This article first appeared in the Steamboat Pilot. By Luke Graham.

Colorado Mountain College Alpine skiers Ritch Carr and Jake Bell run up a hill during a training session on Thursday at Howelsen Hill. Photo by John F. Russell.

The last thing Colorado Mountain College Alpine ski coach Terry Leonard is oblivious to is his built-in advantage.

Standing at the base of Howelsen Hill on Thursday, with a sky that hinted at winter, Leonard was overseeing and ushering in a new era of skiing at CMC.

“I joke with my colleagues about how easy it is here,” Leonard said from beneath his rain-spattered umbrella as he watched his eight athletes run hills. “Literally, the kids walk across campus, come (to Howelsen) for slalom training and then we can go to the strength room right afterward, and then walk home.”

Running hills in the mud couldn’t have been fun. Doing it six times made it even less appealing.

And as one member of a U.S. Ski Team squad asked from afar, “What are they doing? Are they trying to toughen them up?”

No, CMC is entering new territory with its program, which will change significantly the landscape of not only its athletics but also its academics and enrollment.

The team has joined the Division I Rocky Mountain Intercollegiate Ski Association as an associate member this season.

The association is considered the strongest collegiate skiing conference in the nation, boasting teams such as the University of Colorado, University of Denver and University of Utah.

“It’s just way more beneficial and a stronger opportunity for our skiers,” said Brian Hoza, the dean of student affairs for the Steamboat campus. “It would also give it additional exposure on another level.”

Move for the future

As an associate member of the conference, CMC won’t be able to participate in the NCAA Championships because it isn’t designated an NCAA-level school.

But Leonard said the process of moving this way has been three years in the making. By June 1, Leonard had scoured the Intercollegiate Ski Association’s bylaws, talked with coaches and administrators and decided to make the move from the United States Collegiate Ski and Snowboard Association.

“It’s been an evolutionary process. Our team and our coach have been working with the USCSA to try to allow some shift in that organization,” Hoza said. “That organization was not inclined to support moving in that direction, so we were inspired to go a different direction.”

Or in other words, “We jokingly got out of the beer league,” said first-year skier Nate Kowalczyk, from Wisconsin. “It’s already definitely been worth it.”

Eyes on the competition

Judging from the eight or so skiers taking in Thursday’s dryland training, the season can’t come soon enough.

Neither can the opportunity to ski against the best collegiate skiers in the country. But it’s nothing new for Leonard, who has had his skiers attend meets with Intercollegiate Ski Association schools before.

It’s not hard to see the benefits. With four-year degree programs, potential athletes now have a chance to come to CMC and ski four years of Division I. Those looking to get their associate degrees and move on to a bigger program now will have the ability to network with other coaches and show their abilities on a weekly basis.

“Doing the USCSA, I don’t think the competition was as good,” said Natalie Misasi, who is in her second year in the program. “The competition improves so much. (Division I) has such better opportunities to lower your FIS points and make you more appealing. But I’ve considered changing my degree so I can stay.”

Leonard said the expectations for the team are tempered this season. He wouldn’t reveal exactly what he hopes for, but the move in conferences appears to be just the beginning.

“Before, going to that previous affiliation’s championship isn’t close to one of these regular races,” he said. “Now, every week we’ll be going to an event that’s way better than a national championship in the other association. I can’t say enough. It’s exciting times. It really is.”

— To reach Luke Graham, call 970-871-4229 or email