It Takes a Village
Insight into the Journey of an Elite Athlete
By Lisa Nasr
There is one thing Bend turns out faster than microbrews – athletes. Call it clean fresh mountain air or a town bursting with opportunity, athletic pursuits amongst kids these days are as diverse as the kids themselves. Being an outdoor mecca, Bend attracts families drawn to year-round recreation, often beginning as early as, well, learning to walk. Central Oregon is no stranger to athletic fame, as well, having nurtured the likes of Olympians Ashton Eaton and Laurenne Ross. In Bend, you’ll find numerous youngsters training three to four days a week, 10- to 20-hour weeks, and traveling year-round for some of those trainings, not to mention the competitions.
Let’s take a look at some of the outstanding families pulling together to foster junior athletes of Central Oregon and what it takes in terms of commitment to reach that upper echelon.
Getting a Head Start
Teresa Cravens, whose son, Minam, is a 17-year-old accomplished alpine ski racer competing on the national level, explains that their family started skiing together when Minam was just 16-months old. Similarly, Lisa Capicchioni, mother to 11-year old climbing sensation Mira, recounts her daughter started climbing soon after she could walk, at around eight months, in part because climbing was something she and her husband enjoyed, but, “by two-years-old we would turn our heads and she would be at the top of the tallest pine tree she could climb.” The Capicchioni family got Mira into the gym about two years ago and she’s been excelling in the sport ever since, competing on a national level, specifically at the USA Climbing Youth Bouldering National Championships in Madison, Wisconsin last year.
Bend locals, Branden and Jen Ferguson, whose sons, Ben and Gabe Ferguson, (now 21 and 17) are teammates on the U.S. Snowboarding team, say the boys got into snowboarding early on because their family’s bonding time was spent on Mt. Bachelor. (Ben won the silver medal in last year’s X Games in Aspen, Colorado, while Gabe placed 5th).
See What Sticks
Encouraging kids to try a variety of sports at a young age can help them see where their natural ability lies. Keith Bleyer, Bend FC Timbers Competitive Director of Coaching and father to a 14-year old Timber athlete himself, is the first to proclaim that sometimes kids need to try a variety of sports and “see what sticks,” but that most importantly, “kids are participating because they enjoy it. The minute a kid isn’t enjoying it or is burned out, pull back. Give them a break.” Bleyer continues, “When a kid loves it, they live it. They want to be better and excel in the environment they enjoy.”
The try-everything approach was certainly embraced by soccer sensation, Kaley Kreutzer’s parents. At age seven, Kaley tried softball, soccer, flag football, gymnastics and swimming. One thing was clear – Kaley was a natural athlete who enjoyed the physicality of agility training. Upon moving to Oregon, Kaley joined the Bend FC Timbers and has since been accepted to the Olympic Development Program (ODP), which involves a commitment to practice sessions held in Portland. Currently at 13-years old, she also travels for monthly training sessions with the U.S. Soccer Academy.
Kaden and Grayson Barker, brothers aged 13 and 11, are fellow soccer enthusiasts who train with Bleyer and are both on ODP, as well. Their mom, Tisha, explains that, “At this point, they can’t get enough of their main sport.” While burnout is a concern of many families, the Barkers “manage it by taking family vacations that have nothing to do with sports: camping, hiking, and extended family trips.”
On the Road
Frequent travel and time away from home are definitely concerns for parents of high-level athletes. Mira Capicchioni usually travels to competitions with her mother, Lisa. The travel time has been good for mother and daughter, “I usually go to all her competitions out of town and we have actually become a lot closer. When usually at about this age, the kids start to drift away and battle with their parents, we have a lot of fun and talk about everything on our long drives”.
“The boys are on the road training, competing and filming more than they are at home in Bend these days,” says Jen Ferguson. When they were young, we traveled with them. We would spend big chunks of time out in Colorado and in Mammoth to train and then travel to five or six competitions throughout the season. Now they mostly travel with the U.S. Snowboarding Team or with one of their sponsors.” Burnout has not been an issue with Ben and Gabe. “The thing is, they just love to snowboard.” Jen says, “They both know they can stop competing at any time. As long as they’re having fun, it isn’t an issue.”
With two other children at home, Kaley’s family utilizes a carpool to lessen the travel burden. Amanda, Kaley’s mom, shares that competing at this level, “can be overwhelming at times, and we have had to try and seek out advice from other parents who have had experience with their own child’s soccer opportunities.” Amanda admits, “It is hard sometimes to have to figure out logistics, especially without extended family living in Oregon.” The Kreutzers try to keep it fun for the whole family and have even made mini-vacations out of training sessions.
What About Academics?
In addition, juggling school attendance and education can definitely present challenges for families, since most top-level athletes are required to be on the road during the school year. Teresa Cravens says, “Sports are a privilege, so we have always said, if grades slip, so do the opportunities to train/compete.” Grades have not slipped, and now, as a senior, Minam trains 20 hours a week, and travel varies: “last year he missed 37 school days – this year, it will probably be more,” says Teresa.
The approach to academics varies among athletes, with some kids being directly accountable to teachers during travel, while others opt for homeschool or a full-time online education.
“School was definitely something we had to figure out,” explains Jen Ferguson. “Ben, being the oldest, was the guinea pig. He was able to stay in school at least part-time up into high school while also doing part-time online classes. Gabe began traveling more at a younger age and moved onto full-time online school starting in middle school.” Money matters Academics aside, participation in sports at this level is not without financial burden. While some kids are fortunate to have sponsors, families are mostly responsible for their own expenses. Tisha Barker explains, “It’s definitely not cheap due to the travel expenses (hotels, meals, and gas). However, we do tend to take other teammates with us, and then that favor is returned. So we share the financial impact with other families. Being able to see how much enjoyment they get out of being in a competitive environment, bonding with teammates, and playing through adversity, it’s well worth the sacrifice.”
All of these sports come with a price tag, but just what is the dollar amount? Keith Bleyer tells it this way, “a kid can have a year of traveling soccer or the family can have eight days in Maui.”
“When they were young, it was expensive,” says Jen Ferguson, “and maybe a bit of a sacrifice, but,” she continues, “both boys have been very lucky with sponsorships. At ten and six, they were sponsored by Burton and received all their equipment and outerwear, along with a travel budget. Now they are each making pretty good money from sponsorships and are able to cover all their expenses plus put some money away for the future.”
Teresa Cravens says of their family’s commitment, “there is an enormous financial impact, but it is an impact which we gladly incur. We are involved in the sport and have incredible times with our son. We cannot buy this time back. We are very conscientious and educate ourselves as to how, when and why we spend our funds. We love the conversations, time together; wins and losses, all the lessons as a family.”
Onward and Upward
One theme rings true for these Central Oregon families: the culture of winning is not dominating the training of these young athletes. In fact, Keith Bleyer gives parents the advice of “de-emphasizing success but maximizing potential” because it should be about experience and that “measuring kids on a performance base wears them down.”
“I know they miss home when they are away, says Jen, “but they have each other. They also have great coaches and so many good friends that also compete.”
Bleyer concludes, “In the summer, look around, the worst looking yards usually belong to the most dedicated parents because they have no time to trim the lawn.” Perhaps this wisdom translates to the dedicated ski and snowboard parents, as well, who haven’t gotten around to clearing their sidewalks lately, because they’re too busy shuttling and supporting their young Olympic hopeful.