In this issue, our focus is on instruction as we dissect the challenges facing our ski schools (“Ski School Revolution,”) and also profile some of the best ski clinics available in North America (“Get Better,”). Teaching skiing is not a lucrative endeavor, and yet it draws passionate, devoted and talented people who rarely get the recognition they deserve. One of those is John “J.T.” Tillema, who first skied in the early 1940s, when he was stationed briefly in Denver before heading off to World War II. He rode the ski train to Winter Park, and it changed his life. After the war, he returned to Colorado, built a successful insurance business and then set out to change other people’s lives, too. It’s something he’s been doing as a ski instructor for 35 years. “I sell skiing because I love it,” J.T. says simply.
J.T. started an affordable 4-H youth ski program in the blue-collar town of Pueblo, Colo., creating thousands of committed skiers over the decades. From there, he developed his Farm Team, which is now based at Colorado’s Monarch Ski Area.
The concept is simple: Teach teenagers how to become successful ski instructors so that when they reach the minimum age of 16, they can get their first PSIA certification-and then pass their passion on to others. “By working with these kids, they grow. They become confident, and they become great teachers,” J.T. says. His philosophy must be working: Skiers come to this small Colorado resort from across North America just to ski with him.
There are personal benefits, too. “Having to keep up with them keeps my skiing level up, because you know where they want to go: the bumps, the trees, wherever. I’m 78, and I can still ski with the big boys. I ski all day and don’t get tired,” says J.T., who racks up 70 days a year on snow. He’s often the first person to arrive at Monarch and the last one to leave. This past summer, J.T. received an award for Lifetime Achievement in Ski Instruction from Colorado Ski Country USA. But that’s not the recognition that he’ll remember most. His students fill out evaluations after their classes, and one 14-year-old skier, who had entered the program reluctantly, scribbled just two words: “J.T. rocks.”