When Gunnison Junior Nordic skier Garrett Butts stepped to the start line for the 5-kilometer mass start skate race Sunday, Jan. 22 in Aspen, he had something to prove. Butts had finished second in his previous three races — two of them decided by less than a second.
“It just lit a fire under me,” Butts recalled. “I thought, I’m not going to get second again.”
Butts went into the race with a plan. He attacked a kilometer-and-a-half into the competition, and fellow racers began dropping like flies.
“I just kept hummin’,” he said. “My parents call it having the tiger in the tank.’”
By the time he crossed the finish line, Butts had tallied a 25-second lead on the nearest competitor. With the finish, he now sits in first place in Rocky Mountain Nordic Qualifier standings for the U16 age bracket.
Butts, a 15-year-old Gunnison High School (GHS) student, is hoping to make a name for himself this year after struggling through injury and illness for much of last season. Last year, Butts traveled to Cable, Wisc., to compete at Junior Nationals with the help of a merit scholarship from Crested Butte Snowsports Foundation (CBSF).
While the young racer wasn’t satisfied with his performances at nationals last year, the experience lit a fire under him.
“It kind of left a question mark in the air of what am I capable of,” Butts explained. “I had such a weird season. I knew I didn’t perform to my full potential there.”
As a result, over the last year Butts has dedicated himself to year-round training for Nordic — including using competition on GHS’ cross country team this past fall as a way to stay in top shape.
Now that the season is well underway, a typical day of training for Butts entails getting up bright and early to run and strength train prior to school. After school, he and his team ski for about an hour-and-a-half. Upon returning home well after dark, he stretches his muscles before turning to homework.
“He’s completely committed,” said mom and coach Ingrid. “He’s on the TV watching World Cup skiing technique every night. For a 15-year-old, he’s thinking more like a 25-year-old.”
Ingrid adds her son has learned that success in Nordic racing isn’t just about who’s the fittest — but who skis the smartest race, an approach that paid dividends this past weekend.
Butts’ sights are set on at least one first-place finish this year at nationals.
Perhaps it was only a matter of time before Butts found his stride in Nordic ski racing. His mother raced at the NCCA level in college before competing in the Olympics. His father, Kendall, previously served as the head coach of Western State Colorado University’s ski program, was an assistant for the U.S. Olympic Team and head coach of the U.S. Olympic adaptive ski program.
Ingrid and Kendall now share coaching responsibilities for the Gunnison Nordic Team program — comprised of nine athletes this season spanning age 8 to 15, six of whom travel to large competitions.
Butts was one of three Gunnison Nordic Team athletes to receive a CBSF merit scholarship this year, which he says will help him reach the national stage. The foundation’s mission is to provide financial support for the youth in Crested Butte and Gunnison in their pursuit of sportsmanship, passion, excellence and discipline through snow sport experiences.
“It costs over two grand just to go (to nationals). There are additional expenses that come with traveling,” Butts explained. “Financially, it helps tremendously.”
In coming years, Butts’ sights are set on even bigger goals — including qualifying for Junior Worlds. He hopes to graduate high school a year early, giving him a year to train. And, of course, the Olympics looms on the horizon.
“That would be one of my bigger goals,” he said.