It was an absolutely blue-bird day at Mt. Bachelor Ski Resort, on March 4th, 2005. It was the OISRA Skiing State Championships Giant Slalom and I was in the start-house staring down what would most definitely be my last run of my high school career. If you had been around the Lakeridge Ski Team program at any time during the better half of the preceding decade, you would have known the kind of culture that Coach Brad and Pam Loehner had created for the boys and girls alpine racing team from Lake Oswego, Oregon. There was a sense of excellence that was almost palpable when you spent time around the Lakeridge Ski Team, and it was certainly because of the coaching staff. Although my heart was beating out of my chest from nervousness that afternoon, there was one man left up at the start-house representing Lakeridge that had the mind to help me point my tips downhill that day. His name was Jeff Young, “Coach Jeff” to the Lakeridge Pacers.
While my teenaged emotions had my mind everywhere BUT this particular start house, Jeff was deliberately scrapping the wax off my skis, whacking away at the chunked-up ice and snow that had built up on the bottom of my boots and placed my skis in front of each of my feet. He patted down my upper arms to help me get the blood flowing as I slid into the “wand” that would start the timer. As I stared down the top section of the course he said one thing, “Just rip as hard as you can, and we could win this thing!”
Now, anyone who has known a teenager and/or a head case athlete like I was, would think what he had just said would have sent me into a self destructive tailspin of nerves that would result in a “DNF” or “DQ” displayed up on the results board in less than 2 minutes. But if you could have only heard his voice at that moment, you would know why it led to the cleanest G.S. run I ever had in either high school or college racing. This man had a sort of laid-back tone to his voice that made every story he told on a chairlift make you want to sit down and hear the rest of it back at the lodge where you could devote all your attention to him. He was the kind of coach that only spoke when he had something he truly wanted to say, and it was always right to the point. “You just gotta rip it, you know?” was a common statement when I skied for Coach Jeff. Eventually, after enough runs with Jeff, I “knew” exactly what that meant. When I spoke to him about technical stuff he didn’t have to get technical with his explanations, I could just feel the kind of turn he was talking about in my own feet.
High school aged ski racing is an environment in which head coaches have to control expectations and emotions in order to keep their racers competitive. One ounce of over-confidence or lack of confidence is a slippery slope that almost ALWAYS costs you a fulfilling result. Ski racing for a high school is also very interesting in its dynamic of team results. So while everyone is competing against each other, you also have to be very heady about what your team is producing as a whole. Without an assistant coach like Jeff, we would have been over-thinking every turn we made. There is an equilibrium to a skier’s focus where laid- back commentary like, “just kill it” or “lay down a nice and smooth arc right here,” will ALWAYS be needed to keep young people balanced physically and mentally, like Jeff did.
As a skier for Jeff, you most often saw him in his helmet and goggles at the hill. So it was somewhat of a surreal treat to see him at the end of the day with his big glasses and a big smile to match that voice of his. While most assistant coaches in high school sports are the kind of people who put off a vibe that their presence is more of a formality to help head coaches baby-sit their teen athletes, Jeff’s presence was always warm, productive and focused on getting better at skiing while having fun. Whether it was race day at Mount Hood Meadows and everyone was anxious to get out and race, or it was pouring down rain at Mt. Hood Ski Bowl during a Thursday night training session and no one wanted to put on their boots, Jeff was ready to rip! There would be moans and groans as backpacks draped with ski boots were slammed down on the cafeteria tables. While we were all adamant that nothing would get us into rubber jackets and on that hill, sure enough Jeff and his daughter Hanna Young arrived. The positivity would literally bubble through the doorway in the form of a 9-year- old girl in a yellow racing helmet. Did I mention that this 9-year-old could effectively out-ski over half the team? Hannah and her father were a package deal at most practices or races because Jeff was recently raising her on his own after his wife had passed away. It’s never easy losing a loved one, but it blew my mind how positive Jeff continued to be. While it was the best way for them to be together while he was coaching, it was just as good for our team because Hanna loved skiing just as much as her father and we all soaked that love in whenever she was around.
The sense of excellence I spoke of at the beginning of this article was directly correlated with the sense of family that everyone felt on Lakeridge Ski Team. Brad Loehner and his wife Pam brought in some of their closest friends to make the success of Lakeridge Ski Team very real. Little did I know, that at 18 years old, my handful of rides up a chairlift with a certain ski coach and his daughter would be where I absorbed some of the most passion and positivity I’ve ever known in sports. Before Coach Jeff Young went on to share his time and his lovely daughter with other ski racers in other communities, I had the pleasure of skiing with a man who “ripped” as a coach, “ripped” as a friend, and “ripped” as a father. He was the kind of role model that everyone should have, in any sport, at any level.
Editor’s Note: Reis Nielsen is an intern here at The Ski Channel, and we thank him for this moving account of a beloved figure in his and many other’s lives.