OGDEN — Dustin Linker and Lynn Neil moved to Ogden several years ago, attracted by the area’s supreme outdoor recreation scene — especially the vibrant local ski and snowboard community.
It wasn’t long before they saw the need for a wide-reaching organization that could bring locals with common interests and aspirations together.
Four years ago, shortly after relocating from Jackson Hole and enrolling at Weber State University, Neil started a snowboarding club on campus and brought on Linker as the coach.
“As great as it was, we saw an additional need in the community,” Linker said. “We could only teach college students, but we saw the need to reach more people outside of campus.”
That realization served as the beginnings of the Wasatch Project, a local nonprofit organization that, among other goals, helps turn young snowboarders and skiers into international competitors.
The Wasatch Project is a team, training program and freestyle community dedicated to the youth and future of snowboarding and freeskiing. It specializes in training young athletes who want to take their abilities to the next level, offering professional coaching for intermediate to advanced riders and skiers.
“We provide a more structured environment for them to train in,” said Ryan Bever, a coach and program director for the project. “We take what the ski schools have already taught them and take it to the next level.”
However, he said, its mission goes well beyond merely getting competitors onto the podium and into the money.
“The only requirement is you have to have drive,” he said. “You don’t have to be going pro — you just have to want to be here and be the best you can be. Mostly, we want them to enjoy themselves and have a good time.”
For roughly $1,500, those who enroll in the program get a season pass, expert one-on-one coaching, access to indoor training facilities and other benefits. The dozens currently enrolled range in age from eight to 26. Training programs are tailored primarily to ability and level of expertise, factors in which often comes into play.
Bever said comparable programs in Park City charge around $3,500 without including a season pass.
During the off-season, local training includes trampoline practice at the Get Air indoor trampoline park in Roy twice a week. The group also has regular “Jibbin’ in the Park” events on Saturdays in which it sets up terrain park features in local parks, trucking in snow from the Weber County Ice Sheet to allow skiers and riders to practice.
They also have some access to the water ramps at Utah Olympic Park in Park City.
For additional cost, there are summer training trips to Mount Hood in Oregon, which has snow year-round on its upper reaches; and to Argentina, which has its winter while Utah is in mid-summer.
The group is also about to head out on a six-week training trip to Colorado, which typically has the earliest resort openings in the country. Linker said the team mainly splits its time between Keystone and Breckenridge resorts.
At first, Neil said, the Wasatch Project was only a snowboarding program. It has since expanded to include freeskiing, and now participants are split evenly between skiers and snowboarders.
While the team includes people from all over the country and even the world, “we have lots of locals involved,” Neil said.
Linker emphasized that getting more local skiers and riders involved is the project’s top priority.
“We want the best riders, but we really want to focus on having a strong base of locals,” he said. “It has been a struggle getting locals to come aboard.”
The team has been producing strong results in various competitions.
Snowboarder Caden Michnal placed sixth in the Canadian Open last year, and competed in the slopestyle finals of the Gatorade Free Flow Tour during the Winter Dew Tour championship at Snowbasin in February.
Another Wasatch Project rider, Justin Morgan, placed first in the Last Chance Qualifying event at the same competition.
“All of our kids have the potential to be as good as they want to be,” Bever said, adding that seven riders and skiers from the Wasatch Project team will compete at various levels in this season’s upcoming Winter Dew Tour.
Most of the participants are still in school, which presents some logistical challenges when the team is traveling. Most of the students still need to keep up with schoolwork and be supervised while on the road, so Wasatch Project coaches also serve as cooks, educators, and in other roles while the kids are away from home.
“With larger groups, we discovered that in some cases we could house, train, feed and educate them, all for less than it would cost at home,” Linker said.
In trying to set up a structure where the kids can get the training they need without interfering with school, the project’s next big goal is to set up an academy in the area where students can fulfill both needs under one roof. Bever said many of the kids are balancing school with more than 200 days of training and competing annually.
“When I started snowboarding, you just skipped school and went,” he said. “We’re making it so kids don’t have to choose between the two.”
The academy would be a normal, K-12, year-round school, allowing kids to take the winter off from their regular studies. It would combine classrooms with a trampoline facility, as well as skate and terrain park areas.
Since the academic side would be federally funded, Bever said it would cost only a fraction of what others charge.
“This would be the first of its kind,” he said. “There’s no other winter sports academy doing this with federal funds.”
He has been meeting with Ogden officials and consulted with a company that has opened several charter schools in Utah, but nothing has been finalized.
Most who join the Wasatch Project have their sights set on careers as professional athletes, but the program isn’t just about producing the next Louie Vito or Jen Hudak.
Most skiers and riders won’t make it as athletes alone, so the Wasatch Project also helps kids into other careers in the snow sports industry such as photography, videography, product design and marketing.
“Only so many are going to make it (as pro athletes), so we look at other jobs as well,” Linker said. “We emphasize the whole lifestyle.”
One major barrier the Wasatch Project tries to eliminate, or at least mitigate, is money. While their programs are affordable relative to the industry norm, shelling out more than $1,000 is still prohibitive for many kids who could be very successful if given a chance.
While they are quick to credit partners like Get Air and Powder Mountain, which have given them team discounts on facility use and season passes, the coaches themselves sometimes end up digging into their own pockets to help a kid pay his way.
“We do quite a bit of charity,” Bever said. “We don’t want to see talented and dedicated kids left out just because of money.”
Linker said breaking into the professional ranks is difficult because it can cost as much as $100,000 up-front before an athlete gets to where he or she can make a living at it.
“We want it to be more mainstream, like football, where a poor kid from a disadvantaged background can still make a pro career,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Wasatch Project continues to provide a team atmosphere for people who compete in a highly individual sport, Bever said.
“It’s such an independent sport. This gives them a family.”
To learn more
The Wasatch Project will host an informational meeting at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 8 at Get Air Sports indoor trampoline park, 1821 W. 4000 South, Roy. Parents and children are invited to learn what the program offers and try the trampolines for free. For more information, call 801-564-5358.