Aussies help Winter Sports Club reverse drop in membership | SteamboatToday.com

Aussies help Winter Sports Club reverse drop in membership

Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club Nordic combined skier Aleck Gantick looks up at the ski jumps at Howelsen Hill on Wednesday as he rides to the top. The Winter Sports Club saw a decrease in local athletes this winter, but it has seen an unexpected surge of foreign skiers and snowboarders.

— Philippa "Pip" Sparrow has seen it and skied on it. During the past two months, she's become intimately familiar with the fierce and unforgiving bumps of the Voo Doo run moguls course at Steamboat Ski Area.

Still, she stares up at the slopes of Mount Werner at the course from the car window and from the bus, from the base of Steamboat Ski Area and from the slopes of Howelsen Hill.

"She glances out the window and says, 'There's my course,'" said Nicki Sparrow, 15-year-old Pip's mother, who is in town from Australia to keep an eye on her daughter and a houseful of other athletes training with the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club.

Pip's ambitions include nothing short of a spot on the Australian national team and Olympic glory. It's a common dream for the five other Aussie athletes with whom she shares a Steamboat Springs house.

They all were told back home that if the Winter Olympics is the goal, there's no launching pad like Steamboat Springs. But as much as the Winter Sports Club can potentially do for them, they are doing just as much for Steamboat's well-known organization.

After an initial drop in membership this season, club Director Rick DeVos said the club has rebounded and in the new year is operating at about the same level it did last year, thanks to a swarm of new Australian team members.

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"Over the last couple of years, we've been attracting more Australian athletes," DeVos said. "We had a few initially, then they went back and told all their friends, and for the last couple of years we've been getting more. They seem to really like the products we offer."

A club in need

The increase in Australian athletes is a trend that reached new heights when the club was the most in need.

Club membership grew greatly throughout the past decade, from about 450 athletes in 1999 to 1,175 last winter.

"Every year, we were looking at 10 to 15 percent growth," DeVos said.

That meant every year the club was scrambling to add more coaches, more staff and more classes. It also fought to stay ahead of the winter sports curve, seeking to expand or create programs as more sports were added to the Olympic roster.

The most recent additions include boardercross and skiercross. Boardercross made its Olympic debut in 2006, and skiercross will premier at the games next month.

"Telemark is also something that's growing really strong right now," DeVos said. "And the conventional programs are still holding their own."

Although the economy in Steamboat Springs may have hit the skids early last year or late in 2008, the Winter Sports Club didn't really feel the pinch until this fall. Then all that massive growth from the past decade plateaued, and membership took a 5 to 7 percent drop.

The club offers athletes two chances to apply for scholarships, one early in the fall and one early in the winter. DeVos said that's one area where the town's financial struggles have definitely been noticed. The fall 2008 scholarship application rate was about normal. The winter version, however, was much higher. Scholarships were in high demand for both 2009 dates.

"This year we were more prepared," he said. "There are a lot more people looking for funding these days than there would have been before."

Tightening the belt

Part of the process was cutting costs and ensuring that every dollar was used efficiently.

DeVos said 60 percent of the Winter Sports Club's funding comes from athletes' dues, which have slowly crept up since his arrival in 1999. The remaining 40 percent comes from fundraising events such as the annual Ski Swap, as well as events the club hosts such as last month's 2010 U.S. Winter Olympic Team Trials and this winter's Nordic Junior Olympic competition. Scholarships are largely funded by the Steamboat Ski Area's Scholarship Day, the day before the ski area opens every winter, as well as other fundraisers that take place throughout the year.

"We actually did a full analysis of every program. We sat down and went through every piece, considered how many kids were coming, and we adjusted our staff accordingly," DeVos said. "We tried to keep everyone we could by shuffling them around, but certainly there was some staff that weren't able to work here this year. We are really excited about our staff right now, but we lost some good folks in a year like this."

The loss of some local athletes made it not only possible for the Winter Sports Club to absorb the athletes from Down Under, it made the club eager to do so.

"What we thought was a lighter year really bulked back up there," DeVos said.

For Pip Sparrow and her mates, so far the club has proven everything they'd heard it could be.

She ended up fourth in a tough dual moguls field in Steamboat on Jan. 9 and said her skiing has improved greatly in the focused program the club offers.

The club, too, is thrilled to have them around.

"They're typically dedicated athletes. We picked up some really nice athletes," DeVos said. "And the Australians, they're just really friendly folks."

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