Craftsbury Outdoor Center's Secret To Churning Out Olympians

Feb 20, 2018

The Craftsbury Outdoor Center, in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, has trained six athletes competing in the Pyeongchang Olympics. That’s about half the winter athletes on the Center’s Green Racing Project team.

Which begs the question, what's their secret? I went to Craftsbury to on a raw, January afternoon to find out.

Outside the center's main building, dozens of kids are tightening up their boots and stepping into their cross-country skis. As the youngest skiers start to cluster around their coaches, an older group makes its way down to the shooting range.

While coming to ski after school is routine for these kids, this is their first time shooting rifles – the other skill in the sport of biathlon.

The kids break into smaller groups, each clustered behind a black shooting mat. They take turns lying down and taking aim at a set of targets in the woods. There’s a coach at each mat, all of them masters at the sport.

Among them is Morristown native, Hannah Dreissigacker.

This time four years ago, Dreissigacker was competing in biathlon at the Sochi Olympics. This week, her little sister Emily is doing the same in Peyeongchang.

Hannah grew up skiing in Craftsbury, but she says it wasn’t the type of place that was necessarily looking to churn out Olympians.

Bill Koch League skiers at Craftsbury Outdoor Center get a lecture on rifle safety before giving shooting a try.
Credit courtesy Judy Geer

"The club I was a part of had, you know, a handful of kids," she says. "It happened to be a really, kind of very competitive and high-level group, a number of who are going to the Olympics this year."

If you follow Nordic skiing or biathlon, you’ve probably heard of some of Hannah’s 2014 Olympic teammates.

She explains, "I was there with Susan Dunklee and Ida Sargent and, they were girls I skied with from when we were, you know, 10, 11, 12, something  –  really young kids – we would race against each other. So, that was pretty special."

Although Hannah has retired from racing, Dunklee – who’s from Barton – and Sargent – from Orleans – are now competing in South Korea, along with four other athletes from Craftsbury’s Green Racing Project.

Dunklee, Clare Egan and Hannah’s sister – Emily Dreissigacker – are on the U.S. Biathlon Team.

Sargent, Caitlin Patterson and Elmore native Kaitlynn Miller made the cross-country team.

Hannah and Emily’s parents, Dick Dreissigacker and Judy Geer, are both Olympic rowers.

And a decade ago they bought the Craftsbury Outdoor Center and turned it into a nonprofit. At that time, if local Nordic skiers wanted to compete after college, the closest place they could train was in northern Maine.

In Craftsbury, they already had coach Pepa Miloucheva, who, back in the '90s, started Dunklee, Sargent and the Dressigacker sisters on their Olympic journeys.

So as Geer explains, they created a new program with their coach:

"The Green Racing Project really sort of grew out of a New England need to figure out a way of supporting New England kids who had graduated from college but still wanted to reach their goals in skiing," says Geer.

The Catamounts are the youngest group of after school skiers at the Craftsbury Outdoor Center and Geer says, altogether, there are about 60 of them.
Credit courtesy Judy Geer

At the same time, the center set out to grow its youth programs. Geer says, that’s really where the Olympic journey starts.

"When I think about developing Olympians," she says, "it’s not about picking a kid who looks like they have promise and saying, ‘You’re going to be an Olympian.’ It’s not that at all."

Instead, Geer says it’s about giving access and support to all young skiers:

"Making sport available to any kid who wants to try it, regardless of income, and helping them learn and helping them enjoy it, and making it fun and something they want to keep doing. And then at the right stage, if they become more interested and more focused and start to set goals — then we have the coaches who can help them do that too."

Geer says community is another ingredient in the Olympian formula.

"It’s really creating a community and a culture around sport," she explains. "And I think that if you do that right, it’s fun, it’s sustainable, it’s something they want to keep going, and if there are Olympians in your crew, they will emerge."

Because if it’s not fun, why do it?

"I know one thing we always used to say to our kids, two of whom have now become Olympians, is that you have to enjoy the process," Geer says. "You know, you can’t make yourself miserable for 12 years because your goal is to make the Olympics. It’s not going to work. It has to come out of doing what you love and following your passion."

And that lesson clearly sunk in for Hannah Dreissigacker:

"I see a lot of other people in the sports putting so much emphasis on making the Olympics," she says. "And it’s all about the Olympics and not about the process and enjoying it and, you know, the community and self-improvement and stuff like that. So I was always really careful to try to – as much as my parents being Olympians made me want to be an Olympian – I didn’t want to have that be like the reason I was doing sport."

And as it turns out, Hannah’s favorite thing about being an Olympian is the impact it has on her Vermont community.

Hannah Dreissigacker coaches a young skier who is taking aim at the biathlon targets for the first time.
Credit courtesy Judy Geer

"There are some things about the Olympics that I have trouble with, kind of the size and commerciality and stuff of them, she says. "... By far the coolest part for me was the amount of support and excitement from people back home. And … you see how much it inspires the kids. That was definitely the coolest thing for me."

While her younger sister is taking in her first Olympic experience, Hannah is back in Craftsbury, possibly helping to foster a future Olympic biathlete.


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