The Coloradans we met in 2023

· Dec. 28, 2023, 1:09 pm
laundromat-230905laundromat-230905Rachel Estabrook/CPR News
Yemane Habtezgi, owner of Laundry on the Fax, on July 7, 2023.

Colorado is full of fascinating residents. From ski and snowboard zealots who camp out for days to hold the front of the lift line, to a national award-winning cowboy, to disability advocates who may well be the first in the country to exercise their rights under a new law, we met many special people in 2023.

These are some of our favorite tales from the past year that highlight Colorado culture and the people who shape it. See their faces, hear their voices, and read their stories below.

Kings of First Chair

Winning the ski season’s first chair isn’t easy, but Colorado’s ‘Kings of First Chair’ have done it for 31 years. Nate "Dogggg" Nadler, left, and "Trailer" Tom Miller, second from left, ride the first chairlift of Colorado's ski season this year at Arapahoe Basin on Oct. 29, 2023. Alongside them are Chad Otterstrom and Anthony "Ant" Uglade. They're bursting through a banner at Arapahoe Basin’s Black Mountain Chairlift.
Kings of First Chair

Nate “Dogggg” Nadler and “Trailer” Tom Miller have nabbed the “first chair” of winter in Colorado for more than three decades.

Snagging a seat on the first chairlift of Colorado ski season is more than a waiting game. Nadler and Miller brace against the freezing wind, heated by hand warmers stuffed anywhere they’ll fit.

Protecting your spot in line hinges on constant vigilance to guard against another skier or boarder eager to steal the glory. To ensure that doesn’t happen, Nadler sleeps on the freezing ground right under the lift. 

The friends have been winning first chair since they were teenagers. Nadler and Miller were inspired by an old man named Elmer who used to always get the first chairlift at Loveland Ski Area, but the pair have made the first chair tradition their own and perfected their approach. That includes limiting how much they eat and drink.

“People that have been out here with us for hours and hours, they missed that spot in line because they took that last bathroom trip,” Miller said. “We cannot afford to let that happen.”

Read the full story here.

Grand Junction Humanitarian volunteering in Gaza

Dr. Barbara Zind (far right) on a previous trip with the Palestinian Children's Relief Fund in 2018.
Grand Junction Humanitarian in Gaza

In early October, Dr. Barbara Zind, a Grand Junction pediatrician, was at the start of what she thought would be a short humanitarian mission in Gaza. 

She was supposed to see scores of young patients with chronic conditions. Instead, she sheltered from bomb strikes in a United Nations camp.

On Oct. 7, Hamas launched a surprise attack on Israel, killing around 1,200 people and taking about 240 hostages, according to the Israeli government. Israel retaliated with airstrikes on Gaza, which have killed over 20,000 Palestinians and displaced about 1.5 million since the war began, according to the United Nations and Palestinian health officials.

Zind, who’s been working with the organization Palestine Children’s Relief Fund (PCRF) for more than a decade, ended up stuck in Gaza for nearly a month. As she and other aid workers were moved to various United Nations facilities, she recorded audio diaries of her experiences, which she shared with CPR’s Western Slope reporter Stina Sieg. 

Read excerpts, in Zind’s own words, from her time in Gaza here.

Rodeo Hall of Famer

231009-trujillo-rodeo-hall-of-fameHart Van Denburg/CPR News
CJ Trujillo in the tack room at his ranch below Dunckley Pass. The 1981 PRCA World Champion in Bareback Riding, who also helped found the Cowboy Downhill held every January in Steamboat, is being inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame.
Rodeo Hall of Famer

At 75 years old, J.C. Trujillo can still feel the moment he became a rodeo cowboy. He was 6 years old.

Almost 70 years later, the former national bareback champion likes to say that just about everything he’s achieved in his life “is basically because of the sport of rodeo.” 

That includes his ranch, his collection of shiny belt buckles won in competition — including one presented to him by President Ronald Reagan — and the highest honor a cowboy like him can imagine: being recognized by the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, colloquially known as the Cowboy Hall of Fame.

“It's such a great honor that I'll never get over,” Trujillo said.

Read the full story here.

First couple to use Colorado’s wheelchair ‘right to repair’ law

Courtesy of Robin Bolduc
Robin Bolduc of Boulder with husband Bruce Goguen at Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre.
First couple to use Colorado’s wheelchair ‘right to repair’ law

After he got his new powered wheelchair last year, Bruce Goguen found he needed to make some adjustments. 

The tweaks were small: things like fine-tuning the travel speed in the device’s various modes and changing how quickly it responds to button presses. Getting them right was important, because Goguen’s chair is like an extension of his body.

But those seemingly simple changes weren’t so simple to make. Each new tweak required a visit from an authorized technician. Because of manufacturers’ restrictive repair rules, some wheelchair users have had to wait weeks for fixes large and small.

When someone finally came to service the chair, Goguen and his wife, Robin Bolduc, noticed something interesting. The technician wasn’t using a specialized device to make the changes. It was a smartphone app, and Bolduc wanted access. But she wasn't allowed to download the software, which was meant only for employees of the manufacturer and authorized vendors. 

The couple, however, had a card to play. They’ve been involved in disability advocacy for decades — they actually met at a protest in the 1990s. They like to say that fighting for change together is the foundation of their marriage.

Read the full story here.

Gen Z gender identity advocate

Nate Minor/CPR News
Ruby George in the CPR Studio.
Gen Z pronoun advocate

There’s a growing acceptance these days of adding pronouns to introductions. That little addition can have a huge impact. Simply notifying how one identifies can set the tone for a comfortable conversation about gender.

For some, adding that detail can be new and strange. But its effect on others can be profound.

Lakewood High School senior Ruby George, who identifies as non-binary, gave a TEDxYouth talk on this issue last year called “The Importance of Pronouns.” 

They say that discussing gender can be as simple as thinking about clothes — things that have no gender. But, when viewed as a spectrum, clothes can be a very easy way to understand the complexities of gender identity.

“[Let’s say] on our left side there’s a dress, and on the right side there’s pants,” George said. “And the dress represents being a woman and identifying as a woman. And the pants being a man and identifying as a boy. And maybe one morning someone goes and tries on the pants and they fit perfectly. It’s what they feel comfortable in and what they can go out into society as.”

But maybe some people try on the pants and they just don’t fit right. 

“It’s too tight, doesn’t fit in places, it’s uncomfortable, the fabric is bad,” George said. “So they go to try on the dress, and it fits perfectly. And that’s what they feel comfortable in and that’s how they choose to go out in the world.”

And for George, who feels somewhere in the middle between pants and a dress, it may be something like a skirt and a tank top; Those fit perfectly.

“That’s what I feel comfortable in. And that’s all really gender is,” George said. “It’s how we feel best on the inside. What we feel comfortable as and feel comfortable identifying as out in the world.”

George was one of several Colorado Front Range Gen Z students CPR News spoke to about their TEDxYouth talks. The talks include the importance of mental health, why pronouns matter, and how important education funding is for indigenous youth and teens of color.

Read the full story here.

'80s rock worshipper

Dan Boyce/CPR News
Marc Jones found a new passion for '80s rock about a decade ago, well into his retirement from a career as a garbage collector.
’80s rock worshipper

Pedestrians walking downtown Colorado Springs may, on an occasional evening, hear what might sound like a nearby rock concert. Or perhaps a loud bar or house party. 

They’d probably be surprised to find it’s likely just 72-year-old Marc Jones rocking out, alone, in his garage. The retired garbage collector has transformed the space into a temple of sorts, honoring who he sees as the gods of '80s rock and roll. 

The red carpet and walls of the garage match his long, dyed-red goatee. A waist-high speaker with color-changing LEDs pumps out his favorite ballads from his music collection — all DVDs — that he watches from a flatscreen TV set up in the corner of the garage. 

“I’m on my third and fourth DVD of some of them, because I’ve worn the other ones out, playing them so much,” he said.

Read the full story here.

Queen of the Manitou Incline

Manitou Incline female record holder Rachel Jones poses with well-wisher Jim Stewart and record holder Greg Cummings during a party celebrating her entry into the incline “1,000 Club” on December 31, 2022.
Queen of the Manitou Incline

When Colorado Springs massage therapist Rachel Jones began trying to rack up big lap numbers on the Manitou Incline a few years ago, the most impressive athletic feat she had accomplished was running a 10k, half of which she said she walked. 

On December 18, 2022, Jones became the first woman — and only the fourth person ever — to hike the legendary set of steep, mountainside steps 1,000 times in 365 days. The previous female record was 585 times in a year. 

“I felt like it was something that I would have to level up in every area of my life: physically, mentally, emotionally, financially, socially … to be able to accomplish something like that,” Jones said. 

The incline is made up of 2,744 wooden steps that long ago formed the ties of a cog railway. It ascends 2,000 vertical feet in less than a mile and ascending it 1,000 times in a year averages out to about 20 times every week. Jones didn’t stop when she hit 1,000: she climbed it 1,003 times in total. 

On top of that, in September her body started undergoing dramatic, unexpected changes, when she discovered she was pregnant.

Read the full story here.

Aurora laundromat owner and water conservationist

laundromat-230905Rachel Estabrook/CPR News
Yemane Habtezgi, owner of Laundry on the Fax, on July 7, 2023.
Aurora laundromat owner and water conservationist

Long before Yemane Habtezgi moved to Aurora — a city that has long struggled to secure enough water for its steadily growing population — he knew the value of water.

Habtezgi grew up in Eritrea, in the capital city of Asmara. He had running water, but he saw people in villages in the East African nation who frequently had to carry water several miles.

“They carry the water or they use donkeys to bring water to their homes from the river,” Habtezgi said.

Habtezgi moved to the Denver area around 2000, and in 2010, he bought a defunct laundromat on Colfax Avenue in Aurora so he could be his own boss and have the flexibility to take care of his children. He opened Laundry on the Fax and started renovating the building according to his values of water and energy conservation.

“If I can save water, I save life,” he said.

Unfortunately, his customers didn't sympathize.

Read the full story here.

The world’s top pinball player

Escher Lefkoff, 19, of Longmont, is the new Open World Champion pinball player. He practices on a collection of machines in a converted barn created by his dad, Adam Lefkoff, who is also a collector and competitive pinball player. Feb. 1, 2023.
The world’s top pinball player

The journey of the silver ball isn’t just an arcade game for 19-year-old Escher Lefkoff. It’s a metaphor for life.

Every game has a beginning. It’s followed by unexpected twists and turns. Then, finally, every round will end. Every ball will drain. 

“We are all going to die,” Lefkoff said. “That is just a fact of life. So it really depends on what you do with the ball — with your opportunities.”

Lefkoff has taken that carpe diem attitude to the next level as of late. He became the International Flipper Pinball Association’s number-one ranked player in the world after winning a series of national tournaments in Wisconsin last August. 

He’s been defending that title ever since. And the 100-year-old underground game (or sport, depending on who you ask) has seen a resurgence among young players. Meaning Lefkoff now has a singular mission: besting any and all that come for his crown.

Read the full story here.

Senior citizens filling Colorado’s lifeguard shortage

Matt Bloom/CPR News
Craig Robinson, 69, poses at his lifeguard station inside the Northglenn Recreation Center on May 16, 2023. Robinson and several other retirees applied to work as guards to help fill a lifeguard shortage in the community.
Senior citizens filling Colorado’s lifeguard shortage

For Craig Robinson, the last straw was the interruption of his morning lap swim workout. The lifeguard on duty that day had to use the restroom, which meant Robinson, a retired physician’s assistant and avid swimmer, had to get out of the pool, walk to a bench and wait. 

“There wasn’t any coverage,” Robinson, 69, said. “When they were done, we got back in the water. It was pretty acute and clear this was a big problem.” 

During the bathroom intermission, Robinson and the other lap swimmers’ frustrations boiled over and, together, they had a stroke of genius. Why shouldn’t the group, all retirees in their late 60s, apply to become lifeguards themselves? 

What started out as a half-joke quickly morphed into a legitimate idea for how to solve their problem, Robinson said. 

“It doesn’t have to be teenagers and college kids,” Robinson said. “We can help the community and help ourselves.” 

Read the full story here.

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