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Champion to guide new generation of skiers

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— Steamboat Springs High School's Nordic Ski Team will be guided by a coach who understands what it takes to win a state title.

But new head coach Jessica Gray also knows the value of having a good time, spending time on the snow and being a part of a high school ski team.

That's why Gray, who won state cross-country skiing titles in 1999 and 2000, doesn't want to stress winning a state title when the team returns to snow later this month.

"The state titles are not that important," Gray said. "The things I remember are my teammates and the camaraderie we shared. We were like brothers and sisters. We supported each other, and in the end we ended up as good friends."

Former head coach Barry Smith said the switch in the program's leadership doesn't mean the team will be changing its philosophy. The former head coach said he isn't abandoning the program, just stepping into a role that will allow him to balance his busy personal schedule with the responsibilities of being a coach. Smith, who took the position as head coach three years ago, has decided to let Gray handle more of the administrative duties for the team and assume the role of head coach. But he still plans to ski with the team, and he will be an assistant coach, along with Chrissy Lynch.

"I've got so many other things going in the winter," Smith said. "If I missed a race or a practice, I would feel guilty. This way, I don't have to sit in front of a computer, which I hate, and I can still ski with the kids."

Smith thinks Gray is a natural choice to take the head coaching position. The former Steamboat Springs Sailor helped set the standard for the team along with teammates such as Brooke Rygg and Mark Iverson.

"I think she (Jessica) will be terrific," Smith said. "One of the biggest parts of coaching is getting along with the athletes. She's got a great personality and is very outgoing. We are all psyched to have her."

Gray also looks forward to her new position. She still remembers the influence the high school ski team and her head coach, Travis Jones, had on her life. She said coaching is the perfect opportunity to give back to a sport she has loved most of her life.

She also understands that the athletes at the high school level have different goals than those she pursued in the Rocky Mountain Division and in college. Many of the athletes on her team this year will be skiing for the first time, and her goal for them will be to develop a life-long love of the sport.

Gray won the state high school classic skiing title in 1999 and returned the next year to win the state freestyle (skate skiing) title. After high school, Gray skied in Norway, and she attended Western State College in Gunnison. She later transferred to the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she raced with the Buffaloes. She eventually returned and graduated from Western State.

Gray moved back to Steamboat last summer and worked at the Old Town Hot Springs as a swim instructor and coach. She also works at the hospital and plans to work as a ski instructor at the Steamboat Ski Area.

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