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Olympic Prospects in Idaho's Wood River Valley

New training site designation means 'no limit' to potential

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Dedication to Nordic skiing has opened a new economic door for the Wood River Valley now that the U.S. Olympic Committee has officially named the area a U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Site.

It's an opportunity that is limited only by the creativity of Sun Valley residents, said Don Wiseman, executive director of the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation, which led the effort to get the official designation. It's the first such site dedicated to Nordic skiing, but the designation can be more than support for fans of skinny skis.

"I work with the Wood River Ability Program and I thought it was a great process," said Joan Scheingraber, an acupuncturist who helped consult on the U.S. Olympic Committee application. "What I liked about it is that it brought a lot of organizations together to make it happen."

Scheingraber is a former Dartmouth College and U.S. Ski Team Nordic competitor who now coaches adaptive skiing and VAMPS, a women's Nordic training program.

The official designation from the USOC and the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association was announced in early November. The designation begins an education process to build excitement and involvement in what organizers hope will be a new source of longterm vitality for Blaine County and Idaho.

Research by the economic development group Sustain Blaine showed that Nordic skiing brought in about $6.5 million in the 2010-2011 ski season. The sum is expected to double with the designation.

"My phone has been ringing off the hook since the announcement," Wiseman said.

The new relationship opens new funding possibilities that have an incalculable potential for growth, Wiseman said. Olympic sponsors like Chobani--which recently opened a plant in Twin Falls--and even Coke could be potential partners.

The door pried open by Nordic skiing could lead to a human performance lab serving endurance athletes, said SVSEF coach Rick Kapala. The Wood River Ability program and its Paralympics hopefuls could even host international competition on the 200 kilometers of ski trails that surround Sun Valley.

In the longer term, Sun Valley could see Nordic national championships and maybe an international alpine competition.

"This puts Idaho on the map in terms of the Olympic movement," said Harry Griffith, Sustain Blaine executive director. "It is what we make of it now that we've fought our way to the gate."

Griffith and Wiseman explained that the key to gaining the designation was to exemplify existing assets.

"We view this as a first-stage training site. With the official designation, we can look at how we expand the opportunity. We're really excited to do that sensibly," Griffith said.

Another key member of the process, Jim Keating, executive director of the Blaine County Recreation District, said the designation should help not only to improve the recreational resources, but boost other aspects of the economy.

From an economic development standpoint, the group took a venture capital, incubator approach, Griffith said, showing the value of Nordic skiing to the community in a new way.

"Now, we hope to guide opportunities," said Griffith.

One idea is developing a preferred services program with tiered pricing for athletes depending on their ranking, Wiseman said. For physical therapy, for example, the best athletes would be offered the best rates, but the overarching goal is to connect any athlete with goods and services, including lodging, nutrition, therapy, sporting goods and even real estate.

But economic prospects from an Olympic designation are more than an athlete bunking down in Ketchum. The broader goal is to help show off the community's broader value, Griffith said. The group is talking with kinesiology and biomechanical researchers at Boise State University looking for opportunities to work at a satellite site in the Ketchum area. Being an Olympic training site makes such a partnership all the more appealing for all parties, Wiseman said.

Both Wiseman and Griffith will be interested to see how partnerships grow with the new buzz surrounding the Olympic designation.

"Nordic skiing is like the gateway sport," Griffith said.

Oklahoma City National High Performance Center in Oklahoma City, Okla., started as a rowing training site about a decade ago. The community turned a ditch into a world-class rowing site and secured $20 million to $30 million in investments for a project that now includes a training center Charles Barkley visits. At several of the Olympic training sites, there are add-on services not medal oriented but community oriented, like zip lines and other outdoor adventure activities.

"When I was in Oklahoma City this summer, there were tours coming in--kids getting instructed. They light up the river at night. Thousands of people come out to watch rowing most weekends. Why couldn't we talk about taking Nordic to a second level that we've never seen in this community? We're talking about Nordic Town USA becoming a more permanent facility.

"Oklahoma has just amazing facilities. They took their site and made it a public venue. It is an amazing place to see," Wiseman said. "There is a clear capability for us to aspire to that here. We have the trails and the Piston Bullies. We have the basics, but this is an opportunity to expand the assets."

One concrete aspect of the opportunity for Blaine County is that dependable snow for training is becoming harder to find.

"Back East, they have snow and they have rain and it is gone," Wiseman said. "It's not as predictable as it was 30 years ago."

Snowmaking like that done by the Sun Valley Company is part of the plan for Nordic skiing. Terms in the Olympic designation contract indicate that some 5K of trails will have snow-making equipment that would ensure early season training, Wiseman said.

Some analysis of the economic impact of cross-country skiing is indirect--gas, groceries, rent, etc.--but the goal is to shoot for something bigger.

"A dream might be in, say, 15 years that we have a sports training center or a super site," Griffith said. "There is a lot of potential on the back of a simple business plan."

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