VMI lacrosse player rescues skiers buried in an avalanche: 'Someone needs help. Why not me?'

Posted at 12:54 PM, Jan 26, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-27 00:11:28-05

LEXINGTON, Va. -- Being a student-athlete at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia is not for everyone.

VMI's academic, athletic, and emotional requirements are unlike most other centers of higher learning. Almost all athletes there have a higher purpose.

"Our guys are typical 18 to 22-year-olds in the sense that they like to have fun, they're normal, they're not robots, but certainly selfless people," VMI lacrosse coach James Purpura said.

"There are definitely great times and there are also times when it's not the greatest place in the world," lacrosse defender Erik Gottmann said. "I don't regret my choice to come here at all."

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Erik Gottman

Gottmann, a sophomore voted best athlete in his class at Ballston Spa High School near Albany, New York, managed to play four sports in three athletic seasons. Year-round football in the fall, wrestling in the winter, and lacrosse in the spring.

But he has been skied since the age of three and managed to hit the slopes in what little free time he had.

His family planned a ski trip to the Austrian Alps over this past Christmas break. It's the kind of trip you look forward to for months.

"Basically, it's just mountains as far as the eye can see really, all of them topped off with snow," he said.

Erik and his two younger brothers were enjoying near-perfect conditions on Christmas Day before things went from perfect to petrifying.

"My youngest brother, Hans, pointed out there was an avalanche," Gottmann said. "I sort of thought he was joking at first because no one ever sees avalanches, especially when they're on the trail."

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The Gottmanns were off to the side of the main rush of snow which chased several skiers down the hill and caught several in its wake.

"I wasn't even really thinking about it because it happened so quickly. I didn't even really have time to react," Gottmann said.

Once the slide stopped, Gottmann and his brothers continued down the trail and found a man buried up to his neck. They immediately rushed to dig him out.

"Honestly, I don't really remember anything going through my head at that point," Gottmann said. "I was just thinking there's someone that needs help. Why not me?"

The man needed to be airlifted off the mountain nearly three hours after being trapped.

While the boys helped nine other skiers who had lesser injuries, they were too busy to realize how close they could have been to needing rescuing themselves.

"I think it didn't really hit us until after when our parents came down and hugged us at the bottom of the trail," he said.

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Gottmann and his family returned home without mentioning much of their experience to anyone.

His coach didn't learn of his heroics until about a week and a half later.

"I told my wife in the middle of dinner one of our players saved 10 lives in the Alps over the holidays!" Coach Pupura said. "Eric is kind of soft-spoken and incredibly humble. So he's not the kind of person to just go out there and tell people about it because I don't think he wants a ton of attention for something he just thinks everybody should do."

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VMI lacrosse coach James Purpura

Gottmann is a walking example of the selfless attitude his coach believes all of his players possess. For his part, Gottmann was just happy to help when his help was needed .and that his brothers did not hesitate to follow.

"I think it's one of the greatest things you can do is to be a good family member and a good person all around," he said. "It makes me proud of myself as well as the rest of the people involved in it that we were all able to do the right thing."

His coach agrees.

"I think there's a great mentality in that," Pupura said. "There's a reason why he's going into the Army next year. He's not living that ordinary life."

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