Dartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of EngineeringDartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of Engineering

Good Sports

Judy Geer ’75 Th’83 and her family combine national-level athletic training with sustainable living practices.

By Kristen Laine
Photographs by John Sherman

In the summer of 2009, a half-dozen elite collegiate cross-country skiers embarked on the sort of grueling training regimen required of any Olympic hopeful. In two- and three-a-day workouts, the young men and women cranked through five hours of roller-skiing on mountain roads, double-poled sprints on a SkiErg machine, and had their maximal oxygen consumption tested by their no-nonsense Bulgarian trainer

Among them, they’d captained teams, earned top-10 finishes in Eastern Intercollegiate Ski Association races, stood on medal stands at winter carnivals, been named NCAA All-American. None wanted to stop there, though. All had raised their hopes higher: the World Cup in 2012, the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014.

Former Olympic rower Judy Geer prepares the way for a new breed of athlete at Craftsbury Outdoor Center.
MASTER STROKE: Former Olympic rower Judy Geer prepares the way for a new breed of athlete at Craftsbury Outdoor Center.

They were committed in ways that went beyond skiing. Their base was Craftsbury Outdoor Center, a rough-hewn former boys’ academy along the shores of Lake Hosmer in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. When they weren’t training, members of the ski team could be found drawing up plans for a commercial-size composter or meeting with wildlife managers to protect a critical habitat corridor. They called themselves the Green Racing Project. They’d come to Craftsbury for intensive training and an equally intensive internship in environmental stewardship. In the world of driven, focused, national-level competitors, they represented a unique take on an emerging concept: the green athlete.

Geer encourages athletes to pursue environmental as well as personal bests.
ENERGIZER: Geer encourages athletes to pursue environmental as well as personal bests.

The visionaries behind the project, Judy Geer ’75 Th’83 and her husband Dick Dreissigacker, had bought the outdoor center in 2008 through their family foundation, turned it into a nonprofit, and immediately expanded its purpose. (The nonprofit status “allows us to be more driven by mission” yet still follow a strong business plan, says Geer.) To its well-known summer rowing camps and annual ski marathon, Geer and Dreissigacker added a threefold mission of nurturing lifelong sports, community, and the environment. The Green Racing Project was their first attempt at that kind of cross-pollination.

Geer and Dreissigacker understood that athletes in endurance sports such as rowing and Nordic skiing rarely reach their full potential before their late 20s. They had been introduced to the competitive world of Nordic skiing while their three children raced in the junior program at Craftsbury. And both had been Olympic rowers. Yet after college, they knew, little infrastructure in the U.S. supported full-time training. Geer, in particular, who had been a pioneer in women’s rowing and a three-time Olympian, knew how difficult it was to piece together a life that had to include both work and training. She and Dreissigacker believed their foundation could fill the gap—provide room and board, pay for instruction, travel expenses, even health insurance—and help develop great athletes. More than that: a mission-driven program could help develop great citizens.

The couple were no strangers to innovating. Dreissigacker and his brother, years earlier, had taken bicycle parts and metal frames and fashioned a machine called an ergometer that simulated the slide and pull of a rowing shell in water. Geer joined them as their company’s sixth employee and, using her Thayer master of engineering degree, helped develop the business into the world’s premier provider of rowing exercise equipment. They called the company Concept2, a name that reflected its philosophy. In engineering, rarely is the first idea the final idea: “Concept 1” can always be improved and refined before fully taking shape.

Geer with son Ethan and daughter Hannah.
FAMILY TIME: Geer with son Ethan and daughter Hannah.

They carried that philosophy over to their family life, too. Geer and Dreissigacker didn’t talk about their hands-on, creative problem-solving approach that much, or even try to demonstrate it, but Hannah ’09 Th’11, Emily ’11, and Ethan Dreissigacker ’13 absorbed it anyway. Ethan, an engineering major, lists some of the lessons he picked up from his parents: “not settling for the first idea that comes to mind, not making assumptions or jumping to conclusions, thinking outside the box, looking for simple, efficient, and sustainable solutions.”

The Green Racing Project is a family case in point. Hannah, a committed environmentalist who had just graduated with a combined major in engineering and studio art and wanted to compete internationally as a cross-country skier, had helped form her parents’ ideas for the new program. For her contribution to the team’s sustainability goals, she analyzed the team’s carbon footprint—the impact of their travel to ski races, of applying petroleum-based ski waxes to the bases of their skis—and catalogued ways to offset those impacts. Ethan, also a skier, continued working with his father on a woodchip-burning furnace for the family home, an outgrowth of a high school project on biomass energy.

Getting the Green Racing Project underway, Geer, the team’s employer and mentor, occupied a role familiar to her from Concept2. She served as translator between problem and solution, between analysis and the messiness of getting something done. Racing season began, and the big composter existed only in blueprint. Grappling with the huge carbon footprint of flying to the national championships in Alaska, the team decided to send only their coach and three skiers. If the skiers needed any reminder of the importance of their mission, the earliest spring on record in the Northeast Kingdom forced them to cancel a final weekend of races in which they’d also planned a talk by global-warming activist and writer Bill McKibben.

Through all the delays and disappointments, Geer could see the team working through the iterative process, learning how to identify problems, then improving the solutions. She recognized that, even at its early stage, the program gave her “a way to do more than I ever could on my own,” solving more problems and reaching more people on a community and regional scale. “The challenges facing our world are way too big to bite off,” she says. The work going on at Craftsbury felt like “the right size.”

By 2011, the Green Racing Project was a regular fixture on the national and international ski-racing circuit. GRP skiers—including Susan Dunklee ’08 and Ida Sargent ’11—earned spots on national and World Cup teams. Hannah made the national biathlon team in 2010 and competed at the U-26 World Championships in Estonia. Ethan, still a member of the Dartmouth ski team, trained with the Craftsbury skiers on the way to earning a spot on the 2012 U.S. Junior Championship Biathlon Team.

Craftsbury’s rowing program has also produced results. Half of the rowers from the small-boat training program, including Emily Dreissigacker, made the 2011 National Under-23 Rowing Team.

The World Cup and the Olympics are still out there, still possibilities.

But when Geer says, “They’ve picked up speed,” she means that the GRP’s environmental work has gained momentum. Ski racers with forestry degrees work on the center’s trails. The team broke ground on the composting project and presented a case for improving the energy efficiency of the center’s buildings to Geer and Dreissigacker. Hannah’s update of the team’s carbon footprint spreadsheet helped frame the decision to install snowmaking equipment for the center’s trails. Ethan, who had conducted a thermodynamic analysis of his woodchip furnace in an independent study at Thayer, helped tweak the snow-delivery system as yet another winter got off to an unseasonably warm start.

Five-hour roller-ski loops around Lake Willoughby continue as before. The center sometimes feels like a European Nordic village, with its state-of-the-art systems—or, when sustainability projects are underway, an environmental institute. Looking closely at some of the hands-on problem solvers, you might think you are also watching a family business, and a family mission, taking shape.

—Kristen Laine has written about environmental issues for Yankee, AMC Outdoors, and other publications.

Categories: Features

Tags: alumni, energy

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