2014 U.S. Olympic biathlete Susan Dunklee, who also competed for Craftsbury’s Green Racing Project, competing at the 2012 Biathlon World Championships in the women’s 15-kilometer individual race in Ruhpolding, Germany.
CRAFTSBURY, Vt. — In late April, Stephen Whelpley won USRowing’s National Selection Regatta #1 in single sculls, beating two-time Olympian Ken Jurkowski. It’s a step toward Whelpley’s goal: To compete at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
To achieve this goal, Whelpley moved to northern Vermont to train with the Green Racing Project at the Craftsbury Outdoor Center (COC). Thirty miles south of the Canadian border, the COC’s rowing venue, Big Hosmer Pond, was still covered in ice until late April.
|Stephen Whelpley, member of the Craftsbury Outdoor Center’s
Green Racing Project, competing at the 2013 World Rowing
Championships in men’s single sculls in Chungju, South Korea.
“It’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but it’s definitely my cup of tea,” Whelpley, 31, said in a USRowing video interview after NSR #1. “We are definitely out there. But we owe so much to the Craftsbury Outdoor Center.”
The COC is also home to Hannah Dreissigacker, Susan Dunklee and Ida Sargent, who competed in the Sochi 2014 Winter Games in biathlon and cross-country skiing.
So how has an outdoor center in Vermont’s remote Northeast Kingdom become the training ground of both winter and summer Olympians and Olympic hopefuls?
The story begins in 1976, when 1972 Olympian Dick Dreissigacker and his brother Pete moved their oar-building business to an abandoned dairy barn in Morrisville, about 30 minutes from Craftsbury. The company would become Concept2, maker of the world’s most popular rowing ergometer and state-of-the-art composite oars. Dreissigacker married three-time Olympian Judy Geer, and the two coached sculling camps at the COC every summer.
At the time, the COC was owned by the Spring family, who ran it as an athletic resort of sorts, with sculling and running camps in the summer and Nordic skiing in the winter. Guests stayed in dorms built when the property was a school, and they were famously well fed.
In the winter, Geer, Dreissigacker and their three children cross-country skied at the COC, along with the Sargents and Dunklees, to name a few. The COC became their community.
In 2008, Dreissigacker and Geer formed a family foundation to purchase the COC.
“We wanted to keep the Outdoor Center going for other families,” said Geer.
On the board of the New England Nordic Ski Association (NENSA), Geer also knew that the East needed a post-collegiate Olympic development program. Her eldest daughter, Hannah, an aspiring biathlete, was about to graduate from Dartmouth College and was considering work and training options.
“If I wanted to do biathlon, I was going to have to commit 100 percent and move to the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid,” Dreissigacker said. “It wasn’t the life I wanted to have, especially after college where I had so many interests.”
Tim Reynolds was in a similar situation. About to graduate from Middlebury College, he wanted to continue cross-country ski racing, but there were few options other than finding a job and training around it. As a January Term project advised by renowned environmentalist Bill McKibben, Reynolds wrote a business plan for an environmentally and financially sustainable Nordic ski team. Members of this Green Racing Project would earn their keep developing environmental projects and conserving and maintaining the ski trails. Athletes would also promote Nordic ski events and help coach. With room and board taken care of, they could work around full-time training.
Reynolds presented his idea to NENSA, and Geer saw it as a perfect fit with the Craftsbury mission. Thus was born the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, a resident athlete program at the COC. Athletes apply and are accepted based on both results as well as their vision for how they can fit into the COC’s mission of using sustainable environmental practices; protecting and managing the land, lake, and trails; and promoting participation in lifelong outdoor sports.
For three years, the Green Racing Project was only for cross-country skiers and biathletes. But in 2012, the COC turned its summer Small Boat Training Camp into a year-round rowing team.
“This is so new to rowing,” said head rowing coach Dan Roock. “No one really knew what it was about. It’s unique in that we supply the whole deal: housing, food and work.”
Peter Graves, who finished 13th in the quad at the London 2012 Games, is on the GRP along with Whelpley, who moved north after seven years living and working in Philadelphia.
“We didn’t know how it would play out,” said Whelpley. “I knew I was headed to Vermont. The winter was a question mark.”
When Big Hosmer Pond froze over, the rowers learned to cross-country ski. Soon, they were supplanting hours on the ergs with long skis through the forests and meadows around Craftsbury.
“A lot of them hadn’t been on skis before,” said Ida Sargent, who took them out for their first roller ski in the fall. “It was a pretty hilarious and fun experience for me and maybe a little more terrifying for some of them.”
“We’ve all gotten better at it,” added Whelpley with a laugh. “But I think we all look identifiably as rowers who are skiing.”
In return, do the skiers row in the summer? Not often, but Sargent confessed that she and her sister Elsa used to take out the quad with Hannah and her sister Emily, now on the GRP rowing team.
With over a dozen rowers on the GRP, in addition to about 15 skiers, Sargent is happy to have more athletes around.
“With the rowers, there are other people to hang out with, new friends, more people to work on projects with, more people to train with,” Sargent said. “We all have similar interests and mindsets.”
That mindset is to make the U.S. Olympic Team and to live sustainably, using their brains as much as their athletic skills. Athletes have helped design the new fitness center and touring lodge (due to open in June), built furniture for it, modeled energy use at the COC, maintained the COC’s garden and tended to the animals (chickens, pigs and turkeys), as well as taught fitness programs to the community and coached kids in the Bill Koch League program.
Every June, Dunklee organizes Olympic Day at nearby Hosmer Point, a summer camp, where around several dozen kids participate in Open and Closing Ceremonies, sculling, running, mountain biking, tennis and other sports.
The idea is for the athletes to achieve balance in their lives, have resume material for their post-skiing and post-rowing lives, and even develop skills to make their lives more enjoyable and sustainable. Sargent now loves gardening, and Whelpley has learned to groom trails with a snow machine and to change his own oil.
“I actually was thinking of making a list of mundane things that I’ve done for the first time up here and the really interesting ones as well,” said Whelpley. “All of them I’ve appreciated being able to do.”
On Feb. 7, 2014, the COC held its own Opening Ceremony to celebrate Sargent, Dreissigacker and Dunklee competing in Sochi. They lit a bonfire, and the rowers toasted the three with apple cider.
It brought tears to Sargent’s eyes, and she said, “We will probably do the same when we watch them in Rio.”
Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org and has covered three Olympic Games. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.