COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Sports are never a more valuable healing device or a more comforting distraction than in a community recovering from weeks embedded in tragedy. In the wake of the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history, most Colorado Springs residents welcome the return of the runs, bike races and endless outdoor activities that help define the city’s sports culture.
“It brings back a sense of normalcy that for us here in the Springs, what’s normal in the summer is every weekend there are runs, there are rides, there are so many activities,” said Pat McDonough, the director of the Pikes Peak Cycling Hill Climb, which will run as scheduled.
Energizing the city’s sports scene starting Thursday was the U.S. Open Ultimate Championships, a flying disc competition drawing teams from as far as Colombia. The first major sporting event in the city since the fire began June 23, Ultimate athletes played the delicate role of reintroducing sports to the still-recovering Springs.
The athletes showed their comfort in such a role by grabbing the microphone at the Ultimate convention at the Antlers Hilton this past week and holding an impromptu fundraiser to raise money for families who lost their homes.
“This is a very unique set of athletes,” Tom Crawford, CEO of USA Ultimate, said. “They’re phenomenal athletes but a huge element of ultimate is the community. It’s an incredibly generous, warm, welcoming group of athletes. They pride themselves on that and it’s definitely part of the culture.”
The famed Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, Barr Trail Mountain Race and ProCycling Classic are among a select group of the events postponed or canceled due to health and safety concerns surrounding the Waldo Canyon fire. But in the face of sweeping evacuations and apocalyptic clouds of smoke blanketing the city’s trademark view along the Front Range, outdoor recreation became a distant afterthought.
With the fire continuing to brow and burn uncontrollably through the city’s west side, there was an explicit sense of understanding among competitors.
“To me it was the smartest thing they ever did,” said Leonard Vahsholtz, a Hill Climb legend who won 18 titles atop America’s Mountain and now builds and owns his son Clint’s stock car.
As families that could continued to return home and the fire inched closer to complete containment Friday, it only now seems appropriate for sports to regain their footing in the Springs. Karen Scott, who was forced to cancel the first Bristol Mile last weekend, knows firsthand the total sense of loss some locals are experiencing.
“You get to a point where you need something else and I think that people need a diversion, they need a distraction,” said Scott, whose home burned to the ground in a chimney fire 14 years ago. “I know when we lost our house we spent a lot of time just trying to figure out what to do. You spend just so much time getting back on track, that it’s so nice to do other things.”
For Scott and her husband, cross country and track and field coaches at Cheyenne Mountain High School, running became the therapeutic activity that — even if just for an hour — allowed them to step away from tragedy.
From the Saints’ return to the Superdome in 2006 after Hurricane Katrina to the running of the New York City Marathon two months after the 9/11 attacks, sports have an extensive history of helping communities heal. But some were left with no choice but to cancel outdoor events because of a lack of available emergency services, health concerns and highway closure.
With the Rocky Mountain State Games to take off in earnest later this month and the USA Pro Cycling Challenge acting as a capstone to the Springs’ summer sports schedule, one thing seems clear: as the city begins the road to recovery, its sports scene will follow.
“The Pro Cycling Challenge is going to show the world that Colorado Springs is still a vibrant community and that we’re not completely destroyed,” O’Neill said.