It’s the night before my first Nordic race of the year. I’m sitting in the lobby of the West Yellowstone Lodge with 30 of my teammates. There is a quiet buzz going around the room, everyone is nervous. No one talks about how anxious they are; they don’t need to. One look at their faces says it all. The buzz hushes when Rick walks into the room. Clipboard in hand, he discusses the schedule for the following day: what time we have to get up for our morning walk, how early we should be at the race venue, and what wax we should put on our warm-up skis. The nerves still flow through us. In fact they are getting more intense. On cue, Rick begins one of his famous motivational speeches.
This time, his theme for the speech is: “Why not?” He stresses on the idea of “rolling your eyes back and just going for it.” He highlights how much work, time, and effort we have put into this sport through our training all summer and fall. He tells us, “The only thing that can hold you back is you, and you will get out what you put in this race effort.” It’s a mantra that all of Rick’s athletes come to know by heart. No one can measure your effort except you, so when you cross that finish line, can you look back and know you left everything you have on that course?
The Other #vanlife
I’ve spent countless hours in a van with a bald guy who is constantly air-drumming, cracking “your mom” jokes, and discussing everything from politics to the meaning of life. Countless hours running as fast as I can up a sagebrush (or snow) covered hill with that same guy yelling sadistic encouragement. That bald guy, Rick Kapala, is the head Nordic coach of the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF). Famous for his huge smile, wild hand movements, and boundless energy, Rick is quite the human being. You can find him thwacking away on the keyboard in the Lake Creek Olympic Training center (aka “the hut”) office, surfing scree fields through the forest looking for elk, or giving some of the finest life-changing motivational speeches to all or one of the 182 athletes on the Nordic team.
30 years ago, Rick moved to Sun Valley from Alaska. He was running a Nordic program in Anchorage when he applied for the head-coaching job in Sun Valley. By hiring Rick, the SVSEF Nordic program has become one the most successful teams in the nation. His fondness for the valley was born from our small town camaraderie and the ability to immediately access some of the greatest recreational land in the United States. 30 years is a long time to deal with bunches of boisterous kids, but he continues to do it because he believes everyday is different. He says, “Every year has a freshness about it, I love being able to watch kids grow and mature through the program.” He is creative in the way he develops athletes because he understands that everyone progresses differently. Recently, after the last Junior National qualifier in West Yellowstone, there were a few athletes who barely missed making the Nationals team. I watched Rick go up to each of these individuals, many who were crying and down on life, and briefly talk to them. I don’t know what he said to the kids, but it left a smile on their faces.
The Spandex Philosopher
Rick is an easygoing, yet extremely passionate human. For example, his ideal day consists of managing an intense morning rollerski session with the team, followed by hitting up a local trout river for a few hours, then jumping on his mountain bike for a quick lap around one of Sun Valley’s many singletrack trails. The day would finish with an evening at an open-air concert with his wife Bridget and his dog Camas. He told me that this exact day has happened more than once. And I get the feeling that Rick will continue to live out the ideal-day after day, year after year.
While fly fishing on Silver Creek, just 35 minutes south of Ketchum, Rick once made a comment about how extremely lucky he felt to be there. How people pay thousands of dollars to come to Sun Valley just to fish, and we’re able to hop in the truck and be in the river in under an hour. Rick notices the small, minute factors of life that make it so beautiful. He expresses his deep appreciation for his lifestyle and his surroundings by giving back to friends, family, and the greater community.
My dad grew up Nordic racing in Minnesota and skied for SVSEF during Rick’s first years as a head coach, making our family one of the few multi-generational Kapala clans. As a result, Rick is not only my coach, he is one my best family friends and I’ve been lucky to have him in my life since day one. His eyes are full of passion, whether he is fishing the Madison River in a blizzard or flipping blueberry pancakes after a rainy interval session on the Lake Creek Nordic trails. He takes on challenges that many would shy away from, maybe too many at once. He puts on race weekends sometimes entirely by himself; those are the days you want to step to the side of him because he is man on a mission with nothing stopping him.
I am just one of many people upon whom Rick has had a profound impact. There are thousands of people who could consider Rick a friend, mentor, and role model. Through talking to friends and athletes of Rick, I was able to gather more insight into what he means to others. A resounding theme I caught on to was how Rick is “living the dream.” How his deep passion for fun and life is awe-inspiring, and how one finds it hard not to smile in his presence.
“Once, as I was leaving to ski, Rick gave me a hug and told me exactly what I needed to hear,” recalls my teammate and tenth grader Katherine Estep. “I was so disappointed and bummed about the race I’d just finished that I didn’t think anyone could possibly put a smile on my face. Somehow he did. He reminded me of the best race I’ve had this year and the wonderful memories I’ve made this season.” He inspires others to give 110% effort in all aspects of life, whether it be writing a paper, racing a 50 kilometer ski race, or walking the dog.
Rick is a character, to be sure, but his effect on others is universal. I think it’s his unbridled passion and joy; you can’t ignore it. As I sit in the lobby of a West Yellowstone hotel the night before our first race of the season, I look around at the faces of not only the athletes but also random people who happen to be in the vicinity. Rick captures their attention. People, young and old, are drawn to him. His voice fluctuates as he talks us through how to ski the racecourse. I don’t think I’ve ever left a team meeting without feeling some sort of inspiration from a Rick-ism that I know I’ll carry with me far beyond my years of skiing. Many of his inspirational anecdotes end something like this:
“Remember the most important thing is just to have fun because in the end we’re just a bunch of people in funny suits skiing around in circles.”
That sentiment applies to more than Nordic skiing, and I’ll never forget it. Who knew some bald guy could have such a profound effect in my life.
Peter Wolter is a senior at the Sun Valley Ski Academy at Community School and a graduating athlete of the SVSEF Cross-Country program. He will attend Middlebury College this fall, where he plans to continue to ski.