Alumni of Distinction: Cristy Hickel

by joey  |   

Alumni of Distinction: Cristy Hickel

Cristy Hickel, 2014 Alumni Humanitarian recipient. (Photo by Ted Kincaid/University of Alaska Anchorage)

Cristy Hickel, this year's Alumni Humanitarian Award recipient, has coached hundreds of Anchorage kids over the past 30 years, and many of them have come to feel like family. "My husband thinks we have a lot of children," she laughed.

As a coach, she loves when current and former athletes take advantage of her open door policy to stop by her house and share a cup of tea around the kitchen counter. It's the same counter where teams have devoured watermelons after long runs up Hilltop, where she spent long hours tallying sales after fundraisers and where she spent many fond evenings chatting to her own children (she's a mother of only two, by the way).

Cristy has directly coached hundreds of kids and provided recreational opportunities for thousands more through her work in Anchorage over the past 30 years. She's organized youth leagues in a half dozen sports-from ice hockey to mountain biking-under her SPYDER initiative (Sports Programs for Youth Development, Education and Recreation). She's written grants, wrangled donations and thrown fundraisers to expand recreational options for Anchorage youth across all income levels. She's equally invested in coaching her elite girls hockey team as she is in organizing low-stakes backyard leagues.

Originally recruited to join the inaugural alpine ski team at UAA, she credits the university for a large part of her success. Her coaches' support, paired with her parent's wisdom, have shaped her approach to coaching and life. She's spent the past three decades repaying the favor by directing programs and coaching youth, preaching process over outcome and keeping kids focused on the moment (and not their iPhones),

To her, coaching isn't so much about victories as it is about personal growth. "It's always so much more than Xs and Os," she said.

Support on the slopes

Skiing giant slalom for UAA, back in the days before helmets joined the uniform. (Photo courtesy of Cristy Hickel)

Skiing giant slalom for UAA, back in the days before helmets joined the uniform. (Photo courtesy of Cristy Hickel)

Cristy grew up on the road with her family. Her dad-an ex-Marine-brought the family across the continent as they chased jobs in the USA and Canada. Each morning, she would race her brother to the family's one and only bike, with the loser stuck driving the slow-going backhoe to the work site. They'd dig and shovel alongside their father and fit in their home-schooled courses afterwards. It was a physical yet fun childhood in a resourceful family. They made bike tracks and obstacle courses around buckets of concrete, they scraped equipment together after it broke. Cristy remembers winning her first race-a 63-miler-on a police auction bike. As her accomplishments gained recognition, pro deals and sponsorships soon followed and Cristy found herself at international competitions in both track cycling and downhill skiing.

She first arrived in Anchorage immediately after wrapping a cycling competition in Canada as a teenager. She flew direct from Toronto to Alaska with a few sparse possessions. "I literally had two pots, my bike and my woogie (the competition's mascot, described by Cristy as an "obnoxious stuffed owl")." She didn't even pack any clothes aside from her Team USA gear.

She settled on UAA under rather dubious circumstances. "It was trickery," she joked. Ski coaches Tom Besh and Paul Meyerhoff called her up asking if she'd like to join UAA's new ski team for their debut season. College, though, was never on her radar. "I thought I was going to somehow make my fame and fortune through ski racing and track cycling," she shrugged. However, the scholarships, travel allowance and allure of Alaska peaks sold her on the idea, so she headed North and became the first member of her family to graduate from college.

On the first practice of the program's first season, the coaches rattled her with news that UAA didn't compete in her downhill events on the slalom ski team. "I said, 'But I'm a downhiller. I get in attack, I go straight, I don't know how to turn!' They [just said] 'Welcome to Alaska.'"

Cristy addressing the crowd at the annual Ski Bash–a student event she organized each year in Girdwood. Photo courtesy of Cristy Hickel.

Cristy addressing the crowd at the annual Ski Bash--a student event she organized each year in Girdwood. Photo courtesy of Cristy Hickel.

Tom and Paul, trickery aside, would quickly become Cristy's coaches, co-workers and family unit in Anchorage. "Paul and Tom were the top things that helped shape who I am today. No question," she said. When her athletic scholarship couldn't cover her costs, her coaches found her a host of campus jobs-she worked for sports information, organized intramurals, drove the team van to events and even joined the cross-country and rifle squads to maintain her scholarship into a fifth year. For the record, she's a far better skier than markswoman ("I shot a hole through my door," she laughed).

"They didn't hand me anything, they gave me opportunities," she explained. "I had to work, and they knew I worked hard. They spent a lot of time giving back and giving to me, and it just seemed normal that I should do that as well."

Both Paul and Tom built the ski program from scratch, proving to Cristy that dedication made anything possible. She'd leave Anchorage every spring-with her bike, two pots and her woogie-to go track cycling in California with her brother, and each time she thought she had finished with UAA. Until her coaches would give her the call and ask when she was coming back.

Tom and Paul would both lose their lives in separate plane accidents over the following years, motivating Cristy to continue promoting athletics in their memory. "It seemed to me that someone should carry on their legacy," she said.

Encouraging the athletes of Anchorage

A former competitive cyclist, Cristy directed bike races for the Arctic Bike Club for seven years after graduation. (Photo courtesy of Cristy Hickel)

A former competitive cyclist, Cristy directed bike races for the Arctic Bike Club for seven years after graduation. (Photo courtesy of Cristy Hickel)

Since graduation, Cristy has been singularly focused on expanding sports in Anchorage through a series of initiatives, notably the leagues and sports organized under her SPYDER program.

She's arranged dozens of fundraisers around Anchorage and received HUD grants to provide opportunities for low-income students. She's coach and director of the Alaska All Stars girl's hockey program, where she nets college scholarships for her graduating athletes. She's funded students when resources were tight but dedication was strong and organized large-scale gear swaps and donations. "Cristy's ability to mobilize volunteers and community businesses to create an event is a skill that I know no one else to possess," said friend Racheal Souther.

Her impact on her athletes is even more undeniable. Many of her athletes have gone on to earn college scholarships (including both her daughters) and she's even coached future Olympians like Kikkan Randall, Hilary Lindh and Tommy Moe.

"Cristy shows compassion and provides guidance to youth growing up under all circumstances and becomes a role model for excelling in sports, health and competition," noted Vincent and Dori Ditmore, whose son competed on Cristy's ski team. "Her influence on the youth that she works with goes beyond athletic prowess and encompasses the development of her kids into role models for community service, honor and reliability."

Cristy and a few teammates on Ski team photo day in 1984. (Photo courtesy of Archives and Special Collections, University of Alaska Anchorage)

Cristy and a few teammates on Ski team photo day in 1984. (Photo courtesy of Archives and Special Collections, University of Alaska Anchorage)

Cristy believes athletes who are obsessed with results are more inclined to quit, and that has long-lasting effects outside of just statistics and training. "My priority goal is that they find love for the sport and they use that love as a tool for their success," she said. "If they don't, they will not have joy in their sport and they won't use that as a healthy lifestyle choice later on."

She plants that philosophy into every athletic program she builds. SPYDER soccer, for example, is a low-cost DIY league intended soley to provide a fun athletic outlet-cones for goals, parents for coaches, and soccer for simple recreation.

"I don't want you hovering over results and worrying about what people think of you, just go ski. Enjoy your sport. Go get better, go laugh," Cristy said. "Go get some powder!"

With a coaching career spanning 30 years, Cristy has seen a fair number of generational changes and cultural shifts. Growing up with her competitive siblings, sport was a way to stay fit and have fun. Nowadays, though, parents are hyper-involved, recording their kid's games and clocking their playing time. "These are kids that should be climbing trees and they're not," she said.

Cristy knows she can't cure the iPhone-addled generation, but she can change their outlook at least during practice. She employs a no-phone policy at practice, on team trips, especially at her kitchen counter.

She always relies on her dad's guidance when her technology-obsessed athletes are resistant. "I learned from my dad to put my head down and go. So I go back to that a lot-just the simple pure pleasure of competing and running and training and lifting," she noted.

"There's no way to quantify my job or what I do, but it makes you feel good at the end of the day because something good happened because of what you were able to share or teach an athlete," Cristy said.

Cristy is a great coach, but she's also product of great coaches. "I just think in a nutshell UAA gave me the opportunity to have the life I have," she reflected. "I would not have been able to impact thousands of kids without UAA.

"[UAA] was a school in the middle of nowhere, here's a girl from the middle of nowhere, and a couple of good people took me in and said we're your family. I felt loved and I felt valued and they gave me confidence and I felt it was easy for me to give back now,

"It was very inspiring to me. Coming to UAA provided the opportunities that gave me the life I have today."


Creative Commons License "Alumni of Distinction: Cristy Hickel" is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.