Editor’s Note: Summit Life, our new expanded section of arts, entertainment, recreation and relaxation, comes with some new features. “Summit Explorer” will highlight individuals who represent that intrepid, enthusiastic, adrenaline-charged character that defines life in the mountains for so many in our community. From the steep peaks to the roiling rivers, whether on snow, pavement or water, Summit Explorer follows those born with a desire to test themselves to the limits and have a heck of a time while they’re at it.
Like many young children, Matthew Dayton dreamed of one day skiing in the Olympics.
Unlike most children, Dayton actually accomplished this goal. From the tender age of 8 to the enthusiastic age of 24, Dayton plied the snowy slopes of mountains across the world, bending mind and body toward perfection, eager to prove his skill and compete at the highest levels of the sport.
“Just from an early age, I loved skiing — all kinds of skiing,” Dayton said. “I loved downhill skiing, I loved cross-country skiing. I loved the competitiveness aspect of the cross-country skiing and just kind of being able to push yourself, and it was something that I was good at, too, as a kid, so that made it even more fun.”
Growing up on French Street in Breckenridge, it’s easy to understand Dayton’s early love affair with skiing. It’s not just him, though. A passion for skiing runs in the family. Dayton’s father, Gene, grew up in Illinois, a place not conducive to the sport. After his brother returned from Dartmouth with tales of the eastern slopes, Gene made himself makeshift skis out of boards from old crates, bending up the tips. He loved it, and when he came out to Colorado he loved it even more.
With several other locals, Gene founded the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center (BOEC), following his passion for adaptive skiing. Now, the Dayton family runs the Breckenridge and Frisco Nordic centers.
Dayton skied throughout his childhood, but his competitive edge really started to come out around age 9.
“My dad asked me what I wanted for my birthday, and I said I wanted to have a ski race,” he said. “So he put on a ski race up there at the Nordic center and I won.”
It was a great birthday present, he said, even if he did have to wait several months to get it, as his birthday is in the summer.
“I was thinking about ski racing in August,” he said with a smile.
In sixth grade, Dayton began his training with the Summit Nordic Ski Club under coach Gary Giberson.
He continued cross-country racing through high school, winning three state championship titles. He graduated from Summit High School in 1996, but he wasn’t done racing.
“It is a long road, it’s a very long road,” Dayton said of the journey to becoming an Olympian. “You have to continue to want it badly enough to keep after it.”
After graduation, he kept at cross-country skiing but decided that he wanted to try something new — ski jumping.
“I started ski jumping at the ripe old age of 19,” he said with a laugh. “It’s fairly uncommon to start that old. Most kids are starting 7, 8, 9 years old.”
Dayton would have to face off against opponents who had been practicing for years. He didn’t let this deter him, however, and threw himself into practice.
“By March of my first year jumping, I had gone from basically a little bunny jump to going off the big guy,” he said, referring to the hill at Steamboat Springs, where he was living. “The hardest part was probably getting back up again after crashing.”
Dayton didn’t waste time, but went to Lake Placid, N.Y., for the U.S. Nationals in Nordic Combined, after only one year of ski jumping.
“I was one of the stronger cross-country skiers, of all these junior athletes, and my jumping definitely had some work to be done, but they took me anyway,” he said.
It didn’t start out well. He crashed on all three of his practice jumps the day before the competition and came away somewhat disheartened.
“I called my dad up that night. I was just, I was so sore. I just said, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing here.’ I looked more like a boxer, I was just so beat up.” Now he laughs at the situation.
“We just prayed about it and the next day I got up there and I landed both my competition jumps, and that was all I could ask for at that point, just staying on my feet. That was just one of the challenges coming into it, is staying on my feet.”
Dayton continued to work and train through the following years as the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City drew nearer. When he made the U.S. team he was ecstatic, and gives credit to the people in his life.
“That backing and support is key,” he said, “and having a family and a community that was behind me on it was huge.”
Misfortune hit when he was in Finland. Preparing for the first of the World Cup series leading up to the Olympic Games, he suffered dual concussions, sidelining him with training restrictions for a month.
“I had lost some motivation at that point in time,” he said, but he knew if he gave up, he wouldn’t be able to remain part of the team. “Having … my opportunity jeopardized certainly lit the fire again for me.”
He made his comeback at the World Cup race in Steamboat Springs, with fifth- and sixth-place finishes against what was basically the same field of athletes as would compete in the upcoming Olympics.
By the time the big competition came around, Dayton and his team knew they had a very good chance of placing in the top three. In the end, they took fourth, which, while an incredible accomplishment against an international field of high caliber, still left them off the podium.
“It’s a tough one,” Dayton said of fourth place in the Olympics. “It was a little hard to celebrate.”
Nevertheless, the experience was priceless, he said, and was an opportunity he said he felt lucky to have.
He also enjoyed the advantage of having the competition in his home country and feeling the immense amount of support form his countrymen as well as people from his part of the mountains.
“I had parents, friends, family,” he said. “I mean, there were so many people from this community that came and watched. I still have people that come up to me and tell me that they were there watching, which is really neat.”
After the Olympics, Dayton finished the World Cup season and then retired from high-level competitive skiing. He had other things on his mind.
In May 2002, the same year as the Olympics, Dayton married his fiancée, Janelle Morgan, who grew up in Dillon.
Now, Dayton works as a real estate agent for Slifer Smith & Frampton in Frisco. The couple has three children — 8-year-old Lucas, 5-year-old Eden and 2-year-old Anders. Already, the kids have been introduced to the wonders of snow sports, even Anders, who mostly just stands on his skis and looks around.
Though some might think that work as a real estate agent pales in comparison to the intensive training of a professional athlete, to Dayton the fit is natural.
“One of my favorite things about living up here is having the opportunity to share ... where I live and what I do,” he said, smiling, explaining his desire to pass on his passion, not only for skiing, but for life in the mountains to his family, friends and anyone considering making the move.
Though he’s not competing professionally, Dayton makes time in his life for adventure, whether it’s skiing, hiking, biking or kayaking with his family. He isn’t above trying something new, either.
“Kiteboarding — that looks like fun,” he said with a grin. “I’ll have to put that on the bucket list.”
Just from an early age, I loved skiing — all kinds of skiing