John F. Russell: Races, yes, but also so much more | SteamboatToday.com

John F. Russell: Races, yes, but also so much more

Hundreds of young skiers came to Steamboat Springs in search of Junior Olympic glory last week. But thanks to the work of Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club Alpine Director Tony Nunnikhoven and his staff, the children left with a whole lot more.

I’m not talking about the things that fit into a suitcase or can be bought at a T-shirt shop. The skiers left with a deeper knowledge of Olympic tradition, skiing heritage and the importance of fair play, and that’s exactly what the J4 Junior Olympic Festival is all about.

Steamboat has hosted the championship event for 11-, 12- and 13-year-old ski racers for the past four years.

In a town that hosts dozens of ski races each winter, putting on a super-G, giant slalom and slalom races is not too challenging. However, each year the organizers take strides to make sure that the event is a one-of-a-kind experience.

Nunnikhoven knows this will be the first taste of competitive ski racing for most of the visiting athletes. Sure, he’d like to see some of the skiers develop into future Olympians, but more important, he wants to make sure that all 161 skiers in the festival have a good time and learn some important lessons.

To reach that goal, the athletes are submersed in Steamboat Springs’ rich skiing tradition during an elaborate opening ceremony complete with lighting the Olympic torch, taking the Olympic oath and fireworks. There also are plenty of social events to help the skiers from across the country meet each other, and winning is never stressed on the ski slopes.

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Sure, it’s easy to think that the Junior Olympic Festival is another week of racing in a town built on Salomon, Rossignol, Atomic and Vlkl.

Realistically, most of the skiers in this week’s festival will never ski at the Olympics. So the staff of the Winter Sports Club does everything possible to re-create the atmosphere. It’s a community effort that requires a huge volunteer effort.

Nunnikhoven hopes the payoff will come back to Steamboat for years to come. He wants Steamboat to always hold a special place in the athletes’ hearts and be a place they want to return to in the future.

It’s true that the events this week are just a series of ski races designed to crown new champions and provide top skiers a stage to showcase their talent.

But it’s also a chance to introduce skiers from different states, different clubs and different backgrounds to what our community has to offer.

Yes, a few skiers will find Junior Olympic glory on the slopes this week, but many more will leave Ski Town USA with a positive impression of what our community is all about.

–To reach John F. Russell call 871-4209 or e-mail jrussell@steamboatpilot.com