The University of Wisconsin college student strapped himself onto a pair of Bonna 1600 wooden skis, taking a deep breath of the still winter air in the Porcupine Mountains of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. One of his buddies from the Hoofers Outing Club of the University of Wisconsin helped him pull a 60-pound pack onto his back. He pushed off into the deep snow, making his first-ever strides on cross country skis through the peaceful quiet of the forest. He was hooked!
That was 1974. Today, 32 Birkies later, Madison’s Don Becker remains passionate about the sport and one of the biggest fans of Central Cross Country Skiing.
“I’ve just always loved the outdoor nature and healthful aspects of Nordic skiing.”
A native of Mukwanago, Wisconsin (near Milwaukee), he came to Madison in the late 60s to attend the University of Wisconsin, earning his Bachelor’s degree in 1973, a Masters in water resources in 1976 and his law degree in 1982. Madison became his home.
Don continues to run his Becker Law practice in Madison. Always one to give back to the community, Becker had been on the board of the Blackhawk Ski Club when a young man – now CXC leader Yuriy Gusev – came to the club to borrow a snow groomer for the first Capitol Square Sprints in 2004.
“Yuriy needed a groomer, then he needed office space. I remember he was always in to work early and always said hello.”
Becker recalls the first Madison Winter Festival and CXC’s debut into adaptive sport.
“Yuriy had invited national team adaptive coach Jon Kreamelmeyer to train when there was no snow in Europe. It was interesting to me and I signed on as a sponsor. All I wanted was to have dinner with the team to learn more.”
That initial encounter led to a program that has, literally, changed the face of adaptive skiing in America. Sit-skis were hard to find and expensive. In the second year of the Festival, CXC brought in a sit-ski for festival attendees to try. But sit-skis cost over $2,000 – a tough decision for adaptive athletes who wanted to try skiing.
“We needed to figure out a way to make sit skis more affordable. So we did. It took several years and iterations, working together with (athlete) Bob Balk.”
Like any project, it was slow at first – hard to find volunteers. CXC was building over a hundred sit-skis with hundreds of parts. Soon, a high school robotics class stepped forward to help with assembly. And more volunteers came on line.
“These are projects that change your perspective on humanity.”
At the time, it was estimated there were 50-60 pairs of sit skis in the country. Today, CXC has distributed more than 300!
Becker is also a big fan of CXC’s Nordic Rocks for Schools program. It began as the WOW program – Wander Outside This Winter.
“Nordic Rocks is a good example of an organization coming up with a great idea and then following through. Working with Yuriy, we found people to finance the project and we made it happen.”
The key to Nordic Rocks, according to Becker, is building the base. “The only way we can be successful at the elite end is to have a bigger base,” he said. Becker sees women as a big part of the expansion of cross country skiing.
Don Becker has been one of the great pioneers behind CXC for 15 years. But his real passion is the future, in his role as head of the CXC Foundation. He was an early advocate for establishing a foundation to help endow programs long term. While his focus is on helping raise capital for CXC’s training center project in Middleton, he keeps a broad view on all programs.
“The money the foundation will raise over the long run will support the facility but will also be helpful for continuing adaptive programming – more opportunities for adaptive sport – and for expanding Nordic Rocks. We always need to ask ourselves, ‘what is the societal benefit to what we do?’ CXC is making a difference through the ground level programs its running in more ways than just the sport itself.”
Becker’s philosophy has been well in sync with CXC and has touched every aspect of the sport. “Elite skiers are role models. But getting medals is the side effect – not the only reason to do it,” he said. “We focus on the outdoors and healthy nature of the sport. We need to increase the base – getting more people out there enjoying what we do.
With 32 Birkies under his belt, he remains passionate about the sport – actually almost all active outdoor sports. He played rugby for many years. He and his family love to mountain bike and road bike, golf and sail. In the summer they hike, in the winter they ski and snowshoe.
“I love providing the support,” said Becker. “And once you start the ball moving, other people step up to help.”