When Latino and Nordic meet
Two Bronc freshmen break language, cultural barrier to join cross-country team.
By Brandon Zimmerman, Jackson Hole, Wyo. January 7, 2009
The flashcards were Dr. Bill Neal’s idea.
The laminated cards are used by Jackson Hole High School Nordic skiing coach Walt Berling and his assistants to help communicate with their newest freshmen – Erick Ortiz and Israel Garcia.
The cards have about two dozen key Nordic ski terms translated from English to Spanish. Of course, Berling doesn’t need to look up his most commonly used coaching phrase these days: mas rapido.
“That’s probably my favorite,” he said.
Berling, who has coached at Jackson Hole High for 22 years, is experiencing a first this season. Two of his freshman skiers – Ortiz and Garcia – do not speak English. Ortiz and Garcia, both 15, moved to Jackson from Mexico City late last summer and are studying in the high school’s English Language Learner’s program.
They are clearly the most unlikely students to find their way onto the Bronc Nordic team. After all, neither had ever seen snow before moving to Jackson.
“I didn’t think it [the snow] was going to be that great,” Ortiz said through a translator at the school. “But it was better than what I expected.”
Ortiz and Garcia didn’t know each other before coming to Jackson. However, they shared classes together and soon decided they wanted to join the school’s Nordic team. It was a ground-breaking decision.
While most Latinos in the community are passionate about soccer or basketball, Ortiz and Garcia opted to take a different path. Their reason was simple.
“I just wanted to know what it [skiing] was all about,” Ortiz said.
Garcia shared the opinion.
The classmates have been forced to overcome plenty of obstacles in their quest to learn a new sport. Neal, who helps volunteer with the team once a week, recalls the teens’ opening practice.
“The first time I went out to practice, they didn’t have any hats on and they had these little knit gloves,” Neal said. “They weren’t prepared.”
However, their coaches and faculty at the school have delivered plenty of support to Ortiz and Garcia. Since they cannot afford their own ski equipment, Garcia and Ortiz have been skiing with equipment donated from members of the community and faculty at the school.
“People just donated equipment,” Berling said. “We just threw stuff together.”
And now, Garcia and Ortiz are setting a new precedent in the Hispanic community. The two are the first Latino Nordic skiers Berling has coached, and he also believes they are the first in the state.
“It’s a first in all my years,” he said.
Garcia and Ortiz seem oblivious to the trend they are setting, or to the fact that they soon could become role models for Jackson’s younger Latin community.
“They’re trying to get immersed in the Jackson Hole culture,” said Liliana Treick, a registrar at Jackson Hole High School who is fluent in Spanish and works with Garcia and Ortiz. “Most of my kids are involved in soccer. But [Garcia and Ortiz] love skiing and want to continue with the sport.
“I think it’s outstanding they can show their classmates that there are opportunities here for them like anyone else.”
Garcia said the language barrier has not hindered his ability to be coached.
“The coaches use body language and signs,” he said.
Berling, meanwhile, is learning to communicate with his newest team members.
“I’m picking up some words,’’ he said. “Sometimes, I just make stuff up. But they’re good, smart kids and are picking stuff up.”
The duo has yet to be a factor so far this season for the Broncs as they continue to pick up the sport. But each fared well recently at the Betty Woolsey Classic on Dec. 27. Ortiz finished fifth in the eight-man 5-k with a time of 31:52, while Garcia was seventh at 35:22.
So far their enthusiasm and ability to pick up the sport have impressed their coaches and inspired their peers.
“They’ve had no exposure to it,” Neal said. “There’s no culture for them to resonate with. All they needed was a little encouragement. Now, I feel like these kids can be role models for other Hispanic kids.”