Gate Talk: A Q&A with Troy Watts, Team Summit’s new alpine director
November 15, 2016
Editor's note: This is part one of a three-part Q&A series with coaches from the three local ski clubs: Team Summit Colorado, Team Breckenridge and Loveland Ski Club. See the Summit Daily on Thursday and Friday for the rest of the series.
On Troy Watts' 51st birthday, all he could think about was skiing the sparse Summit County snow.
"Every year has a different energy," Watts said when I met with him on Nov. 9 at his sunny, snowless home in Blue River. "In February we wouldn't tolerate a strip, but right now there is so much pent-up energy and I encourage that energy. Again, we have had perfect training: I haven't hit a single rock, it freezes every night for that perfect race surface, and I remind the kids every day how lucky we are."
Then again, that's no different than every other day of the year for Watts, the new alpine director and head coach for Team Summit Colorado. For most of his life, the Houston native and longtime Summit County local has lived, breathed and loved ski racing. He moved from Texas to Breckenridge in 1973 at 7 years old, and then soon joined the Breckenridge Ski Club for laps on the long-gone towrope at Carter Park. He was a quick study and, as a teen, left for Vermont's Burke Mountain Academy, where he moved up through the ski-club ranks before returning to Colorado.
Watts made the U.S. Ski Team in 1984 and stayed with the team for six years before breaking his leg in the Europa Cup. The injury knocked him out of contention for the 1989 FIS World Ski Championships in Vail, right at the peak of his career, and so he set aside skiing to get a degree at University of Colorado-Boulder before "insisting" that Eldora Mountain Resort hire him as a coach for the masters ski program.
"I tried to get away from the sport — I did," Watts said of the odd years between breaking his leg and returning to Summit County. "I went to Texas to see if I could do real estate, and then in the '90s they came out with shaped skis. I came back for the Jimmy Heuga (celebrity races) in Vail and took the win, beating all these ski team guys who were probably hung over. But I got the 'W.' Skiing just keeps finding me."
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After several years with Team Summit, Watts took over as alpine director this past June when his predecessor, first-year director Greg Needell, died unexpectedly just before summer training at Mammoth Mountain. Watts inherited a massive program, with 450 total athletes, alpine and freestyle, along with 68 part-time coaches and seven full-time, pro-level coaches.
And now, Watts takes over during another change: executive director Jerry Karl is stepping down at the end of the season. Before his club transitions from training to competing — the first races are very, very tentatively scheduled for Thanksgiving weekend — Watts talked about his time on the U.S. Ski Team and why coaching at every level, from beginner to pro, is invaluable for a club director.
Summit Daily News: Talk about your new role. The competition season hasn't started yet, but training is in full force for the alpine team.
Troy Watts: At first it was sipping from a firehouse. But, now that I'm treating the county as one unified ski area for our purposes, it's a cornucopia. It's great. We can accommodate all levels, and I think the resort partners appreciate that too. They can spread out. We're Team Summit, not Team Copper.
SDN: You were a giant slalom specialist on the U.S. national team. What drew you to GS?
TW: You've heard this before, but it's the core event for skiing. At the time it seemed like it required the most technical expertise. I wasn't much of a speed demon. I think I won at Copper when we had the (downhill) Nationals here (in the '80s), and we had this Swiss coach that said, "You're doing this at Aspen in two weeks." I was shaking in my boots up there. I definitely didn't win, but you know who did win? (Olympic gold medalist) Bill Johnson.
SDN: How did competing with ski clubs and the national team influence what you do now as a coach?
TW: I tell my athletes this: I guarantee in Texas I was the smallest kid in high school — the quintessential late bloomer. It was fair to say when I was younger I had a chip on my shoulder, something to motivate me, something to prove. I made it to the elite level and never won, but I made it there.
I tell the kids, "I've made every mistake that I can make in ski racing," and it taught me that's what you have to embrace. We have a good-bad perception of everything that happens, and in ski racing the path to mastery is a rocky one. It's a very technical sport. In the moment, you have to think that, "The conditions are terrible. Awesome!" I personally didn't ski bumps until after I left the World Cup because I didn't see any value, but now, I'm all about embracing the adversity. I think all of my failures have made me a better teacher.
SDN: You've been coaching for a while, but this season is your first time at the helm of a program. What has you excited?
TW: We have such a broad base of intro programs. It's really shifted my thoughts to a long-term view: How do we take all of these Summit County athletes — these families now involved with snow sports — and design a program that makes total sense, from the day you step on skis all the way through to the elite level, or the collegiate level? They won't have to spend $50,000 a year to go to a ski academy. Ski racing can be expensive, but I like to think we provide value without loss. It's just fabulous, and we have the longest season of the year with all of these great mountains… I'm just interested in that spectrum, from intro to elite, and keeping it all in house.
SDN: What about resources? How do you balance the team's partnerships with four resorts?
TW: There really are no resources we don't have access to. The staff is coming together, we have new staff members with youth vitality, and that's making it easier for my job to be a global view. I think when I took the job, Jerry (Karl) told me, "You're the CEO of alpine." And I thought, that makes it feel like I have a ton of discretion. Jerry is just so passionate about our program and snow sports.
SDN: Karl is stepping down as executive director after this season. How does that fit into the "elite" concept you're talking about?
TW: Jerry's support system is the board of directors, and that board is very strong — lots of talent and lots of commitment. Jerry gave us a full season, which feels like a year, to find the right guy or gal to support it. I really don't think there will be that much change, hopefully. He fully intends to stay involved with the club, and his passion is really being with the younger kids, the kids who are just getting into the program. I can't wait to have Jerry as a member of the coaching staff. When you have a competent person in charge of that, it's always a blessing.
This job, if anything, is a far-flung enterprise with a lot of coaches and thinkers. Sometimes they're not even in the same zip code. I like to feel comfortable sending a coach out with a van-load of kids on icy roads. Can you imagine the trust that goes into that?
SDN: You're taking over when skiing and snowboarding are evolving at a rapid clip — the sports hardly look the same as they did 20 or even 10 years ago. How do you build a club that's nimble and open to what's new?
TW: I started with Breckenridge in 1985 and have seen the evolution of the sport. The industry has grown tremendously, and on the ski-racing side we haven't really seen a dip in participation. We might almost be saturated. We're comfortable with the numbers we have, and we're now thinking about how we can continue to grow. I've always though of alpine skiing as a calling. There's something about the honesty of the clock that appeals to some athletes. Others like to huck off cliffs — my parents personally wouldn't let me go off the ground — but for us, personally, the alpine industry for Team Summit is still about fun. I don't think success and fun are mutually exclusive. I've always wondered why you can't enjoy what you're doing and do it to your best ability at the same time, and these sports have so much to offer, regardless of how you place at the end of the day. If these kids value it enough 20 years from now to introduce their kids, that's my benchmark. If you're just trying to be the club that dominates — the one that might burn out your families and athletes for a short-term goal — you have to reassess what you're doing. But ski racing is such a beautiful sport that I don't want the kids to have a great relationship with it. Coaches talk about that, but it takes a lot more talent from a coach to see the whole child, not just the athlete.
SDN: So a ski club can still be competitive without delving into hard-core, military-style training.
TW: I'm a very competitive person by nature, and I was extremely that way when I was an athlete. But now, looking back, I've got a different view of things. I don't want this to come at a soul-killing cost, and I think that will help our club have sustainability.
SDN: What's your role look like in the short term? Say, between now and the end of competition in April?
TW: There's the administrative component, making sure the pieces are moving in the right direction, but I've also kept my coaching role. Me, personally, I engineered it that way to maintain the balance. That's required a little more bandwidth out of me because of the front-end office time and spreadsheet time, but I made a promise to myself that I'll leave the office every day and leave it behind. A wise man once told me, "It will be waiting in the office when you get back," and it always is. But, if you're not passionate about this sport or teaching, it's not a fun job.
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