When Richard Rokos officially steps down as CU’s head ski coach he does so as a legend. There are the stats: eight team national championships in his 31 NCAA appearances; 44 individual champions and 14 RMISA championships; and scores of coach-of-the year honors he has steadfastly declined, preferring to reserve acclaim for the athletes. The stats go on, and are impressive, but are only minor markers compared to 200-or-so contacts in his phone. Those numbers, belonging to the athletes he coached and keeps in touch with regularly—and the stories behind them—are his true legacy.
Coming to America
Any story from Rokos involves historical context, and humor. The story of how he came Boulder is no different, and it started in communist Czechoslovakia in 1980. “It is thanks to Bill Gates being in diapers,” Rokos starts, meaning, that his journey might never have happened in the digital age. He and his wife Helena secured separate travel visas for separate purposes—she to visit family and he to coach camps with the Czech junior team. With those in hand, and carbon copies in some distant offices in separate files, they drove over the border to Austria with their young daughter and not much else. From the refugee camp, they could choose between Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the US or Europe. They chose the US and worked on their visas, arriving in New York a year later, armed with only $1800 and a friend in Michigan.
Rokos immediately got a job coaching, and by the time he moved to Colorado in 1982, the athletes he had coached on the Czech junior team had followed him. They raced on the pro tour and he coached them and, when they retired, the next generation of pro racers. Bernhard Knauss, Roland Pfeifer, Sebastian Vitzum and many more lived in his basement. “It was about 20 guys in and out of the house. It was the time of our life,” says Rokos. Helena, who spent her honeymoon at a ski camp, “learned early on I was brainwashed by skiing and nothing else,” he said. “That support helps in life.”
Helena, herself a former ski racer, is always an advisory voice. It was she who encouraged Richard to go for the stability and independence offered by the CU coaching job. By then they were US citizens and had two kids. Richard had already been an assistant at CU for three years, and during that time also traveled with the US Ski Team as a guest coach. In 1990 Bill Marolt, hired him as CU’s head coach.
Building the Buffs
31 years later, Rokos finds himself at the bottom of the GS course at his final NCAA championships, congratulating Buffs’ Cassidy Gray and Stef Fleckenstein who have just finished 1-2. “That was all for you, Richie Dog!” Fleckenstein beams. Rokos is all smiles on this victory lap, taking time to soak in the sunshine and the moment with his team, but also to analyze video and see where there is room for improvement. As at every championship, the day is a mixture of triumph and heartbreak for his athletes, which Rokos navigates with a steady, positive attitude. The 19-year-old Gray is on the cusp of a rising career, splitting time between racing for CU and for Canada on the World Cup. Other athletes may be competing in the last races of their careers. Rokos’ demeanor is mindful and respectful of that reality, and of the emotions that go with it.
Gray’s title will be Rokos’s 44th individual title. The first title came a full 30 years ago, in his very first season on the job.
Toni Standteiner came to college racing straight from the US Ski Team and chose CU largely because of his conversations with then-new coach Rokos. “He had so much enthusiasm and passion,” says Standteiner. Immediately that fall, Rokos was arranging dry-land training, activities and epic athletic events with the entire team, alpine and Nordic, fostering team unity. Rokos did every dry-land workout alongside them. “He felt like another player on the team.”
They didn’t have the strongest team, but that positive energy, and Rokos’ way of keeping things simple, elevated their levels individually and together. In that first season, 1991, Standteiner won the NCAA GS title, and the Buffs won the championships.
Standteiner’s fondest memories include many life lessons regarding things like leadership and responsibility, creativity and independence. He learned some of them through his mistakes, that Rokos firmly corrected, and brought all of them forward to his own business and life. Among the most memorable is that how you say something is as important as what you say. Rokos’s voice and animated delivery carry a contagious passion. “He wanted you to do better. You could feel it,” says Standteiner. That energy bolstered confidence in his young athletes.
Rokos’ energy and enthusiasm came right out of former CU, US Ski Team and World Pro Skiing Tour legend Bob Beattie’s playbook. The two forged a close relationship, and Beattie often hosted Rokos and his team at his home in Woody Creek, outside Aspen. Rokos even forged a friendship with Beattie’s neighbor Hunter S Thompson, who Rokos had met by chance on a motorcycle ride. Beattie and Rokos shared a bottomless enthusiasm for the Buffs and the sport of skiing. Both were always looking for ways to make the sport more interesting and accessible. Rokos is a tireless advocate for Beattie’s head-to-head racing format, which, he reminds us, is exciting to watch, easy to set up and “better than a trip to the chiropractor” for aligning proper ski posture. It also is an efficient format that maximizes resources, such as time, space and money.
Father of invention
That notion of doing more with less fuels Rokos’ MacGyver-like talent of making do with whatever he has, a talent born of his upbringing and his innovative spirit. Those sensibilities are backed by the Bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering that he holds in addition to his Master’s in Physical Education. Rokos often builds or rebuilds anything he needs, be that motorcycles, a homemade $49 set of portable pro racing gates made of recycled aluminum, the mountain biking criterium course in his backyard, and countless training tools over the years.
When Covid curtailed the team’s use of training facilities this fall, Rokos was in his element. “It was like being 19 years old,” says Rokos, who drew on the training methods he used in Czech as an athlete and coach, inventing workouts using everything available—rocks, logs, etc. The athletes eventually bought or made their own equipment which the team shared, rotating between houses for different types of outdoor workouts. “It was like a prison yard,” Rokos laughs. Without early season competitions, Rokos teamed up with Denver coach Andy Leroy to create the Covid Cup, which he described as an “underground, non-sanctioned, non-scheduled non-traditional return to alpine racing” to keep the athletes engaged.
This talent for invention and innovation is exceptionally valuable in college coaching. When Marolt and Rokos meet for coffee, as they still do, they laugh that Rokos was hired into an athletic department of 12 people. Now, the department includes more than 300. Being a college coach then meant working on the hill but also overseeing strength training, as well as the mental, physical, social and academic wellbeing of his athletes, and all of it with limited resources.
All in the family
To do the job then, and to be the best at it now, you have to breathe the job, and Rokos does. In the winter, he wakes up at 4 a.m. and drives 40 minutes to Boulder to pick up the team and head up the canyon to Eldora where they train from 7-9 am then head back to school and the office. Off season, he has continued the tradition he started his first year, of arranging five or six epic weekend dry-land events, such as 100-mile bike rides, hiking 14ers, orienteering and camping trips that bring the team together. Amie Bervy just missed skiing for Rokos in her own Buff career, but her son Max skis for him as a junior at CU. She mentions these traditions, as well as Rokos’ “heart of gold,” discipline and work ethic that have shaped Max as an athlete, student and person. “The way he fosters team and family,” says Bervy, “…nobody does it like Richie does!”
Now, Rokos is coaching the next generation of skiers, children of the athletes he coached in his early years. He has officiated upwards of 37 marriages between members of his ski teams, and he calls or visits former athletes regularly. “He started as a coach,” says Standteiner, “and became a friend for life.”
Fortunately, the ski world will not need to look far for Rokos in the future. “I am retiring out of CU but not out of what I’m doing,” he says. Rokos has already signed up to help at next year’s NCAA champs in Montana, and remains fully immersed in finding ways to bring more college racing to the west, with some interesting prospects there. For the past two years he has consulted with Italy on a project to bring an NCAA-like university ski racing program to the Sud-Tirol. Regardless of where he is, one thing is certain. He will not stray far from his CU and ski racing family.
When asked about his highlights and favorite moments of his career, Rokos refuses to pick one, instead maintaining that every day doing his job has been the highlight. Rokos refers to many stages of his journey as “the time of his life” and perhaps that is the genius of Coach Richard Rokos’ career. He’s made every moment of it—for himself and for those he’s coached—the time of their lives.