There are some people who seem destined to play a specific sport, their bodies and minds perfectly designed for shooting three-pointers, throwing a football or swimming across the pool in a record-breaking time. Then there are even rarer cases in which an entire family has this gift. While they may not be a household name like Manning or Williams, there’s one such sports dynasty that hails from right here on the Eastside.
“Courtney was ski racing before she was even born,” says Maureen Hammond, a Mercer Island resident and Bellevue Club member. “I was pregnant with her when I raced in the NASTAR Finals in Colorado, and I ended up winning for my age group.”
Maureen recalls this anecdote about her daughter, Courtney Hammond Wagner, 26, who eventually went on to have an illustrious ski racing career, because it’s symbolic of how much skiing is a part of the family. But there are many other telltale signs.
“We got both the kids started on skis at age 2. Matt [Hammond] was 7 and Courtney was 5 when they started racing,” she says.
Father Curt Hammond chimes in with another indication. “When they were young we probably put somewhere around 30,000 miles a year on the car driving to races,” he says. “But the time spent together on those car trips alone is invaluable.”
But all these small facts and figures only scratch the surface when it comes to how the sport has really impacted the family.
At the height of her own elite ski racing career, long before the children were born, Maureen traveled the country as an Olympic hopeful representing the Pacific Northwest and later racing for the U.S. Development Ski Team, where she competed in the U.S. Nationals several times and even a World Cup. During her time with the team she also met Curt, one of the Pacific Northwest coaches at the time and her future husband.
Curt’s history with the sport is also extensive. He started ski racing in high school at Stevens Pass, where his family had a cabin. In college, he raced for both the University of Puget Sound and University of Washington, but admits much of his success and satisfaction ultimately came from being on the coaching, organizing and officiating side of the sport. After coaching in Aspen following college, he worked as the Executive Director of the Pacific Northwest Ski Association. His next move was to Park City, Utah, where he worked as a coach and Alpine Technical Director of the U.S. Ski Team. Although he gave up the work a few years later to pursue a career as a stockbroker, he remained an official for 31 years.
“I went to ski races around the U.S. and Japan, and I had the opportunity to be the top official at World Cup ski races, mostly the downhill. That was a lot of fun,” Curt says. “For a week to 10 days, I would go somewhere, set it all up, make sure the safety is in place, and snow conditions were good.”
And it’s with all this experience that they introduced their children to skiing.
“It was also weird because both of us seeing the sport at such a high level know what it takes. Both of the kids had natural talent, but at a certain point it’s more head than anything,” Curt says.
“They had to really want it for themselves,” Maureen says, agreeing. “And if they didn’t want it, we were not going to force them to race.” The only thing that was important to the parents was to expose the children to what they call the skiing lifestyle.
“It was just nice to get them out of the house and enjoy sports, athletics,” Curt says. “We spent every weekend at the mountain, and that’s when skiing starts to feel like a small town because you know everybody, you travel together and become a small community.”
That’s where the Hammond DNA kicked in, because both of the children did in fact want to race.
“One moment I can remember where a switch sort of flipped was when I won my first race,” Courtney says. “I think it was the Cherry Tree Charge at Crystal Mountain. I won as an 11-year-old, and there were some people older than me. All the sudden I realized I could do it, and I really wanted to do it and work for it.”
From that moment on Courtney, who currently lives in Portland with her husband, Andrew Wagner, (who was also an All-American NCAA ski racer for Middlebury), says she worked toward the goal of going to the highest levels of ski racing, which includes racing at the collegiate level as well as numerous international events like the Europa Cup, World Cup and the Olympics.
By the time she was a sophomore in high school, she knew training three to four days on her beloved Cascades wasn’t going to be enough. She needed more coaching and more time on the mountain, so at 16 years old, she moved to Utah and trained at Rowmark Ski Academy. As high school graduation approached, and she was accepted to Dartmouth, she made a tough decision to defer her enrollment and give her ski racing dreams a real shot by taking two years to race for the U.S Development Ski Team.
“I decided I needed to see how skiing would be without school,” Courtney says. “But I actually think that those two years were the most difficult years and not my best ski racing years. I started to realize that as a person I really need more of a balance with academics. I always thought academics was holding me back, but they were actually helping me excel.”
After two years of frustration (she also battled a minor injury and illness), she decided to listen to her gut and return to school, where she would ski for Dartmouth.
“Giving up on a dream was hard, and the transition was hard but liberating,” Courtney says. “All the sudden I really found this joy in ski racing I hadn’t before. When I was a freshman and sophomore, those were my best years.”
During that time Courtney became a five time All-American athlete and was nominated by Dartmouth to become an NCAA Woman of the Year.
For Matt, there was no moment where he decided definitively that he wanted to race; instead he says he remembers thinking, “I just really like going fast.” Which is why he preferred events like the Downhill and Super G, where athletes top out at speeds of 80 to 90 miles per hour.
Matt, now 28, also competed in elite races such as the Junior Olympics throughout high school and says, “skiing was just what we did.” But these high-speed events are not often offered in college, so Matt took a break from skiing while attending the University of Kansas. But it didn’t take him long to realize that something in his life was missing. Like his father, he finds great satisfaction in coaching and traveling the world with elite and up-and-coming ski racers from his home slopes at Crystal Mountain.
“I am now coaching the FIS (International Ski Federation) team, with 16-, 17- and 18-year-old kids,” Matt says. “And athletes these days are training weekdays, weekends, going to summer camps. It’s a full-time thing for everyone. We were in Colorado last week, Canada next week, we’re going to Maine the week before Christmas.”
These days every single member of the Hammond family remains heavily active in the sport on various levels because although dreams of ski racing glory have faded for now, that’s never been the most important thing.
“Ski racing is important, but it’s the skiing together, the mountain, and family time that’s really important,” Maureen says. And that will never fade.