by Tena Starr
NEWPORT — Phil White, lawyer, former county prosecutor, and the man who tried so valiantly to save IROC, has taken on a new venture.
Mr. White has started a for-profit company called Kingdom Games to organize and promote outdoor activities such as biking, swimming and running in the Northeast Kingdom. Next year, Kingdom Games will offer about 15 events designed for both amateur and professional athletes. Some of those will be the popular events that IROC hosted, such as the Dandelion Run and the Kingdom Swim. Others will be new.
“When IROC closed there was a real risk that the summer events would end,” Mr. White said in a recent interview at his modest home on Lake Memphremagog. He said he couldn’t let them end this past summer, since so many people had already registered. It would have left a bad taste about the Kingdom if the year’s events had been abruptly canceled, he said.
Aside from that, it’s clear that Mr. White has developed something of a passion for the summer games he initially started as fund-raisers for IROC, and which have steadily grown. They now draw thousands to the Northeast Kingdom each summer. They’ve taken on a life of their own and have a loyal following, Mr. White said. They’re fun, but they also have real value in terms of economic benefit to the area.
The last time he kept track, there were about 1,300 participants in the games, Mr. White said. But those participants tend to bring friends and family along with them. Usually, first-year runners or swimmers show up on a Friday, planning to leave on Saturday, he said. The second year, they arrive with an entourage and stay longer.
“I call it the great return,” Mr. White said. “Between a third and a half return. They rent a house and look for things to do. They make it a big summer event.”
People from 36 states and five Canadian provinces have attended the games, Mr. White said. “We’ve had swimmers from Mexico, from Great Britain. We had an 11-year-old from India.”
Some people return year after year simply to do the same short swim. Others go on to give the English Channel a try.
This past summer’s events went on as planned, despite the loss of IROC. They didn’t grow much, they simply maintained, Mr. White said.
At the end of the season he sat down and did some hard thinking. Starting a private company to keep the games alive, and grow them, is something of a risk on his part, he noted.
“But I thought these games are too good to let them die. I felt if I didn’t step up and do this the games would die. I could be wrong. But that would have been a real loss for the community.”
What Mr. White now calls Kingdom Games started when he was chairman of the board at IROC. He came up with the Kingdom Swim, the Dandelion Run, the Tour de Kingdom, and other events that have drawn people from all over the world to Orleans County. He gave the events their names, charted the courses, and promoted them with the help of a network of volunteers and sponsors that he can’t credit enough for their vital support.
“When I started the Kingdom Swim it was pretty much dismissed,” he said. “People said nobody would come, it wouldn’t make any money. I said I’d be happy if ten people came.”
That first year 100 people showed up. The second year, there were 200 participants.
Kingdom Games will take over where IROC left off, continuing the popular swim, walk, and run races, increasing attendance if possible, and expanding activities next year to include a true marathon from Parker Pie Wings at the Newport airport to the original Parker Pie in West Glover. It will be a 26-mile marathon, all on dirt roads, perhaps the only one of its kind in Vermont, Mr. White said.
It’s been an interesting run for Mr. White. He’s made friends with Argentinean photographers and Swiss swimmers. He’s developed close relationships with officials and organizers of similar events in Quebec, and hopes to increase collaboration so there are more international activities.
Through it all, he said, it’s been a terrific experience, one where he’s developed friendships and witnessed events that brought people together, not to mention to the Northeast Kingdom.
At this past summer’s Kingdom Swim, he met a couple who spent their fiftieth wedding anniversary making waffles for swimmers.
“They said they saw Newport through different eyes — the beauty of it,” Mr. White said. “There’s a lot of positive energy at these events, and they were part of it.”
Economically, it’s probably a drop in the bucket, he said about the impact of those who come to the region for the summer games. But in the long run, the Kingdom could easily become a destination for people who want to engage in activities that are both challenging and just plain fun. At least a couple of the events have the potential to become world class, Mr. White said.
He’s also heartened by the number of sponsors who have stepped up, as well as Newport’s response to the events. Newport has been welcoming, he said, which has made a big difference.
Participants in the events generally don’t get big prizes. They get hand carved wooden medals, maple syrup, and other small local prizes. Louis Garneau often donates equipment and apparel that are handed out as prizes.
The big prizes usually go to participants in events that are fund-raisers, Mr. White said. One of those was a guided swim from the former Alcatraz prison in California to San Francisco. Another was a Cobra kayak.
But for the most part, the people who have been participating aren’t looking for big bucks; they’re doing it for the fun of it, for the challenge, and for the place, Mr. White believes.
He has stories. There is, for instance, the group of young women from Dartmouth College who came up one year to do the Dandelion Run. They’ve returned ever since, although they live in very different parts of the country. It’s something of a reunion for them, he said.
There’s the woman who wanted her dog to swim. It turned out the dog was quite a contender and beat a number of spectacular athletes.
Mr. White jokingly asked one of them: “How’s it feel to get beat by a dog?”
Why do people come to the Northeast Kingdom for outdoor events that offer little in the way of reward beyond a wooden medallion?
“We don’t have big cash money, so we get people who do it for the love of it,” Mr. White said.
The venues are “some of the most quietly beautiful places in the United States,” he said. “You have Willoughby, which is majestic, but most places aren’t inherently majestic. They’re just quietly beautiful.”
Beyond that, the events are safe, well planned, and include surrounding activities that make participants feel welcome and special, he said.
For instance, Newport has offered the use of Prouty Beach and the Gateway Center, which was used for a pasta dinner. The costume and pet parade in Newport are hilarious, Mr. White said.
“The events have been well supported,” he said. “A lot of work has gone into them. They’re as safe as we can make them.”
The Daily News of Open Water Swimming picked Lake Memphremagog and Willoughby Lake as two of the best 50 open water swims in America, Mr. White said. The World Open Water Swimming Association has selected the Kingdom Swim to host the World Open Water 10-Mile Championships for the next five years.
“There aren’t that many areas that can offer the kind of lakes we can,” Mr. White said. “And the options, the variety and support are recognized now.”
Next year’s event will include the Dandelion Run, the Tour de Kingdom, the Son of a Swim, the Harry Corrow Freedom Run, Kingdom Kayak, the Kingdom Swim, the Kingdom Triathlon, the Seymour Swim, Swim the Kingdom Week (which features swims on eight lakes), In Search of Memphre IV (a 25-mile swim from Newport to Magog, Quebec), the Halloween Hustle, the Santa Run, and the new Doin’ the Dirt — Pie to Pie, a hike, bike, or run marathon with three distances: 26.2 miles, 13.1 miles, and 17 miles.
Although Kingdom Games is a for-profit corporation, Mr. White said he intends to donate a portion of all registration fees to charities on both sides of the border. They include North Country Hospital’s Patient Care Initiative Fund, the Halo Foundation, Umbrella, and Toys for Tots. For Canadian registrants, donations will go to the Christian Vachon Foundation, which serves disadvantaged young people in the Magog, Quebec, area.
Registration for next year’s events is already open.
As for Mr. White, he said he plans to continue lawyering part-time. But his heart is largely in his new venture.
“I think it’s good to reinvent yourself,” he said. “When you’re looking at life and its value, it’s important to use what little time we have well. And I think this is a good use of time.”
contact Tena Starr at [email protected]