Four female trail-blazers represent Summit County at ski mountaineering worlds
Summit County’s gang of four female ski mountaineers will be representing much more than themselves when they don their red, white and blue Dynafit skimo racing uniforms next week in the Swiss Alps.
The group realizes it’s special that four women from Summit County comprise nearly half of the senior team, who will compete for the U.S. at the International Ski Mountaineering Federation World Championships. But, if you ask them, their accomplishment is about more than just them as individuals.
To veteran team member Jaime Brede, it’s about the trail-breaking female Summit County skimo athletes who came before her. To relative newbie Sierra Anderson, it’s about the growing community of female skiers who make Summit County a hotbed for the growing sport. And, for skimo moms Nikki LaRochelle and Kate Zander, it’s about the family members and friends who’ve helped them balance out skimo success with what they regard as their primary mission — motherhood.
“I kind of like that it’s a bit of a game, a bit of a chess match,” said Zander, a mother of two. “To me, it feels like it’s a balance. It’s a success just getting out the door.”
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Zander has departed the door at her Farmers Korner home enough over the past year to build her skimo strength and skills back up after she gave birth to her second child in late 2017. Thanks to her performance at December’s world championships qualifying event at Arapahoe Basin Ski Area, Zander fulfilled a decade-long dream of competing at a skimo world championships.
Qualifying with her was Anderson, a friend of Zander’s since their time together at Summit High School more than a decade ago. Back then, Zander said she and Anderson were, in a way, two outsiders at Summit High. Teen-aged transplants, they both remained in awe of Summit County’s wilderness playground long after their high school contemporaries were jaded to it.
With their passions for the outdoors, after they met via their youth pastor, they both went out for the high school’s Nordic ski team. Anderson lasted only two weeks before she found her calling in Alpine skiing. Zander lasted, well, forever really. In the time since, she transitioned into ski mountaineering after her college career as a Nordic skier at Western Colorado University in Gunnison.
Anderson wouldn’t transition to ski mountaineering until much later, fewer than two years ago. With her background as an accomplished distance runner at Southern Methodist University, Anderson was previously known as one of Summit’s best female athletes. But it wasn’t until one of the county’s foremothers of ski mountaineering, Evan Hagen, suggested the sport to her while on a trail run when Anderson decided to give it her best shot.
In the time since, Anderson has translated her elite athletic background into skimo success.
“She’s got that hunger, she’s got the drive,” Zander said of her friend. “She’s giving it her all and I think that’s awesome.”
Zander and Anderson’s journey has circled back to skiing together after meaningful events along the way. At Zander’s wedding, Anderson did her friend’s makeup. When Zander had children, Anderson took her baby photos. Before Anderson competed in skimo, she babysat Zander’s child while Zander competed.
And now they’ll be competing at the world championships together.
“I think it’s definitely increased our bond, Anderson said. “You know, it’s rare to find someone else here who you grew up with. I’ve kind of seen her through a lot of stages of life. It’s really inspiring. I just know how hard she works as a mom and as an athlete and to juggle all of that. And I’m always trying to encourage her that, ‘you are, first and foremost, a champion mother and wife. That’s first priority.’”
LaRochelle would also easily qualify as a champion mother, wife and skimo competitor. Much like Zander, LaRochelle said the challenge of skimo training while being a mom comes down to time management. On many days, there will be a one-hour window in the whole day to train. She not only has to be more disciplined, but she has to be more flexible with her expectations for herself. For her, a good week equates to 18 hours of training.
“If I could do more, I would,” LaRochelle said. “That’s basically what I’m able to justify to myself. It’s the top limit I can accomplish being a mom and someone that works as well.”
LaRochelle also defers credit for her own success to not only Summit County’s female ski mountaineering community, but Colorado’s as a whole. LaRochelle says there are at least a half-dozen women in Summit County just as fast or competitive as the group of four who will be going to worlds. But, for different reasons — maybe motherhood, time commitment and burnout — these women don’t happen to be the chosen four going to Switzerland.
“There are probably, like, 30 high-level women doing this sport,” LaRochelle said of the women’s ski mountaineering community in Colorado. “And it just ebbs and flows who’s really engaged in any given season. There’s a lot of talent.”
Through those ebbs and flows, Brede has been one of the constants in the Summit County skimo community. These days, as a coach for Summit Endurance Academy, Brede is teaching the next generation and next level of U.S. ski mountaineers, including local girls Grace Staberg and Elsa Bates, who will also compete in Switzerland. Staberg and Bates may be the future, but Brede also has connections to the predecessor figures she regards as the “founding women” of the county’s female skimo community.
The elite mountain biker Brede was introduced to the sport thanks to one of those founding women, Monique Merrill, while Brede worked at Merrill’s Amazing Grace eatery in Breckenridge. After Merrill came back from the world championships seven years ago, Brede was intrigued by the stories she shared.
“And I thought, wow, that’s what I want to do one day,” Brede said.
Transitioning to skimo from triathlon and mountain biking, Brede soon joined Zander and LaRochelle as three of the county’s most accomplished female ski mountaineers. Then Anderson not only provided a fourth elite competitor, but she also brought the kind of rah-rah team spirit the group of tenacious individuals lacked.
Which brings us to this weekend. Come Sunday, they’ll be a team half-a-world away in Switzerland. And, deep in the Swiss Alps, the foursome finds it an honor to represent the state, the country and Summit County — especially all of you moms out there.
“To be in that position and to know that there is this kind of army of moms behind us,” Zander said, “there might be four of us going to Europe, but there are at least 20 capable ski mom athletes out there that could do it if they wanted to. We have such a depth that it’s — I feel like the four of us in a way are representing all of Summit County and skimo.”
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