Steamboat Springs Sometimes the simplest philosophies carry the most weight.
Take, for instance, vÃ fealoa'i, the core value of a Samoan culture based on respect and relationships between people.
Then take Pio Utu, a Samoan, who has been described as the Godfather of athletics at Steamboat Springs High School and drawn comparisons to Santa Claus.
Utu in no way resembles Santa Claus or the Godfather, with his short build, bursting chest, arms devoid of anything but muscle and calves that look like they've been stuffed with shot puts.
But like Santa Claus and the Godfather, everyone knows Utu, everyone loves Utu and, maybe most importantly, everyone respects what Utu has brought to middle school and high school student athletes for more than 25 years.
Utu, who owns Strong Arm Cleaners and Strong Arm Security, has been a fixture in the high school weight room since the early 1980s. He helps middle school students, high school students, just about every athletic program, students who just want to workout and everyone in between with workouts, lifts and training programs.
And Utu's done it all - all 25-plus years - for free.
"I think the best thing you can say about Pio, is he's truly a gift," said Steamboat Springs basketball coach Kelly Meek, who's had players work with Utu for years. "He works with so many kids of all ages, groups, disciplines and sports. I can't really overemphasize how much he means to so many. I love sitting and talking with him. He's interested in everyone. He's a gift. He's an absolute gift."
Utu, who came from Samoa to America when he was 17, downplays his role. In his mind, and from his upbringing in Samoa where he came from a large family, he's just doing what's necessary.
"Why do I do it?" Utu mused last week. "Because it's a must. It's a must for these kids."
Utu starts working with athletes in middle school and continues all the way through high school. He also helps with students who don't play a sport but just want to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
Most of Utu's work deals with speed, agility and quickness drills. He'll work with whatever student wants his help. Some come in groups. Some set up individual appointments.
"He's got some weird workouts. He's got some different philosophies," said Michael Vandahl, who has been working out with Utu since sixth grade. "Last summer, we'd have 8 a.m. workouts, and I'd whine a little about it. But one of his favorite sayings is 'a banker's life starts at 9 a.m. You're an athlete, so pick it up at 8 a.m.'"
Vandahl, the reigning Western Slope League basketball Player of the Year and a second team all-state selection, worked out with Utu three times a week during the summer. Vandahl said a big part of his physical maturation into one of the best basketball players in Colorado was due to the work Utu put in with him. Vandahl - thanks to strenuous sessions in sand - said every part of his game improved because of Utu.
"He does all this for free. He's never asked me for nothing, and he'll come at a drop of a dime," Vandahl said. "He's a great guy. He doesn't just help me; he helps whoever asks for it."
Much like a lot of Utu's philosophies, a lot of his workouts have roots in Samoa. Dance, and especially dance that emphasizes hand and foot movements, are a big part of Samoan culture. Utu said these dances and techniques are the foundation of his training.
"What he has done over the years, not just while his son and daughter were here, has helped us tremendously with speed, agility, quickness training and strength training," Steamboat soccer coach Rob Bohlmann said. "Years ago, kind of at least for soccer, he was preaching and bringing in speed, agility and quickness training before it was mainstream. He was ahead of his time."
Bohlmann, who coached Utu's two children, Lilia and Bjorn, while they played soccer for the Sailors, said Utu is a gift to a place like Steamboat. He said not only does Utu help students, he's a real-life version of what people should aspire to become.
"You can learn and can inherit a tremendous amount of great, great life philosophies from just hanging out with a guy like Pio," Bohlmann said. "It's not just what he has to say but his actions. How he leads his life. He's a great example and role model for anyone working with kids."
- To reach Luke Graham, call 871-4229
or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org