Junior program growing up
Gunnison’s crop of young Nordic skiers continues to climb
Times Staff Writer
Originally published 2013-02-07
Perhaps it’s fitting that Caleb Mueller be the poster child for the Gunnison Junior Nordic Team (GJNT).
A few years back, Mueller — who is now 14 years old and on the verge of qualifying for the USSA Junior National Cross Country Ski Championships — was one of only four or five kids that made up the team.
But this year the program runs 21 skinny skiers strong. And Mueller is attempting to be the first GJNT member to qualify for the biggest event in youth Nordic competition, which takes place in early March in Alaska.
“It’s almost like a family here,” said Mueller, who ranks sixth in the Rocky Mountain Nordic (RMN) circuit’s J2 boys division. “We have a really good bond in that way.”
The GJNT also has a pair of really good coaches that factor into the program’s growing popularity, as well as success. The husband and wife duo of Kendall and Ingrid Butts aren’t your average amateur level coaches.
At the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, Kendall was a coach for the U.S. team, while Ingrid was competing in the last of her three trips to the international games. Kendall also has experience leading Nordic teams at CU-Boulder and Western State Colorado University.
The Buttses have two kids on the GJNT, Michaela and Garrett, but their desire to spread the knowledge and experiences they’ve gained throughout more than 40 combined years of coaching stretches beyond their own descendants.
“We love to share our passion for the sport,” said Ingrid, who was the U.S. champion in 1991. “I knew as early as high school that there would be a time to give back to a sport that gave me so much.”
Ingrid orchestrated a resurgence in the Gunnison Parks and Recreation’s youth Nordic program about eight years ago. Four years later, in 2009, the GJNT was spawned from those roots.
The team is broken down into two categories, competitive and developmental, to provide an opportunity to a range of young talents. Seven of the 21 current members race on the competitive circuit.
Participation fees amount to about $200 for developmental team members and $400 for the more competitive bunch. The money goes towards travel expenses, registration fees, paying coaches, wax (of course) and some sharp looking uniforms.
But there’s also a standard of excellence that members of the GJNT have to buy into. Aside from a rigorous routine of training that takes place two or three afternoons a week, skiers have to maintain a 3.0 grade point average in order to travel with the team to competitions.
It can also be pretty cold — as in well below zero — when their competitions take place early Saturday mornings throughout winter in the high country.
“It’s not for everybody,” said Kendall.
This past weekend, most members of the developmental team competed in their biggest competition of the season, the Alley Loop in Crested Butte. The names of GJNT members are plastered all over the podium, including six first place finishers.
Meanwhile, Mueller was busy taking on competition from throughout the western United States at Soldier Hollow in Utah. In his first experience at a Junior Nationals qualifier in the J2 division, he advanced to the quarterfinals of Saturday’s skate race.
In order to qualify for the Junior Nationals, a skier must rank in the top nine in their division at the season’s end. The top four times from five competitions are used to tally the rankings.
Qualifiers are chosen to represent the RMN team at the National Cross Country Ski Championships, which take place in a different location each year. This year’s edition will take place in Fairbanks, Alaska.
Ingrid used to compete at that same event as a junior skier herself, back when she was growing up in Summit County. But, according to her, the Nordic team experience is about much more than competitions.
“There’s a low percentage of kids who will take this to the Olympic level, but that’s not the point,” she said. “It’s all about the life lessons that are taught through dedication, commitment and teamwork.”
“It’s just great to be able to share a lifetime sport with young people,” added Kendall. “We live in an environment where winter is here and I think we need to capitalize on that.”
For more information about the GJNT, contact Ingrid at email@example.com.
(Matt Smith can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or firstname.lastname@example.org)