Sylvan Ellefson still recalls that email from Chris Grover, head coach of the US Nordic Ski Team, in early 2014, explaining that his name was not on the list of athletes who would be racing at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, despite coming agonizingly close. Ellefson was devastated, but he eventually got over his disappointment. In fact, the timing was actually good.
The Vail native, now 31, had already planned to finish his athletic career and move on with life at the end of that season. Ellefson achieved a lot in spandex—won a national title, finished in the top 45 on the World Cup, and ranked among America’s fastest skate racers for years. After a victory lap on the World Cup circuit in the spring of 2014, Ellefson bounced around various jobs for the next few years. He spent eight months working for 10th Mountain Whiskey, which was owned by friends who’d supported his ski-racing career, then two years as VP of sales and marketing at Cirque Mountain Apparel, which was owned by another Vail friend. Then Carmen Weiland, wife of Dan Weiland, Ellefson’s former Nordic coach, asked if he and a friend wanted to take over her thriving property management business. They did. The common theme was clear to Ellefson: Just as it had during his athletic career, the Vail Valley was looking out for him.
Simultaneously, Ellefson began to plant roots of his own. In November 2016, he and his wife, Sarah (a former ski racer turned physical therapist), welcomed their son, Ryder, to the world. The family now lives in Miller Ranch, and Ellefson is the director and head coach of the Future Stars program at Ski & Snowboard Club Vail, the same club he skied with as a kid.
All the while, Ellefson has felt a void in the valley. When he and his younger brother, Kjell (pronounced Shell), were developing as athletes, they never had enough money. Their father, Lyndon, worked as a foreman for Vail Mountain (“I don’t know exactly what he did,” Ellefson says. “All I know is he never took a promotion that didn’t let him ski every day.”). Their mother, Tashina, worked in ticketing for Vail Associates and later in administration for Vail Mountain School. Lyndon, a gifted endurance athlete himself, fell into a crevasse during a training run in Italy and died when Sylvan was 11.
As Ellefson progressed in his athletic career, a group of local benefactors made sure he had the means to compete. One was John Cummins, founder of Street Swell longboards, who wrote Ellefson his first check as a professional athlete—for $2,000. By the time he reached the brink of Olympic qualification, Ellefson was trying to raise $20,000 a year just to travel and train. “That’s on the low end of what it costs for some athletes,” he says. Kjell, a former professional telemark skier who podiumed twice in the Teva Mountain Games Big Air contest, could relate to his big brother’s needs.
Their experience led the siblings last year to decide to pay it forward—now and forever. After months of planning, in January they partnered with Cummins to found the Fjellbarn Fund (fjellbarnfund.org), a nonprofit endowment of sorts, dedicated to helping Vail Valley kids reach their
goals in sport, whether that means simply participating or gunning for Olympic
medals. (Fjellbarn means “mountain child” in Norwegian.)
“There’s a big socioeconomic gap in this valley,” Ellefson says. “Our goal is we never want any child or athlete to have to forgo an opportunity to participate, or be denied their athletic dream, simply because they can’t afford it. People who are fortunate enough to raise their families in this valley should feel like participating in sport here is attainable no matter what financial background they’re coming from.”
The fund will support any sport available in the valley, Ellefson says. Private donations as well as two fundraisers a year will build it. Athletes can apply for support based on their needs. Those who’ve competed at least five years in a sport and dream of reaching its pinnacle will be eligible for the Lyndon Ellefson Scholarship.
Cummins, who has lived in the valley since 1984 and raised two daughters here, hopes they can raise $50,000 in their first year. “We’re not trying to be the next big thing,” he says. “We’re just trying to build something that can help a lot of kids who really need help.”