Good As Gold
Winter Olympic Hopefuls

by Tina Cole

Trying to predict which local athletes will compete in the 2002 Winter Olympics in Snow Basin, Utah, is a difficult task.

Each competitor who succeeds in winning a berth in the Olympics represents not only his country and community but also years of hard work, determination and super-human focus.

The many talented competitors living in this famous destination ski resort face unknown challenges and individual variables along their path
to the games.

Olympic hopefuls are nothing new to Sun Valley. 

It is home to numerous winter Olympians. Most recently, Picabo Street in alpine skiing, Sondra Van Ert in alpine snowboarding and Laura Wilson in Nordic skiing, all participated in the Winter Olympics staged in Nagano, Japan in 1998. Picabo medaled, and the rest is history.

Street and Van Ert hope to compete in the Salt Lake Olympics, along with some new upstarts.

Getting to the Olympics is no easy feat. Thousands of top level competitors across the United States will vie for a few slots. 

So what makes or breaks an Olympian?

“It changes your whole life and makes it difficult to be a ‘normal’ person,” says Muffy Ritz, a former U.S. Nordic Team skier and currently a coach for the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation Junior Nordic Team.

“You had better not look back once. If you aren’t training harder than the top 10 in the world in your field, then you don’t have a chance.”

Even with this daunting portent of discipline and physical training, many young athletes in Sun Valley remain stalwart in their desire to compete on a national and international level. The distinguishing factor for all these athletes is their sheer love and passion for their sport.

Carlo Rixon. photo by David N. SeeligCarlo Rixon, a lanky, 18-year-old, never had a doubt in his mind that he would pursue alpine ski racing. Rixon started skiing about the same time
he started walking and he hasn’t stopped since. 

He hails from a skiing family and recalls being towed behind a bicycle wearing skis along a Board Ranch road when most others his age were still occupied with crawling and baby steps. His father, Carl Rixon Sr., was, and still is, a member of the Sun Valley Ski Patrol and was a former owner/partner in Sun Valley Helicopter Ski Guides.

Skiing always was and still is a major focus and way of life in the Rixon home.
Rixon made his debut skiing on Bald Mountain, the premiere ski mountain of Sun Valley resort, at the age of five. When he turned six, he joined the Hailey Ski Team and by seven he was competing in the North Series circuit, which is several notches up from the Kindercup on Dollar Mountain where he had cleaned up, winning all of his races in earlier years. Dollar Mountain is the “teaching” mountain at Sun Valley resort.

Matt Murphy, a former head coach for the Hailey Ski Team was instrumental in Rixon’s ski racing start.

“Matt taught me how to ski race,“ Rixon says. “He was always there for me as a coach and a friend.”

Rixon went on to win overall at the Junior Olympic races in 1996 as a second year J3 (ages 13-14), and again in 1997 as a first year J2 (ages 15-16). Since then Rixon has had his ups and downs but considers all of his experiences positive. He no longer wins every race he enters, but he is building valuable experience and strength as a competitor while getting to travel to Europe, New Zealand, Canada and throughout the United States.

Rixon is based out of Sun Valley, and last winter season was home only 12 days. He felt 2000 was a great year for him. As a first year J1 (ages 17 -18) he competed in the North American Junior Championships in Vermont last January where he placed 9th in slalom and giant slalom.

Later in the season, he went to Austria where he had “an eye opening experience” seeing what the rest of the world his age and younger were capable of accomplishing. Even among the junior FIS competitors, Rixon was aware of the difference and advantage of European technique, stamina and support. In April, during the Spring Series races at Mt. Aleyeska, Alaska, he took a first in the giant slalom.

Rixon is realistic about his chances for the 2002 Winter Olympics. He says he would have to really step up his program to make the transition to winning because “so many other guys are better and stronger.” 

In general, alpine ski racers are getting slightly older with the top level competitors reaching their peak at ages 26 to 27.

At the tender age of 18, Rixon realizes he is looking at a long, hard haul but he doesn’t seem to mind. To him, it’s a full-time job and one he loves. He received his high school GED and plans to focus one hundred percent on his ski racing in the years to come. He will ski another year with the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation and then hopefully earn a berth on the U.S. Development Team. Pat Savaria, the SVSEF head coach says Rixon’s main strength is an innate ability to read the snow.

“Carlo has a touch and feel for snow conditions that can’t really be taught,” he says. “He can determine what to do with his technique in any snow condition.”
To get ready for this year’s North American Super Series with races in Europe and throughout the United States, Rixon is keeping in shape with weightlifting, lots of bird, elk and deer hunting, construction work and as much skiing throughout the year as possible. He keeps a clear mind by staying relaxed and not feeling sorry for himself when he’s in a slump. He loves the sport so much it overcomes the rest.

“Hey,” Rixon says with a big grin, “Why do it if you aren’t having fun?”

For local snowboarders Graham Watanabe and Claire Cetera,
earning invitations to join the U.S. Development Team in alpine boarding is both a huge honor and commitment.

Graham Watanabe. photo by David N. SeeligGraham Watanabe is one of the nicest 18-year-olds anyone could hope to meet. He is a recent graduate of Wood River High School and is deferring further schooling for one year to see how he fares with the U.S. Development Team. Graham definitely plans to attend college and will tentatively start next summer with studies in international business.

He loves language and travel and speaks German, which has held
him in good stead during recent competitions in Europe.

Graham started out recreational skiing, but all that changed one day when he was 11 years old and tried snowboarding. He survived the initial pain of learning how to board, started having magic days, then everything clicked and he became one of the first members of the SVSEF Snowboard team.

He credits the fantastic coaching staff at SVSEF for getting him to where he is today. Nick Smith, one of Graham’s coaches for two years, is now the Assistant U.S. snowboard alpine coach. Steve Persons, the current head coach for SVSEF snowboarders is an ex-World Cup Team racer and a superb technician.

Graham’s forte is both the giant slalom and slalom. He is an alpine boarder and does not do freestyle boarding or the half pipe, although he would like to work into boarder cross events. Last season, he participated in his first World Cup event at Park City and finished 18th overall in the giant slalom.

Watanabe realizes he will have to push his limits, place well in competitions and keep focused for his first year on the U.S. Development Team to get a slot on the traveling team. He hopes to do the best he can and “take the rest in stride.” He wants to keep calm with himself and contented with his results throughout the upcoming year. He would love to make the FIS World Championship races in Europe this coming January 2001 and make some FIS points for the following year.

To keep in shape, Watanabe’s training includes weightlifting, running, mountain biking, and some serious soccer playing. He was a former forward for the Sawtooth United team during his high school years.

Graham is looking forward to traveling and boarding with his teammates and coaches, who he says are great people, supporters and friends.

Team member Quin Orb, although younger, has been a great inspiration to Graham. He is always asking Quin, “How did you do that?” They maintain a close friendship and enjoy boarding together despite competing in similar circuits.

In mid-November, the season starts for Watanabe and his teammates. They will go to Breckenridge, Colorado to start training for a long season that will hopefully find Watanabe traveling on the World Cup circuit.

Claire Cetera. photo by David N. SeeligClaire Cetera is an effervescent 17-year-old senior at The Community School in Sun Valley. She too, is on the U.S. Development Team for alpine snowboarding.

Cetera started snowboarding seven years ago after trying her hand at traditional alpine ski racing. She went boarding with a friend one day and got hooked like so many other snowboarders her age. But Cetera went on to compete and did very well. 

At last spring’s U.S. Nationals she placed 8th in Giant Slalom, 6th in Slalom and 9th in Boarder Cross. 

She credits her coaches as being “very important” in her development as a snowboard competitor. Chuck Christopher taught her how to hit the gates and Nick Smith and Steve Persons have been inspirational and essential for her success on the SVSEF snowboard team.

Last summer, Cetera took classes to meet graduation requirements so she could devote all of her attention to snowboarding and training this winter season. She also worked out with a personal trainer lifting weights, concentrating on aerobics, mountain biking on Bald Mountain, running intervals, doing gravity work, jumping and practicing agility drills on a bongo board.

Cetera’s forte is alpine boarding and she loves everything about the slalom. It is not the speed that attracts her to alpine boarding slalom as much as the technical challenge of the race and the flow and form it demands.

Cetera is an excellent student with interests in music, theater and drama. She works well under pressure and in the past has managed to juggle a full academic schedule with her snowboarding as well as extra curricular basketball, volleyball
and drama. Her early graduation from school will enable her to experience full-time competition, training and travel without any obligations to studies or school sports.

Cetera feels her greatest strengths are her age and determination. She is a long, long way from being a burned-out competitor. She is waiting to see, like Watanabe, what the future will bring.

Higher education is very important to her, and she will eventually pursue her studies in theater, art and music.

For the time being, she is willing to defer her college education to see how she performs with one hundred percent effort and focus. If she meets her goals, watch out. There will be no stopping this young woman with her infectious good attitude and gracious sportsmanship from attending the 2002 Winter Games.

Carlo Rixon, Graham Watanabe and Claire Cetera all agree that it would be “huge” to make it to the Winter Olympics.

They represent some of the brightest and the best that Sun Valley has to offer in alpine ski racing and snowboarding.

Several other local athletes have shown tremendous potential. Keep an eye on: Maggie Acker, 17 (Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation); Jason Eder, 15 (Hailey Ski Team to SVSEF); Sean Higgins, 15, (SVSEF); and Michael McClure, 15, (HST to SVSEF). These young competitors are identified now as Olympic hopefuls, but you never know just who might surprise the world in another year and make their stand on an Olympic podium.

The community will be cheering many local successes in the years to come.

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