Editor's note: This sponsored article is brought to you by Gunnison-Crested Butte Tourism

In many ways, Cam Smith is the prototypical Western Colorado University Mountain Sports Team student-athlete. In 2014, when Smith, who grew up in Illinois, showed up at the small college campus in Gunnison, Colorado, his sport of choice was running track. He'd spent very little time on skis and was a beginner mountain biker at best. But running had begun to take a toll on his body, so he looked for new athletic outlets.
Enter the Mountain Sports Team, a program started by famed pro mountain bike racer and longtime Gunnison resident Dave Wiens, which offers students of all abilities the chance to try their hand at mountain bike racing, trail running, ski mountaineering, Nordic skiing, and ski and snowboard freeride competition.

The Western Colorado University Mountain Sports Team won the 2018 Division II national mountain biking title. Photo by Jared Farley

"When I first joined the team I basically had no experience in any of these sports," recalled Smith, who'd come to Colorado's Central Rockies to study exercise and sports science. "I wasn't very good at anything early on and was struggling just to finish, trying to not get last. But from the beginning, I felt just as supported as the higher-level athletes. It was so cool that we all had the same opportunities, and over time with a lot of great coaching from within the program it's led to a lot more for me."

Indeed, Smith went from newbie to being one of the team's top endurance athletes, excelling in XC mountain bike racing, Nordic skiing, and especially ski mountaineering, where he's since won 10 national titles, broken numerous course records, and is on the shortlist for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. (Skimo, as it's better known, is slated to make its Olympic debut at the 2026 Winter Games in Milan/Cortina, Italy.)

Of course, not every Mountain Sports Team athlete ends up at the Olympics. But stories of enlightenment and success abound for a program that typically pulls in 100-120 students each semester and has become a key recruitment and retention tool for Western.

"Enrollment can be a challenge here," admitted Gary Pierson, WCU's Dean of Students. "But the Mountain Sports Program has proven to be tremendously valuable in that respect. We're getting students from all over the country who want to go to school in the mountains and have access to all the various opportunities we have here."

The area's great riding is a huge draw, as demonstrated by WCU Dean of Students Gary Pierson seen here spinning a lap of Signal Peak. Photo by WCU Mountain Sports Team
Those opportunities are indeed abundant with the greater Gunnison area including the nearby Signal Peak and Hartman Rocks trail systems, the MTB Mecca of Crested Butte just 30 miles north of campus, plus world-class resort and backcountry skiing, and one of the state's best XC skiing locales in the Crested Butte Nordic Center.

"It's a unique program that fits Western extremely well," explained Wiens, a Mountain Bike Hall of Fame inductee who ran the Mountain Sports Team for its first 3 years and is now executive director of the International Mountain Bicycling Association. "It encapsulates all the amazing outdoor activities we can do here in the Gunnison Valley and allows these athletes to transition from one season to the next while continuously being supported by a great team of coaches and mentors."

That perfect proximity and superior support have resulted in a slew of success. Since the program's inception, the mountain bike team has earned Division II collegiate national titles in 2018 and 2019 plus runner-up finishes in 2017 and 2016; the Nordic team captured top DII collegiate honors in 2018 and qualified six athletes for the World University Games in 2019; and members of the trail running and freeride teams have competed at the highest levels of their sports as well.

"It's amazing to watch the progression that happens with these students," said Eddy Cohn, head coach of the mountain bike team. "We have guys like Daniel Frentzel who started as a never ever and became national champion in dual slalom. Or Zeke Cramer who came here as a solid XC racer but is now racing professional downhill. The best part, though, is that you're introducing these young adults to something that will have a positive impact on the rest of their lives."

XC racer Wyatt Wood is one of about 50 athletes on the MTB arm of the WCU Mountain Sports Team. Photo by WCU Mountain Sports Team

That positivity also applies to Western and the local community at large.

"The program brings a really great cohort of students to the Gunnison Valley, with some of them sticking around and continuing to contribute to this community," said Pierson, a passionate mountain biker himself. "It's also a great bonding experience where these students truly appreciate the sense of place that we have here and how important it is. The program gets them out of the residence halls and connects them with like-minded people and the great outdoors. I honestly don't think any other school can replicate what we have with skiing, climbing, trail running, and mountain biking. It's a truly special place."

That's certainly been the case for Hailey Clark, who's pursuing a master's degree in environmental management from WCU. The native of Colorado Springs was initially drawn to the bevy of winter sports opportunities but has since become a stalwart member of the Mountain Sports mountain bike team.

"All my closest friendships and connections have come through the program," Clark said. "There's so much encouragement and it's such a positive and healthy atmosphere where we all share the same passion and are motivated to learn and get better and help each other along the way."

Besides competing, the team also gives back to the community, including lending a hand on the Signal Peak trail system build project that's located less than a mile from campus. Photo by WCU Mountain Sports Team

That motivation spills over to the classroom, adds Pierson, who makes sure to point out that while access to the outdoors is certainly a big attraction, Western's academic rigor is top-notch as well.

"People might get the wrong idea that it's play first, academics second, but these kids are students first and athletes second," he assured. "And this program is the epitome of that. With few, if any, exceptions, these kids are excelling in the classroom and still getting out every day. That's a hugely important skill that will benefit them for years to come."

Want to learn more? Click here to visit the Mountain Sports Team website. Click here to learn more about all the recreation opportunities Gunnison and Crested Butte have to offer.