willie was a member of the SVSEF alpine ski team. He and Jake often skied alpine on Baldy before Jake turned his attention to Nordic skiing.
The last five or six years, and this year in particular, have been challenging for all of the Adicoffs.
Oldest child Sarah Adicoff died in her parents' arms Jan. 20 of complications from cancer treatment after a five-year battle with the disease. She was 21, a Community School graduate, a Stanford University student, a swimmer, a gifted singer and a person of wry humor and grace, like Jake.
"Sarah had hoped very much that Jake would make it to Junior Nationals for the first time this year," said Sundali.
That hope was realized, culminating in Jake receiving the Dave Quinn Award, although it came down to the wire for the second-year J2 (ages 14-15) competitor.
Racing in the first of three Junior National qualifiers at Jackson Hole, Wyo., Jake competed on the morning of Jan. 15. Then he was told his sister was dying at a hospital in Seattle, Wash. Ski coach McQueen drove Jake from Jackson Hole to Boise so he could catch a plane to Seattle and hopefully arrive before Sarah died.
Jake made it.
When Sun Valley hosted the final Junior Nationals qualifier at Lake Creek Feb. 12-13, Jake "was on the bubble," as far as qualifying for the Minneapolis nationals trip, Kapala said. The 5-9, 145-pound skier needed solid results and everybody knew it. They also knew the story about Jake's sister.
"His extended family and many in our wonderful community were on the course cheering on Jake for two days," said Sundali. Added Kapala, "Kids from other teams in our Intermountain Division were rooting for Jake too. It was the coolest thing."
But Jake had to do it himself. In Sunday morning 5-kilometer classic finale, Adicoff saved his best effort for what he called "the defining hill" on the course and finished fifth of 30 competitors to earn a berth, along with 16 Sun Valley teammates, on the 45-skier Intermountain Division team.
"He was about in 10th or 12th place heading into the hill. That's where he put his head down and finished fifth in that race," said Kapala.
"Skiing is hard enough when you have full vision. Jake prefers classic racing because it provides a constant frame of reference. On the big climbs, it's straight ahead, and it comes down to who is the toughest. Jake can lock in with diagonal striding and bring more athletic effort to the task.
"Vision is very important in this sport. You're making constant adjustments, and that intuitive experience informs how you ski. It's hard for Jake to have that. As he skis, he moves his head back and forth, side to side, to create the visual field and peripheral vision he lacks. He falls more than most, especially on inconsistent snow when it's easy for skis to catch.
"Yet he attacks every corner and downhill just like everyone else. He is right there on every trail run, roller ski and hike/climb to bag a peak."
Two years ago after the untimely roller-ski death of Sun Valley/Jackson Hole skier Willie Neal, Kapala and fellow Sun Valley coaches set off with Prep and Comp Team skiers on a strenuous 10-day June backpacking trip in the Beartooth Mountains of Montana. Besides the loss of their friend, the youngsters had to deal with a difficult hiking route.
"I can remember having a conversation among the coaches before the trip about whether we should take Jake," said Kapala. "His parents were on board with it. We agreed if they were for it, we were too.
"For the first nine days we were entirely off-trail in really high alpine terrain. The kids were constantly helping him, giving him little cues about an obstacle here, and an obstacle there. The last day, we were exiting and so happy to be on a real trail, well, I think the kids stopped thinking about giving Jake his cues. We came down a long, rocky hillside, streams forming, and then there was a big mud puddle with a log—and Jake tumbles into the puddle.
"Jake's first reaction as he lay there was—really, guys! Couldn't you just say 'log?' It just cracked everybody up. He can laugh at himself in those situations. That kind of funny comment at the end of a long trip is very welcome."
Sundali remembered, "My son Danny was on the trip. He was mourning the loss of his friend Willie. He was struggling. But he came home from that trip inspired by Jake Adicoff—the one who couldn't see the boulders he had to climb over, the one whose pack had to be carried so he could take the additional time and energy to negotiate trails he couldn't feel under his feet.
"The kids came home, if not healed, at least on the path to healing." Added Sue Conner, "Jake had a great trip." Jake himself recalled, "It was tough, but at the same time one of the coolest things I've ever done."
Kapala said, "Members of the Adicoff family have been wonderful additions and contributors. Really, we're the lucky ones to have Jake and his family as part of the program."