The “Nebraska Kid” is Moving On
Let’s go check it out.
It doesn’t matter if you are talking about a new trail, an old town, an underground jazz club or the most unusual restaurant in the world … Kirk is in.
Kirk Ermels, an XTERRA crew mainstay since the Angels won the World Series, is an adventurous soul in relentless pursuit of new experiences.
“Everywhere we go he’ll find some off-the-wall place or thing we just gotta go see or try or whatever,” said Ryan Croke, a fellow crew member and regular passenger on Kirk’s wild rides.
It’s exactly that enterprising personality trait that led Ermels to XTERRA, a job akin to working for a traveling circus but better because he wasn’t stuck in a tent – he was out on his bike exploring trails from Santa Cruz to Saipan.
For XTERRA, Kirk is a “course guy,” the faithful sidekick of course director Chris Appleton handling race management for the past decade. In that role he’s the one making sure riders are going the right way, responding to emergencies, and helping Appleton refine his Big Lebowski lines “Nobody calls me Lebowski. You got the wrong guy. I'm the Dude, man.”
One time in Saipan, Kirk was leading the bike on a scooter – making sure the arrows were all pointed in the right direction and the race leader was going the right way – when he came upon a waist-high locked chain running across the trail that was supposed to have been unlocked and set aside so riders could get by. Well, he didn’t have a key and the guy who did would have never got there in time as riders were closing in fast.
“So, I had a hammer, and started blasting away at that padlock,” remembers Ermels. “I swear I must’ve hit that thing 150 times before it finally broke open.”
Chain down, riders flowed through, and nobody was the wiser.
XTERRA’s managing director “Kahuna Dave” Nicholas, who has feasted on teasing Ermels about everything from his beard to his backpack, had a more elaborate story about that day.
“Kirk Ermels, the Nebraska Kid. We took him to Saipan and he got the name Nebraska Kid from a newspaper story that had the crew photo. Nobody will forget Kirk on an 80cc scooter riding the course in about 2005 or 6 ahead of the competitors. As was the case in those days - chains were locked across the trails, arrows knocked down by cows - and Kirk was fixing everything. Leader Olivier Marceau caught Kirk and passed him. Kirk hopped on the scooter and got ahead of Olivier in time to make sure the course was marked and open for what is called the wireless downhill...Kirk tried to ride the downhill and rolled the scooter sending candy apple red fiberglass all over. Marceau came by and could not believe it. Kirk got the scooter up and repassed Marceau. At the awards we asked Olivier if the race was difficult and he replied "No, eet waz a good race except for the man on the scooter kept crashing in front of me."
In his other life, Ermels is a swim coach. While he wasn’t the best swimmer on his team in his senior year at Norfolk High School, he was the hardest worker with the best attitude. It prompted his coach to ask him to come back and help, which led to a job, then another, and another.
He developed into a great swim coach, one who guided the Helena High boys' team from last place to a state championship in four years, capturing the school's first state swimming title in 2011. The Helena girls' team followed suit with its first state championship in 2012.
For his efforts he was named the Montana swimming coach of the year – for the third time. Perhaps a cooler honor was the Helena Education Foundation Distinguished Educator award he got. It’s voted on by students, who write letters about educators who have had significant, positive impacts on their lives.
The mother of one of his swimmers, the best in the state, said Kirk was “fabulous in developing the kids not only as a swimmer, but as a whole person. She said that Kirk helped her daughter “transition from a non-committed swimmer to a swimmer who was dedicated to attending practice regularly and working hard.”
While we’re not sure if Kirk ever inspired any of the XTERRA crew to work any harder, the staff can testify that the dude is “unflappable.”
“He’s calm in a crisis,” said Ted Kozlo, XTERRA’s event manager who had him working in the compound before Chris stole him away to work on the course. “It could be half-hour before the race and everybody is freaking out and Kirk is waiting in a line somewhere to get a bagel, calm as could be. Beyond that, he’s just a genuine guy and he cares for the athletes.”
Last season Ermels helped the UNC Asheville swimming program as an assistant coach during its inaugural 2012-13 campaign, and again – crushed it. He did so well Boise State offered him a job he couldn’t refuse. One that starts now and one that will keep him from darting out for a week every month or so to tour the nation with XTERRA.
So, the XTERRA East Championship in Richmond this Sunday will be his last event. Today he spent it scouring the city like never before, in a driving rain, looking for alternate trails and roads we could use should the swim have to be cancelled on Sunday due to a raging James River.
Last night was much better, a traditional crew gathering at Sticky Rice where he was toasted with “just one more unnecessary sake bomb.”
“What has been so cool about working with XTERRA, aside from just the lifelong friendships I’ve made, is I can tell you where to get great tater tots in Richmond, tell you about the significance of Coogan’s Bluff, or where the best mountain biking trails in Alabama are,” said Ermels.
He also worked a bunch of major league baseball games around his XTERRA travels through the years, and on one trip was in New York to see Johan Santana pitch the first and only no-hitter in Mets history.
“When I look back I’ll think about all the things this gig allowed me to do, and all the cool things that the rest of the crew thought of and did. XTERRA was an enabler, allowed me to live the dream and not get ‘a real job’ for a while. It was a good run,” said Ermels.
“But I’m excited about what’s next.”