Winter Carnival 2013: Club’s evolution a story in itself |

Winter Carnival 2013: Club’s evolution a story in itself

Kids participate in the three-legged race during a Winter Carnival in Steamboat Springs.

The Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club had its genesis in the first Winter Carnival in 1914, though it would be known by different names until Nov. 1, 1927, when the merger of the men's Steamboat Springs Ski Club and the women's S.K.I. Club led to the adoption of the name we know today.

The first iteration of the club formed with the mission of planning and promoting the first Winter Carnival sparked by Norwegian Carl Howelsen on Woodchuck Hill near the present campus of Colorado Mountain College.

However, the club gradually took on a life of its own, establishing itself as the organization that has embodied and perpetuated the community's image as Ski Town USA. The annual carnival became a beloved community event that also serves as an important fundraiser for the club.

Today, the Winter Sports Club has 939 children and young adults enrolled in its competitive skiing and snowboarding programs, down from a peak of 1,175 as local families have coped with the economic downturn and gradual recovery, Executive Director Rick DeVos said.

"Fewer kids mean fewer coaches, ultimately, and you're trying to maintain a coach-to-athlete ratio that's acceptable. It's all about putting the best staff possible on the hill. That's what we're all about."

Yet, thanks in part to revenue from some large competitions last ski season and income from tubing operations in winter and the Alpine slide in summer, the nonprofit club's total annual revenue at the end of June 2012 was up to $3.3 million against total expenses of $3.06 million.

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Despite those impressive numbers, coming out ahead on the budget at the end of each season always is a puzzle, DeVos said.

"We're working on selling every Winter Carnival button we can in this 100th year," he said. "Families used to pay about two-thirds of (the cost of) providing the programming. Now, that's down more in the 55 percent range."

The first Winter Carnival was devoted to Nordic skiing, but the history of the club was destined to become one of adaptation as generations of leadership demonstrated a willingness to change with the community. Today, young athletes in the club compete in Nordic, Alpine, Telemark, freestyle, snowboarding, snowboard cross and ski cross, and a summer program for competitive cycling is growing, too.

Historian Sureva Towler wrote in her book "The History of Skiing in Steamboat Springs" that a few businessmen from the town's Commercial Club took on the job of putting up prize money for the first Winter Carnival and taking on expenses for a second carnival in 1915. The group was chaired by blacksmith George B. Salter.

It was in 1915, in order to become the first Rocky Mountain affiliate of the National Ski Association, that the club formally organized as the Steamboat Springs Ski Club so that it could bid to host the national ski jumping distance championships in 1916.

When the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club formed in 1927, its first president was school Superintendent O.A. Saunders. But the club really began to grow after 1949, when Gates Gooding, Basil Hallquist and William Allen took the big step of incorporating the organization, according to Towler.

The formality also cemented the enduring mission of the club to foster a passion for snow sports among the town's youths.

The club's mission in 1949 was "to create, develop and generalize the sport of skiing, ski jumping, winter carnivals and all winter sports in the area served by the town, to promote junior skiing in the public school" as well as to build a ski team for amateur competitions and, significantly, to operate ski tows.

Steamboat resident Pete Wither, the former longtime director of the ski patrol at Steamboat Ski Area, recalls what it was like to compete for the Winter Sports Club in 1949.

"It was a pretty small operation. Almost everybody at the club was a volunteer," Wither said. "Olympian Gordy Wren was one of my coaches and so were (10th Mountain Division veterans) Karl and Rudi Schnackenberg."

His teammates Jim "Moose" Barrows and Loris Werner would be named to Olympic teams, but for the typical good skier like himself, Wither said, the goal was to compete well in Aspen, Winter Park, Powderhorn and the now-defunct Climax ski area in order to make the Mountain Regional Championships.

This month, the club had athletes as young as 16 competing in high-level competitions in Norway, the Czech Republic and France and others taking part in the X Games in Aspen.

Preparing an athlete to rise to that level of competition is an expensive proposition for the club and the families of athletes. Wages and benefits for staff members working in programming/competitive programs were

$1.08 million last winter, so other revenue streams had to make up the difference.

For the youngest Alpine skiers ages 3 to 5, taking part in the Little Toots program can be quite economical with fees of $120 for sessions on the magic carpet lift at Howelsen Hill.

The cost goes up substantially for Alpine skiers who begin to take things seriously as 10- and 11-year-olds in the U12 program. There is a two-tiered program with fees of $1,250 for skiers who want primarily to compete in Steamboat Cup and Buddy Werner League competitions. Youngsters the same age who plan to ski regionally in the Rocky Mountain Division train more often, and the fees go up to $2,550. That's before the need to own three pairs of skis and travel expenses are taken into account.

Club revenue from program fees in the 12 months that ended in June 2012 was $936,802, and yet, the club's fees are substantially lower than they are at some comparable clubs, including Ski Club Vail, DeVos said. Fortunately, and thanks in large measure to the proceeds of the annual Scholarship Day at Steamboat Ski Area, the club continues to be able to offer need-based scholarships to families in order to meet its goal of ensuring that every child who has the desire to participate in the club is given that opportunity.

The club was able to provide scholarships totaling $45,00 this year.

But competing at the international level is far from the end-all, be-all for Winter Sports Club families.

DeVos said the prestige and excitement that U.S. Ski Team members and its many Olympians bring to the Winter Sports Club energize and motivate the organization, but for the large majority of its young members, the benefits they gain from their coaching and experiences are more about personal skills and a lifelong commitment to fitness.

The club's mission statement calls for it to build self-confidence, sportsmanship and self-esteem in its athletes while requiring high academic standards.

The Wither family, which has been in Routt County for 125 years, has reaped those benefits across generations.

Peter and Barbi Wither's adult children Tiffany and Scott are former Winter Sports Club athletes.

Scott, who lives and works in Steamboat as a Realtor, became an Alpine member of the U.S. Ski Team, and during his freshman year on the University of Colorado ski team, he helped the Buffs win a national championship with an individual title in the slalom event.

Pete Wither was a four-way skier in his day, competing in slalom, downhill, cross-country and ski jumping. The lessons his generation learned on Howelsen Hill were all about persevering in life.

"The way I look at it, you learn responsibility and reliability, which are both really excellent traits," Wither said. "If you fall down, it's not end of world. You get up and move forward."

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