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CU skiing: Long road glitters with gold for Buffs’ Rokos

Colorado ski team head coach Richard Rokos holds the 2011 national championship trophy, one of three the Buffs have won in the past five seasons under his direction. Rokos' teams have won eight NCAA titles overall.
Daily Camera file photo
Colorado ski team head coach Richard Rokos holds the 2011 national championship trophy, one of three the Buffs have won in the past five seasons under his direction. Rokos’ teams have won eight NCAA titles overall.

If you go

What: 2016 NCAA Ski Championships, hosted by the University of Colorado.

When: Wednesday through Saturday.

Where: Mount Werner and Howelsen Hill in Steamboat Springs.

Schedule: Wednesday, Men’s and women’s giant slaloms, Mount Werner. First run: men, 9 a.m.; women, 9:45 a.m. Second run: men, 11:30 a.m.; women, 12:15 p.m.

Thursday, Women’s 5K and men’s 10K freestyle cross-country races, Howelsen Hill. Women, 9 a.m., men, 10:30 a.m.

Friday, Men’s and women’s slaloms, Howelsen Hill. First run: women, 6:30 p.m.; men, 7:15 p.m. Second run: women, 9 p.m.; men, 9:30 p.m.

Saturday, Women’s 15K and men’s 20K classical races, Howelsen Hill. Men, 9 a.m., women 11 a.m. Awards ceremony, 2 p.m.


For Richard Rokos, life can easily be dissected into two halves.

The first half culminated with a nerve-racking journey, one in which Rokos, with his wife and baby daughter in tow, made the harrowing decision to leave his home and family behind to pursue his dreams in the United States.

The second half brought Rokos to a ski paradise he never previously knew existed, and where he soon built a championship legacy that far surpassed any of the daydreams he once conjured during his previous life.

All the glittering hardware decorating the University of Colorado ski team’s headquarters creates a constant affirmation that Rokos made the right decision when he decided to defect from his native Czechoslovakia 36 years ago. Now in his 26th season as the leader of the Buffaloes’ vaunted ski program, Rokos and the Buffs will look to add to their championship pedigree this week as the host school at the NCAA Championships in Steamboat Springs.

“When I came here, there are obviously many things socially and culturally that were different,” Rokos said. “The language was one portion of it. But everything else was the same with skiing.”

Drought ends

When Rokos took the head coach job on July 3, 1990, CU’s program already boasted a rich history but was eight years removed from its most recent national championship.

Rokos ended that drought at the end of his first season as the Buffs’ leader. He has added seven more national championships since, including three in the past five seasons. When the nationals begin Wednesday, the Buffs will be aiming for their first back-to-back titles since 1998-99 and their 21st overall.

Not bad for a coach who, upon arriving in Michigan following a year in Austria after his defection, knew next to nothing about the state of Colorado, let alone the Colorado Buffaloes. Rokos spent three years as a CU assistant before assuming the lead role.

“I was always thinking about coaching, because I coached back in Czechoslovakia,” Rokos said. “But I never thought I’d end up at a school doing it. The steppingstone in between is that I was coaching the junior national team in Czech, and after I escaped most of those guys took off as well and started skiing on the pro tour. I was helping them, coaching them on the pro tour for a couple years and in the meantime we moved to Colorado.

“Looking for a job I came to CU and actually applied in 1984, and then I was hired six years later.”

Family atmosphere

Given a background that includes such a massive and dramatic personal upheaval, it perhaps is no surprise a critical aspect of Rokos’ continued success is the family atmosphere he has instilled within the Buffs’ program. When he arrived the Nordic and Alpine units rarely interacted with one another, let alone trained together. Now the all-for-one atmosphere extends far beyond the competitions and training slopes.

“He’s been around skiing a long time and he’s very school-oriented and competitive. So he always wants to be in the hunt and is never satisfied unless he’s winning,” said Bruce Cranmer, a CU alum who has spent the past 16 seasons working alongside Rokos as the Buffs’ Nordic coach.

“It’s tough for a lot of kids, especially when you’ve got kids that come from big club programs or European programs, they’re focused on themselves and winning. All of the sudden you come into a team environment where you realize you don’t even have to win to help the team. That makes it fun and enjoyable, instead of looking at your teammate as a rival. We try to do similar things in how we approach things. We try to rent houses as opposed to hotel rooms, so you’re all living in a sort of community. You get that community kind of feeling where everyone is pitching in. You feel like a family group instead of just individuals.”

Adding to legacy

Rokos is the fifth longest-tenured coach for any sport in CU history, trailing only Frank Potts (41 years, cross country/track), Charles Vavra (32 years, men’s gymnastics), and former golf coaches Mark Simpson and Les Fowler (29 years each). This week the Buffs will look to add to the list of 36 individual national champions and 196 All-Americans that has been compiled under Rokos’ watch.

With no plans to retire any time soon, expect those totals to continue climbing before Rokos’ time at CU finally comes to an end.

“Richie has always been a great coach in being able to help us progress and build on experience,” said senior Jessica Honkonen days before an ill-timed knee injury suffered during a training run ended her 2016 season. “You just can’t go wrong with that.”

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CU ski champions

The University of Colorado ski team will be seeking the school’s 21st national championship and second in a row this week in Steamboat Springs.

Year (coach)

1959 (Bob Beattie)

1960 (Bob Beattie)

1972 (Bill Marolt)

1973 (Bill Marolt)

1974 (Bill Marolt)

1975 (Bill Marolt)

1976 (Bill Marolt)

1977 (Bill Marolt)

1978 (Bill Marolt)

1979 (Bill Marolt)

1982* (Tim Hinderman)

1991 (Richard Rokos)

1995 (Richard Rokos)

1998 (Richard Rokos)

1999 (Richard Rokos)

2006 (Richard Rokos)

2011 (Richard Rokos)

2013 (Richard Rokos)

2015 (Richard Rokos)

*NCAA and AIAW championships