Friday, November 23, 2012

Don Wisemanís ski dreams

Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation executive director champions local athletes

Express Staff Writer

Don Wiseman is gearing up for another busy winter at the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation. Photo by Willy Cook

Don Wiseman traveled the world as a kid. His U.S. Air Force officer father took the family to Europe, Asia and many bases in the U.S. For 17 months his family lived in Montana, during which time the mountains got into Wiseman’s blood.

“I got hooked on the Intermountain West,” said Wiseman, who decided on a career outdoors.

Yet Wiseman’s father was keen on his son attending the Texas A&M University Cadet Corps program, which would have started him on a military career. 

Wiseman chose instead to attend Montana State University in Bozeman, in order to be in the mountains and eventually pursue a career in the great outdoors.

“I went after my dream, but my father said, ‘Good luck with it. You won’t get any financial help from me.’”

Wiseman worked his way through college, aided by grants and scholarships. He received an accounting degree but declined working in the corporate sector in favor of moving to Ketchum, where he began teaching skiing and tuning skis in 1982. 

“I wanted to live my life doing something I wasn’t trained for,” he said.

By 1986 he owned his own year-round sports shop, Sun Summit, which he sold in 2001. A 35-year veteran of the Sun Valley Ski School, and former ski coach, Wiseman has also led high-end bike tours in Europe. 

Today, Wiseman serves as executive director of the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation, managing a $3 million annual budget. He oversees a program that brings local athletes onto the international stage of competition. About $500,000 is raised each year from private donations.

The SVSEF grew out of the Sun Valley Ski Club, which in 1966 was established as a non-profit organization. Since that time the SVSEF has helped numerous junior racers achieve dreams of Olympic medals, world championship podiums, World Cup victories, and national championship gold.

Wiseman oversees 12-15 year-round staff members and coaches, a number that swells to 80 during peak winter season. The organization operates 13 vehicles and uses 42 credit cards, driving athletes to winter competitions across the country, to summer training in South America, or to Park City Utah’s water ramps for aerial trick certification.

“When kids begin with us they have no idea what they can accomplish. Our goal is to help them reach their personal potential.

“Our core business is the development of juniors (grades 2 through 12), but out of this has come a lot of other things,” said Wiseman. “Picabo Street and Christin Cooper (both Olympic medalists, and SVSEF veterans) have raised the level of awareness of this entire community.”

The SVSEF coaches and supports about 500 local skiers and snowboarders each year, beginning with a juniors program that reaches kids from second grade to twelfth grade. Each year the SVSEF dispenses $100,000 in scholarships for athletes with financial need. 

Wiseman also points out that due in part to rigorous SVSEF training, dozens of local athletes have attended college on winter sports scholarships.

A small portion of SVSEF athletes achieve “Gold Team” designation, which entitles them to free ski passes and tuition. These members have the right mix of talent and discipline to reach the highest levels of competition. They still have to come up as much as $6,000 per year for training and travel expenses. Wiseman said even athletes who get a place on the U.S. Ski Team can be on the hook for more than $20,000 per year for expenses.

The SVSEF’s fundraising goals are geared to cover these expenses. The “6 at Sochi” fundraising campaign was established to send six local athletes on the U.S. Ski Team to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

“We had three athletes in Vancouver (2010 Winter Games),” said Wiseman. 

He said in addition to intense training, there is also a great deal of planning, strategy and luck involved in getting athletes to the Olympics.

“Sometimes I feel like an athlete investment banker,” he said.

The investments have paid off for many local skiers and snowboarders, 60 of whom have made it to elite international competitions. This number includes 17 Olympians.

The Sun Valley region was recently designated as an official Olympic/Paralympic training site, a designation that Wiseman initiated with adaptive sports coach Mark Mast. 

Wiseman said the designation will make the Ski Education Foundation eligible for grants and sponsorships that could lead to more enhanced training facilities in the area. 

One of those facilities could be what Wiseman calls a human endurance performance laboratory to study the physiology of athletes at the top of their games.

“It is up to the community to decide where we want to go with this next,” Wiseman said.

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