WORDS: Danielle Shapiro
Emily Coombs' late husband, Doug Coombs, was one of the greatest skiers of all time, a two-time World Extreme Skiing champion, and a pioneer of the sport. People call him a legend.
But the nonprofit organization she started in his name, partly as a way to preserve his legacy, is not really about skiing.
The Doug Coombs Foundation, an organization formed to give low-income children the chance to ski, is actually about poverty and inequality, opportunity, empowerment, and integration. It's about breaking down barriers, dreaming big, seeking adventure, and experiencing deep joy—the qualities that defined and drove Doug himself.
"Skiing is just the tool," says Coombs, 54, a highly accomplished skier herself, "because it's what I know."
With that tool, and her three-year-old foundation, Coombs raised enough money to get about 160 children and 25 adults from low-income families carving turns on Jackson, Wyoming's Snow King Mountain this winter alone. As the organization has grown since its inception in 2012 it now also provides support for children to do other sports year-round in order to keep them active and engaged. With an overall budget of about $180,000 this year, $85,000 of which goes to winter programing, the foundation provides the gear, clothing, and ski school lessons for children who qualify for free or reduced lunch at school, as well as for some of their parents. Families pay a $50 fee for each student, if they can afford it, because, as Coombs said, "it gives them skin in the game."
Coombs' vision was on full display on Sunday, March 22, at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort during the sixth annual Marmot Coombs Classic, an event to honor Doug's life. About 60 children and 15 parents from the foundation skied with lift tickets donated by the resort. Some took lessons while others skied with friends and a handful of volunteers, including foundation board members and supporters.
On a late-morning gondola ride, six boys—all friends originally from soccer and now skiing together for the first time—devoured chocolate, granola bars, and clementines to fuel their next run. Three of the boys were part of the foundation and new to Teton Village. The other three boys, who spend each Saturday at the resort with the Jackson Hole Ski and Snowboard Club, gamely led them to every jump they could find.
That gondola ride, it seemed, was really the whole point: introducing all children to a sport central to this town's culture, fostering integration and equal opportunity in the process. "This is what you hope for in the classroom, on the field, and on the mountain," says Mary Hoelscher, a high school English teacher and foundation board member whose two sons were among the crew. "So it feels like a real feat."
Although Coombs did not specifically start the organization to serve Jackson's Latino population, she said most participants are from families of Hispanic origin. Many of the parents are immigrants and their children first-generation Americans.
These families comprise a fast-growing segment of the community. Since 2000, Teton County's Latino population has grown from about 6.5 percent to 15 percent, according to census figures. In Jackson proper, 30 percent of the population is Hispanic. And although the county is known for its wealth—average household incomes are nearly $104,000 compared to about $73,000 nationally—not everyone makes such money. For many of the Latino families in the area, life is defined by hard work in jobs like food service, retail, and construction, long hours, and incomes that leave little extra for things like skiing.
"And now it all just seems like, wow, how could this not be? Why didn't I see this the day he died? Because you can't. But you know you want to do something because when there is tragedy you have to make good of it."
"I hated seeing these kids not participating," said Coombs from the home she shares in Jackson with her son, David, 11.
A few years after Doug died, on April 3, 2006, Coombs began thinking about how to honor his legacy. She also needed a job, one she found meaningful. By marshaling her skills and interests, including skiing, photography, and a knack for business—she started steep-skiing camps and a heli skiing operation with Doug and a photo company on her own years earlier—Coombs arrived at last at her next step.
"It took me five years to figure this out. It seems so obvious now, but I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life!" she said, explaining her feelings after Doug's death. "And now it all just seems like, wow, how could this not be? Why didn't I see this the day he died? Because you can't. But you know you want to do something because when there is tragedy you have to make good of it."
This year the foundation paid for 123 children to ski all winter long on Saturdays with instructors at Snow King. Some also take lessons on Thursday afternoons. Still others ski with volunteers mid-week after school. The organization also provided equipment for eligible children who skied at Teton Village once a week with their school and, this year, the foundation covered one day of rentals and lessons for a small group of students from the Wind River Indian Reservation in Lander, Wyoming.
For Coombs, being executive director of the foundation is a dream job. "I feel like it's my calling," she said. "It's what was meant to come next."
Having grown from serving just 28 children in its first year, the program is quickly building the town's newest crop of winter enthusiasts.
Jordan Vargas, 10, had seen ski racers on television and was intrigued. But his parents work multiple jobs and they couldn't afford to pay for skiing. His mom is the assistant manager for the local hospital's employee and patient housing complex. His dad is a housekeeper there and he cleans cars for Avis. So Jordan got creative, and took to sledding down the piles of snow that accumulated each winter in his driveway.
These days Jordan is an actual ski racer, he'll proudly tell you, and one of two students the foundation has supported to join the Jackson Hole Ski and Snowboard Club's alpine racing program. The club pays half the tuition and the foundation pays the other half as well as providing equipment and season passes to Snow King and Teton Village.
"When I get older I want to be like an actual champion of the whole wide world," says Jordan.
Coombs has been surprised not only by how her program has taken off, but by how much she's bonded with the families it serves. She knows almost all of the children by name, and sometimes gets running hugs when they see her in the supermarket. And skiing with them, which she does regularly, has made the sport fun again, something she lost when Doug died.
"Without really realizing it, this became the biggest healer," she said. "Aside from having David and the horses and the cats and the dogs, when I started to get to know this community and these children, I started to feel good again. It wasn't like I felt bad, I just didn't feel much."
Coombs often says of her husband that he was just a big kid and would have fit right in with her efforts now.
"Doug followed his dream," Coombs said, "so he teaches us that you dream big and don't let anyone tell you that you can't do something or steer you in a direction that you're really not cut out to be on."
It's perhaps the main lesson she hopes the children in her program learn.
Apparently, they are. While on the Sublette chair, the three foundation boys from that earlier gondola ride, Yael Romero, 11, Sahir Romero, 10, and Johan Garcia, 9, shared what they knew of Doug.
"He did things we couldn't even imagine," said Yael.
"He proved to people that it's possible to do impossible things," added Johan.
"And he was a really nice guy," said Sahir.
When asked, they all said he has inspired them to be great athletes, skiers, soccer players, and for Johan, a doctor too. Yael voiced the biggest take away.
"And don't give up on your dreams," he said, "just like he never gave up."
Back in the sunny yard of her home, horses grazing behind her, Coombs recalled her own journey to this point and her feelings on the day Doug died. In her grief, all she could think then was, 'OK, here is how the story ended.'
Watching those three boys as they got off the lift and met their friends—"let's go!" they yelled, barely wanting to stop for a boot to be re-buckled or a ski route to be chosen—it's clear how wrong she was.