Tricia Hellman Gibbs ’82 pursues medical, skiing ambitions

Gibbs has founded a ski academy as well as a free medical clinic. Photo Courtesy of Wexner Foundation.

At the age of 2, Tricia Hellman Gibbs ’82 started heading to the slopes in California, where she would visit her grandparents. Gibbs’ father’s family loved skiing, and her father considered skiing to be the family sport.

When she was around 6, her parents would drive to Vermont from New York, where they lived, to ski on the weekends. That is when she started skiing. However, Gibbs became involved in ski -racing seven years later. Her early start eventually landed her on the U.S. national skiing team for two years.

“My parents decided that we would need to do more skiing if we wanted to be competitive,” Gibbs said. “It got serious when I was about 13. I started skiing during the week and in the summer. Then [my parents] founded a ski academy… It is really because of my parents that I got the opportunity to take it to the next level… [They] provided an opportunity for us [to ski] and get a good education at the same time.”

After being on the U.S. ski team from 1976 to 1978, Gibbs abruptly decided that she wanted to attend college. Gibbs took her first class at the College during Winter Study. “By the time I got to Williams, I was so ready to use my brain again,” she said. “I loved my first Winter Study class and jumping into the pre-med courses.”

A psychology major on the pre-medicine track, Gibbs was not sure if she wanted to ski competitively at the College. She eventually realized that she couldn’t give skiing up. “As soon as the winter started up, I realized that I absolutely had to keep on ski -racing,” Gibbs said. “It was really fun to ski for a college ski team as opposed to as an individual. It was a different kind of approach, where you are actually trying to help the team place in the team standings. Being a team member was really new and different for me.”

Gibbs joined cross country in the fall of her sophomore year after running a marathon during the summer. “After getting in shape for a marathon, I figured I might as well try cross-country running,” she said. Both sports made her time at the College memorable. “I made very lifelong friends in both sports,” she said. “Being on their side and having them on my side created deeper and more long-lasting friendships. I have to say, it was great to be able to do both.”

Gibbs was a two-time All-America skier and a national qualifier in cross country. After graduating from the College, she went to Yale for medical school. After finishing her residency, she moved to San Francisco with her husband, Richard Gibbs, and they started a private practice together. Richard used to be a professional ballet dancer, so the two were first drawn to providing care to dancers at the San Francisco Ballet.

Their time in private practice left them feeling unfulfilled, however. “It became pretty evident over the few years that we were in private practice that there were a lot of uninsured people, and it was hard to care for them in a fancy downtown private practice,” Gibbs said. “If they didn’t have insurance, they would have to pay upfront to cover their costs, and that started not feeling quite right to us. We didn’t seem to be really using our family practice training to the full extent. We realized one evening that we could actually turn the whole thing around and use all of our equipment to do the opposite thing and take care of the uninsured… We just had to find the location and early operating income from nonprofit donors.”

In 1993, Gibbs and her husband founded the San Francisco Free Clinic. Gibbs noted that the need for their clinic and its services has remained pressing since its opening. “When we first set up the clinic, there was some tremendous need for doctors caring for the uninsured because it is impossible to pay for the extreme cost of medical care for people who don’t have insurance,” she said. “We have a very simple mission. It was very easy to explain to people why a free clinic needed to exist. We were able to convince donors that we could provide this care and that we had the right training and credentials to make a difference with this population.

“There has been a thin waxing and waning of members, but it has never been a case where there are not patients or tremendous need for doctors to care for the uninsured.”

After Gibbs had children, her parents convinced her to pass along the family sport of skiing to them. Gibbs founded the Sugar Bowl Academy, a boarding school for young, competitive skiers. Just as her parents had first gotten her involved in the sport, they also influenced Gibbs in launching this endeavor. “I hadn’t really intended to get my children involved in skiing,” she said. “I didn’t think that far ahead. My parents played a really key role. My oldest child Ruth was 5 or so when they started taking her up to Sugar Bowl on the weekends.”

Her daughter joined the ski team, and although Gibbs was busy with her medical practice, she soon found herself in a leadership role with the team at the academy. From there, she took Sugar Bowl from a weekend developmental session to a whole other level.

“I guess I was a bit bold because I started this free clinic and thought, ‘Oh yeah, you can just start these nonprofits. It is no big deal,’” she said. “My daughter was 12, and she was about to go back east to a ski academy, and the coaches at the program said, ‘Why are you sending your daughter back east? Why don’t you set something up here like your parents did for you?’”

Weather conditions in the Sierra Nevada and funding both challenged the project early on. However, the school was able to build up its reputation and eventually grow. Gibbs served as the board chair from 1996 to 2008 and left the Sugar Bowl Academy with hopes of a new facility and even more success. “Building the Sugar Bowl Academy building was my dream, and my successor was able to fulfill it,” Gibbs said. “They built a really beautiful school building and dorm buildings. They are no longer on the edge of a cliff.”

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