Chris Laske’s 6 a.m. coffee is interrupted by the faint cry of his five-week-old baby. Before hammering out morning emails, the Ski and Snowboard Club Vail freeski and snowboard program director settles into his parenting routine, feeding breakfast to his two kids, born just 16 months apart.
Club coaches are the valley’s on-snow educators, their ski-town lives supported by salaries and strapped struggles commensurate to their classroom counterparts. Despite inflationary challenges and an impervious housing market, the institution most responsible for fashioning an Olympic face to our region — Ski and Snowboard Club Vail — somehow manages to recruit and retain staff as the cost of living skyrockets.
“We are committed to high-quality coaching throughout the program,” said John Hale, SSCV’s executive director.
Marketing elite instruction is one thing — how World Cup-caliber coaches actually survive is another. Life stage often determines the answer. When Laske originally showed up to the valley, pre-kids, any housing situation worked.
“What we were looking for in terms of a place to live was very specific for our needs,” Alpine director Brad Wall contrasted, remembering how he, his wife, and their three children, ages 8, 6 and 2, moved from Vermont to Vail.
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Rob and Anje Worrell lie further down life’s road.
“We’re going to be empty-nesters soon and I’m like, gosh I’m sort of glad it’s kind of winding down,” Anje said. “People maybe thought it was silly — like, how do you make a living being a ski coach?”
Jumping the wake
Laske’s Eagle County existence was carved out with a 1970 John Deere backhoe. After flipping his Michigan lake house for a Red Cliff plot, he dug out a basement and built his house — a perfect personality-encapsulating anecdote for a man who started coaching summer wakeboarding and winter snowboarding at 16.
“I’ve just never stopped working,” he said.
With USSA’s snowboarding Super Tour in its infancy, he tried competitive wakeboarding, but four years and a hurt knee later, left Florida and returned to Michigan. Laske wrongly assumed years of documenting athletes’ competitions would translate well into a videography degree. Bored with shooting weddings and “other things I had no interest in,” he dropped out of community college and launched his own wakeboarding and snowboarding coaching school. Then, he met a certain 7-year-old named Kyle Mack.
The prodigy lived 45 minutes from Laske, who was hired by Mack’s parents to transform the family’s garage into a skatepark.
“I started doing wakeboard lessons with him, and then immediately snowboard lessons in the off-seasons,” recalled Laske, who soon was hired to coach Mack full-time. “And it kind of took off from there.”
Mack would win Olympic big air silver in 2018. “He was getting to an age where he was getting more focused with just the U.S. team guys and that’s right when I got the phone call from Vail,” Laske said. “They told me they were in need of a coach.”
Laske moved for the final two months of the 2014-2015 season, living with the Kalapos — Michigan friends (Zoe was a 2022 Olympian) for a month before another club family’s rental fell in his lap.
“Families were just helping me out,” Laske said. His Vail way reached a peak when he became program director that spring. Zooming out, Kyle Mack helped, but it wasn’t the whole story.
“Coaching Kyle, the thought of ever being a really successful coach, honestly wasn’t what I was ever thinking about,” Laske reflected. All along, Laske had been resourceful, hardworking and willing.
“I’ve always made it — I wasn’t well off ever — but I could always pay my bills,” he said when asked if his parents ever tried steering him towards a traditional career. When he paid for his first Michigan house himself, in his 20s, his parents recognized their son’s drive.
Proof of his priority-driven prudence is Laske’s gratitude for the ability to have his wife at home full-time with the couple’s two kids.
“There’s so much value to having your wife raise your kids and we prefer to do it that way if we can,” he said. They’ve come a long way from that first date at the ER (her finger was nearly shaved off by a wakeboard slide gone wrong), thanks in large part to a forward-thinking real estate move. And a John Deere.
“That’s kind of how I can afford to live here and not have a wife who has to work right now,” Laske summarized. “We can make it work and have her raise our kids, which is the most important part.”
“Professionalizing the profession”
When it comes to paying coaches, SSCV Director of Advancement Sharon Schmidt said club program fees aren’t sufficient.
“We rely on fundraising to raise the additional funds needed to attract and retain outstanding coaches and help them receive a salary that allows them to live in the valley,” she said.
Hale’s main goal is to “professionalize the profession,” which means no more coaches working summer construction.
“Some of those guys were really good,” he said. “But, we’re working very hard at making it a career path for kids who are coming out of college. Are you going to make Wall Street money? Of course not. But, can you make a career doing something you love? Absolutely.”
Both Schmidt and Hale championed the importance of attracting and retaining top-level coaches at all levels.
“Not just your FIS athletes,” Schmidt said. “Such an important part of the development pipeline happens when kids are much younger.”
“Typically in ski clubs, your most experienced coaches are with your older athletes,” Hale added. “What we believe strongly in is that you need experienced coaching throughout the journey, otherwise you don’t develop the fundamental skills needed to realize your potential.”
While pedagogically poignant, are Olympic-level coaches eager to hang with the 12-year-olds?
“Fortunately, we’ve had some great success with this,” Hale answered. “We have two guys that have raced on the World Cup, another guy who has raced on the Europa Cup; those guys are coaching the U14s. Rob Worrell is another example.”
Worrell has been Team Summit Alpine program director, a U.S. Ski Team regional coach and was once SSCV’s men’s Alpine director and U16 head coach, winning the USSA Alpine Coach of the Year in 2016. Now, he is the full-time U14 coach. He and his wife Anje — a former U.S. Ski Team and SSWSC coach who currently instructs the U14/U16 part-time, age-class prep and future stars — have intimate knowledge of being club coaches in ski towns…and raising a family along the way.
“It’s a lifer job,” said Anje, who, with her husband, are the two longest-tenured coaches on SSCV’s Alpine staff.
“I feel very fortunate that I’ve been able to do it this many years and it’s always worked out for us as a couple. It’s been stressful at times because it’s never ideal to move, change jobs and things like that — children — but for us, it’s always kind of just worked itself out.”
In 1994, Anje left Bozeman, where she grew up and ski-raced collegiately, for Colorado. Hoping to further her education degree and eventually teach, she “got a little sidetracked” by the prospect of coaching — and one particular locally-raised coach.
“It was like this whole other thing I started imagining. Do I want to be a teacher or do I want to be outside?”
Or maybe both.
“Coaching was just this perfect ideal life and job in my mind when I was in my early 20s,” she continued.
“It probably wasn’t what my parents or grandparents expected me to do, but to me, it was like, this is what makes me happy. It wasn’t about the money. It was about finding a lifestyle where you were excited about your job. For me, it’s never felt like a job because I love it so much.”
Managing the inherent ups and downs of the coaching craft anchored the couple as they crisscrossed Colorado, from Steamboat to Summit, living in a one-bedroom condo, to Crested Butte…and back to Steamboat, where Anje was hired as SSWSC’s first female Alpine director, a “slightly overwhelming role.” Cody, their second son, came into the mix, and having Rob parents in town to help with childcare was huge.
“I could never have coached without them,” Anje admitted.
Their oldest, Zane, retired from competitive Alpine racing in 2021 but still immerses himself in skiing, guiding and mountain biking. Cody is a sophomore on SSCV’s big mountain team. Rob and Anje made every decision with their kids at the forefront, but they weren’t immune to overreaching at times.
“It’s hard as a mom to be a full-time coach. I tried at certain times to do that, even when Zane was little. It was so hard,” she sighed.
“And sometimes I look back and I’m like, I wish I wouldn’t have done that. I wish I would have stayed home more.”
When she compares the ski towns she’s been in, the same challenges always surface — cost of living and home ownership.
“There’s no way to solve it,” she said, considering her family fortunate to have arrived in Vail when they did, able to purchase a duplex to fit their growing family.
“If we had to do it now, there’s no way. We probably wouldn’t have moved here.”
When they did, they brought extensive coaching resumes — at all ages — to the younger side of the skiing spectrum, perfectly in line with Hale’s vision.
“Most coaches stay in one age group their whole career,” Anje said. “I think my career brings my best by seeing the whole picture.”
A couples’ coaching journey isn’t always tidy; Anje’s witnessed many ski-coach marriages end in divorce.
“But we’ve managed to juggle it. It’s probably one of my proudest things that we’ve done together — being able to survive.”
Putting down roots
Hale knows the myriad of life situations that exist on his staff. The young, single candidates seem to figure things out.
“It’s a bedroom here, a lock-off there,” he said. His focus is on families looking to “buy a home and settle down.” Rather than tiny homes or deed-restricted programs, he wants home ownership.
“Especially, how to get our staff that has never owned a home into a situation where they can buy a home in the valley,” he expounded. Hale’s been working on a downpayment assistance program through Alpine Bank and has his eyes fixed on tackling debt-to-income ratio disparity next.
“I mean, at one point you could get into something for 400-500, but now it seems to be 700-800, even down-valley,” Hale said. “I really think that first home is critical and I want to make that happen for our staff.”
Alpine program director Brad Wall is a perfect example of the type of family Hale’s talking about.
A 2002 and 2006 Winter Olympian, Wall arrived in Vail in May 2021 from Burke Mountain Academy. Comparing cost of living between Vail and Vermont’s northeast kingdom ballooned into a “big decision point.”
“There was one point after accepting the offer where I was like, ‘you know, I’m not actually sure we can make this work,’” he said. “We’d done some preliminary research, but spending time out here in the spring and actually looking to see what was available, it wasn’t looking that feasible.”
They lucked out when a former ski club family moved out, offering the Walls a school-year rental, meaning they return to Vermont every summer.
“Going through that process of packing it all up, putting it into storage, driving across the country, just to turn around, unpack it all and do it again — it’s just an added stress,” Wall said.
“But again, we’re more fortunate than most. We’re making it work here — it’s tight — my wife has a great job, I feel as if I have a great job,” he continued, adding that “looking at real estate is daunting.”
Wall’s athlete-to-coach route is a common, though not necessarily well-illuminated path into the industry.
“It’s not like a big corporation where you just put in your time, advance to different levels and titles and pay grades and that’s clearly mapped out. That’s certainly not the case in ski coaching,” he said.
In terms of retaining his current staff, Wall said the club is “doing everything they can,” but sometimes it’s not enough. “Coaches have come to us and said, ‘look, rising interest rates, inflation — I can’t make ends meet currently the way this is going,” he said, adding that SSCV doesn’t have a “bottomless pit of money to bring people in.”
Still, Hale knows providing for his “frontline” is non-negotiable.
“The coaches and the staff are our most important resource,” he said. “People don’t talk about, ‘wow, we love the clubhouse.’ What people talk about is the coach having an impact on their child. That’s what it comes down to. That’s our product if you will — is the coaching. That’s really what SSCV is about.”
Wall agrees. “We want SSCV to be the place to work in the industry,” he proclaimed. “Bottom line here at ski club — the facilities are first-class, it’s no question — but without our coaching staff, we’re going nowhere.”
Hale said a big push in the last five years has been to bring more coaches onto year-round, full-time agreements, since “so much training happens in the summer anyway.” Currently of SSCV’s 120-130 staff, 60 are full-time and 30 have full-time year-round positions. The “highly individualized,” one-year agreements take into account “experience, capability and effectiveness,” Hale noted.
“But it doesn’t necessarily mean that someone who is relatively new to coaching and is extremely effective doesn’t get a great wage and someone who’s been coaching a long time, and perhaps is not that effective, does get a great wage.”
SSCV doesn’t include incentives for medals or Olympic nominations in those agreements, focusing instead on “improvement for all.”
“That’s the messaging to the staff — it’s a rising tide that lifts all boats,” Hale said. “If it says SSCV on your jacket, we want those athletes and those families to have an incredible experience — and because of that focus, we want great coaching throughout,” Hale said.
Laske said his staff are making something “in the range of a teacher’s salary,” and, with perks like ski and fitness center passes, a 403-b program, and attractive work-life balance in the summer months, “have a pretty good situation.” Hale said the pay is “extremely competitive compared to other programs across the country.
“Sometimes, one of those programs will try to recruit one of our coaches and they will come back and say, ‘gosh, they’re not even close,’” Hale divulged.
Even though losing staff to another program occasionally happens, Hale’s more worried coaches will leave the industry for increasingly attractive work-from-home opportunities. His solution hearkens back to his main goals: professionalizing the profession and home ownership.
“We’re committed to paying a very competitive wage because of the cost of living in the Vail Valley,” he said. “We want that quality coaching throughout so every athlete in the program is having a fantastic experience.”
Making it work
“I think we’re all going through this transition,” Worrell opined about the state of ski towns.
“Because stuff continues to get more expensive, we’re finding that maybe not as many people are coming into the sport to be coaches,” she continued, likening the situation to classroom teachers.
“They’re going, ‘how would I afford to be a teacher and make a life in Vail?’”
Despite any perceived challenges, Wall’s advice to a fresh college graduate looking to break into coaching would be to go for it, “remain flexible,” and know housing will likely be an issue.
“I think for a first-year coach we can make pretty competitive offers and get to a place that is viable,” he offered.
“We have to make a way, but living in a place like Vail is awesome,” Worrell said of the cost-benefit analysis behind taking a ski coaching job in the mountains versus looking for employment in another region or sector, like she originally planned with education.
“Some people hyper-focus on material things and not necessarily what’s going to make them personally happy in a job and motivated to keep going.”
“Coaching is similar to being a teacher: you’re doing it for the love of what you’re doing,” Laske added.
“There’s a lot of perks to what we do, but there’s not a ton of money in it. So yeah, it’s tough living in the Vail Valley, but I would say our club is definitely one of the highest-paying clubs out there.”
For every coach, the main love is interacting with young people.
“That’s what gets me up going to work every day,” Worrell said. “You’re trying to make a difference in their life.”
Tracing back to her initial question: “how do you make a living as a ski coach?” Worrell can answer, “I think it’s more about what makes you happy, and that’s how we’ve always looked at it.”
“Happiness is what you make of your life.”