Posted by: Shauna Farnell
About 35% of the nearly 4,000 athletes at the 2023 GoPro Mountain Games in Vail, Colorado, were 19 years old or younger
Along with the abundance of adorable dogs at the GoPro Mountain Games in Vail, Colorado, you’ve probably also noticed a growing number of groms (18 and under humans) in attendance. And guess what? They’re not just here to pet the dogs or collect free swag.
New for 2023, nearly every competition at the Mountain Games included a grom division for ages 13 to 18. Not only have the divisions given younger athletes a platform to compete against their peers, but it is building the future of the Mountain Games as well as the future of these sports.
“It’s important so it’s more fair and a better experience than just competing against people like Dane Jackson who will beat you by like a minute,” said Hawkins Blair, 12, who, along with his 17-year-old brother Sawyer, competed in the TINCUP Down River Kayak Sprint. “It’s important so it can keep going on for generations and generations, so younger people can know, I can do this sport. I can keep doing it at a high level.”
Hawkins said that some friends on his lacrosse team are now interested in trying kayaking and will likely join the youth category in future events. His father, Joe Blair, who co-founded the Mountain Games as a whitewater festival 22 years ago, is blown away by the evolution of youth participation in all events.
“When I was checking the kids in for their races, this guy in the window next to me was checking in with his mom, I think for climbing. That kid was not much older than 9 or 10,” Blair said. “It’s cool to see younger kids coming out, not just grabbing swag but competing in these sports that they love. I think it’s about the environment you live in. What I go back to is about the parenting. I was a kayaker and a rafter. That’s what my family does. Now I’ve got my two boys doing the races. My daughter isn’t racing, but she loves being in the river. It’s a lot of that parent influence as well as seeing different events like this with categories for kids. Seeing younger kids compete and participate, other kids are like, ‘Wow, Mom. That looks really fun.’”
Kids seeing kids in events indeed leads to more kids wanting to participate.
Ellayna Potter, 15, came to the Mountain Games for the first time in 2023 along with a group of teens from Fort Collins to compete in the adidas Terrex 10K Spring Runoff. She ended up winning the girls 15-16 category. She said the experience has her hooked. She plans to return next year, with even more friends.
“It’s definitely motivating to know there are people here with the same skill level as you,” she said. “We have a really good opportunity to do well when we compete against people our own age. I think it’s a good way to get more teenagers involved in this.”
Cade Shortridge, 16, competed in the Mountain Games for the second year in 2023. Also from Fort Collins, he made the trip in 2022 and competed in the XC Mountain Bike race, which had already added numerous youth categories. Motivated by his eighth-place finish among 15 to 16-year-old experts last year, Shortridge returned this year and competed in both the GMC Down River SUP Sprint and the adidas Terrex 10K. He landed on the podium in both events, finishing second in SUP and winning his category in the 10K.
“Having these categories makes people’s goals more attainable,” Shortridge said. “Lots of kids come in and if they see in SUP they’re going against a national champ, they’re not going to do it. If there’s a category for them, they’ll definitely think about it. It opens possibilities for more young people to get into it.”
About 35% of the nearly 4,000 athletes at the 2023 GoPro Mountain Games were 19 years old or younger. The Vail Valley Foundation, organizers of the GoPro Mountain Games, look forward to focusing more on the next generation of Mountain Games athletes in 2024 and beyond.
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