The Kids are Alright!

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By: Paul Von Boeck

I’ve got a part time job for you. I think you’ll be great. April through June and it’s light work, all administrative. Meetings, phone calls, emails – easy stuff. July gets a little busier. Talking to a lot of customers, pitching the product, a little bit of hand holding – you’ll be perfect for this. August things pick up. In addition to the admin stuff you’ll be working 2-3 evenings every week and you’ll be out of town two weekends – you like travel right? September through October is our busy time. You’ll be out of town two weekends a month, and you’ll have commitments on the Saturdays you are home and 2 evenings a week. You might need to think about hiring someone to mow your lawn and take care of your house. We don’t have any budget for payroll. Are you interested? This was the start of my volunteer coaching career.

In 2009 the National Interscholastic Cycling League (NICA) was branching out from their California origins with the goal of spinning off state leagues coast to coast in the United States. Colorado was the first stop and Kate Rau was pulling the cart. I met Kate in the back corner of Denver’s Velo Swap where she was spreading the word about the new high school mountain bike league she just launched. There were no teams, coaches or riders. Just a plan. We chatted for a bit and I walked away thinking it would be awesome if this was still around when my kids made it to high school.

Fast forward to 2019 and the Colorado High School league celebrated its 10th anniversary with the Decade of Dirt. There were 79 teams, 779 coaches and 1598 riders and included teams from neighboring New Mexico and Wyoming. In addition to the two founding leagues in California, NICA leagues have spread to 30 states.

I reconnected with Kate in 2011 to find a team in Colorado Springs for my son. He was in middle school and had expressed an interest in racing his bike. We hooked up with the only team in town and he finished out 8th grade riding with their club. By virtue of the fact that I had to shuttle him to rides and knew something about racing bikes, I was recruited to help coach. In 2012 we successfully pitched the idea of a mountain bike club and race team to his high school and got the thumbs up. With a few good ideas and exposure to the NICA way of athlete development, Highlander Racing was up and running with a team of 6 adolescents including 1 young lady-shredder. The team has matured over the years with a roster of 15-20 riders and our lady-shredder contingent gets bigger every year. Our riders are first time racers, enduro riders, adventurers and USAC XC podium contenders. Awesome kids. Every one of them.

Probably the most impactful event in the experience of anyone associated with a NICA team is attending their first race. I’ve tried to describe it before, but words fall short. A list of memorable take-aways from a Colorado League race would include the following: there is no bench. If a rider is on the team they race. Hundreds of kids racing. Girls. Lot’s of them. Competing in races that weren’t tacked on as an afterthought. Races start on time. Results are available in real time. Parents, teammates and coaches line the course and cheer for everyone. Riders encourage each other. High-fives. Port-a-potties are clean and almost never run out of TP.

I didn’t start the team with a long-term plan. I figured I would get my son through high school and hand over the reins to another parent who got caught in the wake like I did. I’d get part of my life back and walk away with some great memories. A look in the crystal ball would have presented a different outcome. After the first two years, our staff was a two-man operation and we were not having much luck recruiting volunteers who could commit to much more than helping out at practice once a week. As we kicked off my son’s senior season I was getting worried because team membership had grown to the high teens and my backup was looking at a long-term military deployment. This was the turning point when I finally had a few parents step up to contribute, a host of random members of the community and relocated NICA coaches materialized. The team has been riding a wave of consistent support ever since.

What has come out of this has been the development of a community that I never could have imagined.

I’ve been thinking of walking away for the past 5 years. This feeling is strongest at the end of October when we’ve wrapped up the season and I can start playing catch up with my life. Each Spring I still find myself excited at the prospect of the upcoming season. I’ve taken steps in the last couple of years to transition into a role that fits me a little better and balances my work and family life with coaching obligations. I’ve thought a lot about what keeps me coming back and articulate my motivations in the following way:

I’m writing this up in May 2020 and reading all that I’ve written through the lens of the COVID 19 Pandemic. Like my entry into coaching, I believe the outcome of the pandemic will be unlike anything any of us can imagine. Many are faced with an economic burden that will change the trajectory of our lives. I hope when you are reading this story, you can relate to a call of service. If you are like me and have a place in your community, it is incredibly satisfying to give back. Or if you are searching to find a way to contribute, even doing the smallest thing could help and you could become a hero to someone.

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