Steamboat Springs The bundled children racing across a snow-covered field this week had only one goal - earning a warm chocolate chip cookie at the Howelsen Hill Lodge. Just don't be surprised if years from now, these same kids are racing among an international field of competitors looking to win Olympic gold.
Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club Nordic director Todd Wilson knows that the only way to keep Steamboat athletes competitive at the highest level is to continue feeding the club's development programs from the bottom end.
For the Nordic disciplines, that process begins with the Little Vikings program Wilson created seven winters ago.
Before Little Vikings, aspiring skiers had to choose between participating in the Bill Koch Youth Ski League, an entry-level cross-country series, or in the Club's Learn to Jump program, an entry-level ski-jumping program.
"There were small numbers of kids that did both, so I thought, why not do an overall Nordic program, introduce some Alpine, combine them into one and teach all the ski skills?" Wilson said.
Wilson's belief that trying a little of everything can establish a broad foundation of skills led to a successful program that has grown from 20 kids to an annual crop of between 40 and 60 children ages 5 to 9.
What makes Steamboat's program unique is not only the size of the program, but the age at which it begins.
One of the country's only other comparable program would be the one run by former Winter Sports Club Nordic Director Greg Poirier, who now leads Park City's National Sports Foundation. He said he starts kids as young as six in his Nordic programs, but recommends they start at age 7.
Children as young as 5 can take part in Little Vikings, and there's even a weekly Mini Vikings program to start 4-year-olds on cross-country skis.
One of the aims of Little Vikings is to get children interested in trading the ground for the air - by teaching them to jump.
After a Wednesday practice on the K-90 jump at Howelsen Hill, former Little Vikings competitors Zeb Tipton, Aleck Gantick and Jake Barker, all 12, joked about when they were 5. They remembered imitating the older kids as they learned jumping form on Alpine skis on Howelsen's bump jumps.
During 28 Wednesday evening and Saturday afternoon sessions from December to March, the Little Vikings spend one day mastering cross-country fundamentals and the second weekly session on Alpine skis, eventually progressing from the small ski jumps to the K-18 and K-25 jumps.
"At the end of the season, the kids can
ski all over the mountain on their cross-country skis, and most of the kids are going 16 to 18 meters off the 20-meter jump," said Mike Kerrigan, Little Vikings head coach for the past five years. Although Kerrigan has coached both his sons through the program and onto the Club's cross-country development teams, he still enjoys imparting his love of the sport and teaching ski versatility.
"It's fun to see them gain confidence and endurance. They'll ski five kilometers and have no concept that this is hard work or that I've gone this distance. The only concept they know is they're totally into it and having fun on their skis. It's natural when they're connected to their skis."
Last Wednesday's evening session - only the second of the season - saw many of the kids still struggling with the basics. Kerrigan estimated that he has about 30 kids returning from last year and about 15 "newbies."
Erin Vargas, a first-year coach, was one of five coaches at Wednesday's practice. She said that after breaking the children into smaller groups according to ability, the coaches help them put on their skis and head from Vanatta Field to the rodeo grounds to practice climbing hills.
Coach Kipp Rillos walked his group of eight through how to put their poles on before getting them excited to head out to the grounds for some cross-country skiing.
With a year of Little Vikings already under their belts, 5-year-olds Lucas Morter and Alex Blair were the first ones to return from the ski.
"Should we wait here for them here?" Lucas asked.
"Let's ski some more. Skiing around is much funner," Alex answered. "Let's go in the powder and eat some snow."
The next generation
When asked whether they want to be cross-country skiers or ski jumpers, Lucas and Alex said they wanted to do both.
That answer is exactly why Wilson designed the program. He believes that coaching kids with cross-disciplined ski training helps them develop overall skills faster.
The experience gained as Little Vikings makes an immediate impact. Wilson estimates that 40 to 50 percent of program participants continue with the Club's Nordic combined development training. Even if the kids don't make it to the 14- to 18-year-old ability groups, which have astounding success rates for producing U.S. Ski Team athletes, Wilson doesn't consider it a loss if he still sees them out on the mountain.
"Our mission (with Little Vikings) is not the Olympic team," Wilson said. "We do that, and it is a great byproduct, but the purpose is to give kids a good start in life skills, teaching them a life sport."