“I was really just grateful to be a part of it.”
by Than Acuff
Pat O’Neill has been a middle school English teacher in Crested Butte for 26 years. The last 21 years, O’Neill has also been a competitor in the Grand Traverse race, racking up three titles and 11 podium finishes with a variety of partners, mostly friends or peers from the Gunnison Valley.
This year, Pat had a plan to race with his brother Chris, using the race as an avenue to raise money and awareness for cystic fibrosis through the Boomer Esiason Foundation under the team name Team Alpineer/Dry Hill/Cure Cystic Fibrosis. Team Alpineer is the name that Pat has raced under for each of his 21 years. Dry Hill is the name of the ski area his family grew up skiing in upstate New York, and cystic fibrosis was the cause, one with which Pat is all too familiar
Pat’s older brother Steve was born with cystic fibrosis in 1954 and given a life expectancy of five years. Steve has defied the odds, turning 64 the day before this year’s race.
“We didn’t have anything growing up. We were way beyond just poor,” says Pat. “There were times when my brother’s weekly medicine cost more than what my dad made that week.”
But this year, it turned out, an injury forced Chris to drop from the race, leaving Pat to find a partner just weeks before the start.
Fortunately, having just raced the Power of Four in Aspen with a former student turned incredibly close friend, Jack Linehan, he had an idea.
Pat taught Jack in Crested Butte over 14 years ago. Since then, Titan Award-winning Linehan has gone on to become a successful track and field athlete running for a Division I program at Boston College. Upon graduation, Jack returned to Colorado to settle in the Aspen area and that’s when the skimo bug hit him.
Jack jumped into the Grand Traverse fray in 2015 with a friend from Aspen raising money for villages in Nepal. He raced in the following two Grand Traverse races but was not signed up this year. Even so, he was hoping to get the call from Pat.
“Pat had mentioned that his brother was hurt and if he couldn’t do the race—would I,” explains Jack. “I said, of course, almost immediately, and I was kind of hoping we’d get a chance to do the GT together.”
Two weeks before the race, Jack got the call. But not just to race, but to also help out in Pat’s primary purpose, raising money for the Boomer Esiason Foundation.
“I was happy and honored to jump in and fill the void,” says Jack. “I thought it was an incredibly cool thing that Pat was doing and a very touching story from his life. I was really just grateful to be a part of it.”
“I think our partnership in this race was truly of a Higher Order,” says Pat. “Raising money for the Boomer Esiason Foundation, that was the basis of this race. And doing the event to really honor my brother, Gunnar Esiason [Boomer’s son who also has cystic fibrosis], and all the cystic fibrosis survivors who are just grateful to see another day. The life expectancy in 2018 is still only 36.”
Pat’s story made the front page of his hometown newspaper, the Watertown Daily Times, and Pat and Chris and their other brothers, Tim and Steve, all worked on reaching out, eventually raising $16,000 for the cause, and Chris, Pat, and eventually Jack finished as the top fundraising team of the race.
“That was far better than any win I’ve ever had. My saint-like mother Connie cried a lot leading up to the race. She was so flooded with gratitude and pride for what her four boys and Jack were doing,” says Pat. “Chris, Jack and I want to give a huge thanks to Kelly and PJ at the Alpineer and the Alpineer for sponsoring me and my Team Alpineer teammates for 21 straight years. We also want to thank the dozens and dozens of people who donated to the Boomer Esiason Foundation in the last three months to help us raise $16,000 to help cure cystic fibrosis. And, finally, we want to congratulate Sean VanHorn and ‘Super Cam’ Smith on their first of many GT wins.”
In the end, they finished the race in seventh among the men’s teams and both admit that while they were a bit disappointed in their result, there’s more to come as they may now use their experience at the Grand Traverse as a jumping off point for further athletic endeavors while continuing the cause for cystic fibrosis.
“We’re already talking about future plans to raise money and awareness for cystic fibrosis,” says Pat. “We’re talking even the New York City Marathon. Jack is my 27-year-old, alter ego, über athlete, GQ cover avatar.”
“I’m like, yeah, let’s do it,” adds Jack. “I want to be a part of whatever Pat’s doing; he’s always got such great energy. I’m just so grateful for Pat’s friendship. It’s turned from teacher to pupil, to mentor to mentee, and now friend to friend.”