The next generation: Grand Mesa Gliders teaches kids how to cross-country ski

Six-year-old Matthew Horn of paonia peers down the trail through off-kilter sunglasses as his Little Gliders instructor Kristian Hill, right, of Hotchkiss prepares to take the class out onto the Skyway trail after stretching exercises.

Annie Murphy of Mesa leads a class of Little Gliders through a game of Simon Says early during the Sunday class at the Skyway cross-country trail head. The children’s cross-country skiing course lasts an hour to an hour and a half and runs for five straight Sundays, ending Jan. 30.

The Grand Mesa Gliders are the future of cross-country skiing.

The four-year-old program teaches cross-country skiing and offers Nordic training to youngsters age 5 to 16 every Sunday during the winter at Skyway on Grand Mesa.

“Introducing skiing at that age is an affordable way to get your kids on skis,” Gliders organizer Annie Murphy said.

The program only costs $35 for the five sessions.

The Gliders are broken into two different groups — the Little Gliders are ages 5 through 8 and the Gliders are ages 9 through 16.

There are 33 kids in the program and more than half, 17, are 5- and 6-year-olds.

Little Glider sessions last one hour.

“One hour is about all you need for a 5-year-old,” Murphy said. “It tires them out, and they don’t get cold because the kids are exercising the whole time.”

Cross-country skiing isn’t an easy sport, and some kids do eventually transition to downhill skiing full time. Murphy said cross-country skiing gives every kid a comfort level on skis.

“It’s a great way for kids to get onto skis even if they go downhill eventually,” Murphy said. “It just gives them a good foundation, and they’ll be better skiers because of it.”

Murphy found out the importance of a kid’s program from a cross-country skiing former boyfriend. Murphy dated 2010 Vancouver Olympics cross-country gold medalist Billy Demong for four years when they both lived in Park City, Utah.

“He was in a point in his career where he started to become concerned about junior development, and talked about how important it is for different ski areas to have junior programs,” Murphy said. “This area serves skiers from Mesa, Delta and Montrose counties, so there is a big pool of kids.”

Murphy started the program when she moved to the town of Mesa four years ago from Park City.

“I was trying to improve my cross-country skiing, so I was looking for adult lessons up here. I found out there were none offered, nor were there any kids program,” Murphy said. “I knew I would start a family here, and wanted my kids to have the option of training and racing with a team.”

Murphy’s friend, Sarah Dufford Shaw, also a Gliders’ coach, knew of her interest in developing a kids’ program and invited her to attend Grand Mesa Nordic Council’s meetings.

“I went to a meeting, introduced my idea, and started it up,” said Murphy, who with her husband, Chris Murphy, also a Gliders’ coach, now have a three-month-old baby who they hope will be a future Glider.

The Little Gliders five-week program begins with three weeks of teaching, and one week of review. It finishes with a race and picnic on Jan. 30, the final day of the program.

Depending on their interest and ability, the older kids (ages 9 and up) have the option of attending more practices and extending their season.

For new skiers, Murphy said the first week is revolved around getting the kids comfortable on their skis.

“Kids work on balance and moving on their skis,” Murphy said. “Our main goal is to make it fun for the kids, so we incorporate lots of games played on skis.”

The program requires six coaches to break the kids into different groups based on age and ability.

Dave Knutson is in his first year of coaching Gliders, and works with the youngest group.

Knutson, 62, has more than 40 years of cross-country skiing experience, and said there have been a lot of surprises from coaching young athletes.

“It’s great because it gives them a lifetime activity,” Knutson said. “All the kids I have are 5 to 6 years old, and it’s amazing to see how much they improved in just their third lesson.”

There are some hurdles that might not exist when teaching an older group — starting with what leg to use.

“They are picking things up so quickly, but the funny thing is, you can’t say ‘use your right foot or use your left foot,’ ” Knutson said with a laugh. “You actually have to show them because a lot of them don’t know right from left yet so that was a learning experience for me.”

The Gliders partner with Skis for Kids to allow the students to rent the equipment for the duration of the program for only $5.

This gives the kids the ability to practice when they aren’t in a formal training session with the Gliders.

“Some are so enthusiastic that they are talking their parents into taking them out between lessons,” Knutson said. “That’s what nice about cross country, as long as there is snow on the ground, they can go out and practice anytime.”

Theresa Miner’s daughter, Jordan, from Collbran, is an 8-year-old in her second year with the Gliders, and said she has really benefitted from the program.

“It’s an unbelievable program, the coaches do a great job,” Miner said. “The kids learn a lot and have a lot of fun.”

Jordan Miner’s said she likes cross-country skiing, but her motivation is the same as many of the other students.

” I get to spend outdoor time in the woods,” Jordan said.

The Gliders program is continuing to grow and Murphy said one of her big goals is to develop an older group that races.

“I want to develop a junior race team,” Murphy said. “We now have a couple of kids (Quinn Baker of Palisade and Casey Crawford of Montrose) who travel to race, and it would be neat to see that part of the program develop.”


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