End of Lobo NCAA ski team leaves Steamboaters adrift
April 19, 2017
Steamboat Springs — Alex Barounos did Wednesday what he always does.
He went around noon to the gym at University of New Mexico. The collegiate ski season ended a month ago, but the work never stops.
"You have to stay fit," he said.
The work may not stop, but the skiing may.
The University of New Mexico announced late last week it was dropping support for its men's and women's Alpine and Nordic skiing programs. Citing budget restrictions, the school's athletic department said the recently completed season would be the last for the national championship-winning program.
The decision was a shock to the competitive skiing industry, and it was a potential life changer for Barounos and two other Steamboat Springs skiers who competed during the 2016-17 season for the Lobos.
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"It was kind of like we're just a line item," said Barounos, a 2013 graduate of Steamboat Springs High School. "Student athletes are just a number to them. It's been a frustrating week."
Barounos, Tyler Theis and Nick Veth, all Alpine skiers who grew up in or trained in Steamboat, were sophomores this season on the New Mexico team.
The news came Thursday after a cryptic early morning text about a team meeting that was so mandatory exams were to be excused. Even the program's coaches didn't now what was coming at that time.
It was all quickly clear, however, as Vice President for Athletics Paul Krebs announced the men's and women's teams were no more.
"It's been crazy," Theis said. "A lot of stuff happened I never thought would. There's a lot of emotions and uncertainty.
"I had a timeline, two more years of racing," he said. "I have so much more in me. Then someone tells you your career is done. You just feel cheated out of your career."
At home in New Mexico
Theis found a home in the Lobos program.
He moved to and attended Steamboat Springs High School to pursue his skiing goals, and after graduation, spent several seasons working with a small, private ski team based in Silverthorne. He was starting to question his resolve before the 2015 season when New Mexico offered an opportunity. He got the chance to walk on to the team, which had 24 skiers on its roster this season.
He quickly proved his worth, qualifying for the NCAA Skiing National Championships, which took place in the spring of 2016 back in Steamboat.
It was announced Tuesday the NCAA National Championships will return to Steamboat in March 2018. Theis and his Lobo teammates are doing whatever they can to ensure they'll be there skiing, despite the school's decision.
Krebs cited the expense of the team — $600,000 for a season, he said in a school news release — as one of the main factors behind the decision.
Indeed, it's not easy being a ski team in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The team loads into vans each Thursday and travels 2 1/2 hours to their "home" ski slope then spends the weekend there working.
Competitions require far longer trips.
The team and its supporters — friends and family as well as the competitive ski community nationwide — have quickly rallied to help change the school's decision.
A petition has gathered nearly 10,000 signatures as of Wednesday afternoon, and fundraising efforts are getting underway. A Monday UNM Board of Regents meeting was swarmed with supporters voicing their concerns, and athletes left heartened by the reaction from officials.
"I don't think the school expected the amount of stir we've been able to cause," Barounos said. "It's sounding fairly optimistic."
Still, there's no real evidence the athletic department is considering changing its mind, and for Steamboat's Lobos, that could mean the end of a dream.
Hoping for the best
Barounos has big-time skiing dreams. His father is from the United Kingdom, and Barounos has dual citizenship. That allowed him to join the British skiing team several years ago and gives him a window to the ultimate dream of Steamboat skiers: the Olympics.
He's already living a ski dream, however.
"It was a lifelong dream just to be where I am right now, on a Division 1 collegiate skiing team," he said.
He also spent several years ski racing after high school, building up his national rank hoping for a NCAA opportunity. There are 35 NCAA Division 1 ski teams in the country, three of which only offer women's teams.
Barounos reached out to all the major college ski teams in the Western United States. He couldn't have been happier when New Mexico responded, but now, he's unsure what the future holds.
Monday offered the first of many predicaments. The ski team was scheduled to enroll for its fall classes. Barounos, majoring in business marketing, may not be around to take those classes if the team's last-ditch efforts to survive fail.
Still, he wasn't ready to give up yet.
"I took a full load of business classes," he said. "I'm hoping for the best."
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