Jim Kenyon: Backcountry.com founder climbing the mountain of Parkinson’s disease

  • Jim Holland, USA ski jumper and Olympian (1992 and 1994 Olympic Winter Games), seen at a jumping event in Lake Placid N.Y., in 1992. (Nancie Battaglia photograph)

  • "I've followed the owner's manual to my body to the letter since I was a kid. I ate my broccoli, kept low stress," said Jim Holland, who has early onset Parkinson's disease, during an interview with Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in Hanover, N.H., Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2019. "But at some point I maybe got on the wrong side of some pesticides or heavy metals." Holland is using his wealth and networking skills to fund research and connect scientists with different ideas and approaches to the disease. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Jim Holland, right, and John Bresee, co-founders of The Backcountry Store, pose outside their company's headquarters Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2003, in Heber City, Utah. The Norwich, Vt., natives started the company with just $2,000 scraped together from building web sites for realtors. (AP Photo/Douglas C. Pizac)

  • Jim Holland, 52, grew up in Norwich, was an Olympic ski jumper, then started online outdoor equipment retailer Backcountry.com with fellow Norwich native John Breese. Holland is the minority shareholder in the company and still serves on the board, but has dedicated his efforts and philanthropy to finding solutions for treating Parkinson's disease since being diagnosed with the degenerative neurological condition. Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon spoke with Holland at the Kendal at Hanover guest house, where Holland was visiting his parents, in Hanover, N.H., Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Jim Holland steadies the tremor in his hand between the couch cushions because he says the pressure feels good at Kendal at Hanover's guest house in Hanover, N.H., Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2019. "I'm not trying to hide my tremor," he said. "I don't understand why people need to be ashamed or need to hide illness." He added that his experience with Parkinson's has expanded his compassion and empathy for others who are suffering. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 11/9/2019 10:13:08 PM

In 2012, Jim Holland, at age 45, felt in his physical prime. That’s saying a lot for a guy who in his 20s was hurtling down ski jump ramps at 60 mph and flying more than the length of a football field during two Winter Olympics.

“I was as physically fit as I had been at any point in my life,” Holland recalled. “I was climbing mountains. I was kitesurfing, mountain biking and backcountry skiing.

“I felt invincible.”

Then one day at the age of 46, Holland was sitting in a business meeting when his index finger began to wiggle involuntarily.

“That’s weird,” he said to himself. “I’ve always been as steady as a rock.”

Over the next few months, the tremors became more frequent. Simple movements — raising a tortilla chip with salsa to his mouth without spilling — took effort.

Within a year, Holland was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a neurodegenerative disorder for which there is no known cure. Parkinson’s, which can cause tremors and other movement-related symptoms, affects nearly 1 million Americans and 10 million people worldwide.

The incidence of Parkinson’s increases with age, but less than 1 in 10 are diagnosed before turning 50.

“I wouldn’t have chosen this by any means, but ironically I was ready for a new challenge,” said Holland, who grew up in Norwich and now splits his time between Park City, Utah, and Austin, Texas.

Now 52, Holland is in an unusual position. Around the time he hit 40, Holland struck it rich in the e-commerce world. He’s now putting much of his money and energy into the search for a Parkinson’s cure.

He’s too modest to say how much he’s devoted to the cause, acknowledging only that it’s been in the “millions” and that he has no plans to stop.

Federal tax returns for Holland’s charitable trust, which are public information, show he’s given $1.2 million to Yale University for Parkinson’s research in the last three years alone.

During the same span, the trust also has contributed $1.1 million to the Axion Research Foundation, a Hamden, Conn., nonprofit heavily involved in biomedical research of Parkinson’s.

To keep abreast of new developments and potential breakthroughs, Holland pores over medical journals and research papers to better understand the disease.

“For Jim, it’s not just about handing over money,” said his sister Judy. “He’s hellbent on learning everything he can about neuroscience and how to come up with a cure.”

Last month, Holland was back in the Upper Valley with his wife, Analea, and 11-year-old stepdaughter, Lizzie, to visit his parents and siblings. I sat down with him to talk about, among other things, his approach to living with Parkinson’s.

“It feels good to be part of trying to find the cure,” he told me. “The answer to the puzzle is right in front of us. It’s not hiding. But we haven’t flushed it out yet.

“We’re close.”

Jim is the youngest of the three Holland brothers who, along with Jeff and Chris Hastings, put Norwich on the international ski jumping map.

Mike Holland jumped in the 1984 and 1988 Olympics. Joe Holland, who competed in Nordic combined, made his first U.S. Olympic team appearance in 1988.

For a time, however, it didn’t appear Jim, a 1985 Hanover High School graduate, would follow in his big brothers’ footsteps.

During a training jump at Lake Placid, N.Y., in 1987, Jim was approaching takeoff when his skis abruptly stuck on a wet ice patch. His momentum carried him over the front of his skis and he tumbled out of control.

He broke four vertebrae in the crash. His spinal cord was nearly severed. “He was an eighth of an inch from becoming a quadriplegic,” said his mother, Barbara, a retired nurse.

At 19, after undergoing surgery for a broken back, Holland’s ski jumping future was in jeopardy. But he refused to believe it.

Within weeks of her son’s surgery, Barbara Holland looked out the window of their Norwich home to see him riding a unicycle in the driveway. He was testing his balance.

He went on to win six national ski jumping championships and was named to back-to-back U.S. Olympic teams. His 12th-place finish on the 90-meter jump at the 1992 Winter Games in Albertville, France, was among the best performances ever by a U.S. jumper in a sport dominated by Europeans.

In 1995, after retiring from ski jumping and graduating from the University of Vermont, Holland strapped all the outdoor gear he owned, including skis, windsurf boards and a bike, to his VW Golf and headed west. He made his new home in Park City, where he shared an apartment with a Norwich childhood buddy, John Bresee.

Some people might have called them ski bums, but they had other things in mind besides attacking the slopes. They pooled $2,000 from their checking accounts to build a website called Backcountry.com.

In the mid-90s, selling merchandise via the internet was a new phenomenon. Holland and Bresee concentrated on high-end outdoor gear. They found their niche in the untapped and growing market of serious adventurers who craved $2,200 kayaks and $450 avalanche beacons.

But it was never a sure thing.

In the company’s early years, Holland could be found “dumpster-diving at grocery stores to find cardboard boxes to repackage skiing and rock-climbing equipment that he’d bought from manufacturers so he could turn around and send them to customers,” Forbes.com wrote in a 2006 profile of Holland and Bresee.

“While Bresee, president, dreamed big, Holland, chief executive, kept a fierce grip on costs,” Forbes.com wrote. “A popular saying among employees: ‘If John were running the company alone, we’d be bankrupt; if Jim ran things alone, we’d still be working in the garage.’ ”

Holland and Bresee combined their passion for outdoor adventures with an entrepreneurial spirit to build the second-largest online retailer of outdoor gear and clothing behind REI.com.

By the mid-2000s, Holland and Bresee were running a company with annual revenues of nearly $100 million, Forbes.com reported. Today, Backcountry has nearly 1,500 employees.

The secret to their success?

“Good timing,” Holland told me.

“Jim is very successful, but he’s also very humble and has zero ego,” said his brother Joe.

Harry Holland recalled his youngest son as always having a nose for business, particularly marketing.

Jim was still in his teens when his brother Joe drove one winter to Florida with Chris Hastings. They loaded their pickup with fresh oranges and grapefruit to sell when they got back home.

But when they reached Norwich after driving for 24 hours, apparently the need for sleep overrode their desire to turn a quick profit on a perishable load of citrus.

Enter brother Jim. With a homemade sign announcing that he had Florida oranges and grapefruit to sell, Jim set up shop in the pickup at the town’s entrance, just off the interstate. “He sold out in no time,” his father said.

In 2007, Holland and Bresee sold a majority interest in Backcountry.com to Liberty Media, a multibillion-dollar company whose portfolio includes the QVC home-shopping network.

Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Holland remained the company’s CEO until 2011. In 2015, Liberty sold Backcountry to a private equity firm for a reported $350 million.

Holland remains a minority shareholder and continues to hold a seat on the board of directors.

While Holland and Bresee created a business that succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, it’s still a star-crossed tale. A couple of years after stepping down as CEO, Holland received his Parkinson’s diagnosis. Then this summer, Bresee died unexpectedly in his sleep. He was 53.

In 2008, after the sale of Backcountry, Holland established his charitable trust to support causes dear to him, many of them nonprofits with an environmental bent.

But even before his Parkinson’s diagnosis, the charitable trust had expanded its scope. (Holland and his brother Joe serve as the nonprofit’s trusts, but neither takes a salary, IRS records indicate.)

In 2010, after the U.S. Ski Team’s governing body had, for all practical purposes, abandoned ski jumping, Holland was among the sport’s die-hards who came to the rescue.

“Ski jumping was unraveling,” Holland said. “There was no national team.”

He helped start and finance USA Nordic Sports, a nonprofit based in Park City that now runs national jumping and Nordic combined programs. The nonprofit’s 2018-19 annual report lists Holland among four top donors who had contributed between $100,000 and $250,000 apiece in the last fiscal year.

On his recent trip home, Holland and his brothers hiked Hanover’s Oak Hill, where their ski jumping careers literally got off the ground.

Mike and Joe continue to coach boys and girls in the Ford Sayre Memorial Ski Council’s jumping program, which meets twice a week under the lights at Oak Hill during winter months.

Jim has quietly helped the Upper Valley’s young ski jumpers as well. When Oak Hill’s two aging jumps need repairs or improvements, his brothers know they can count on him.

In 2017, Backcountry Charitable Trust contributed $20,000 to Ford Sayre. During their recent visit to Oak Hill, Mike Holland ticked off a wish list of projects that came to about $15,000. His younger brother agreed to fund them all.

In a 2017 video on Backcountry.com’s website, Holland talked about Parkinson’s in familiar terms:

“I see the cure for Parkinson’s as a gigantic mountain. You can see the peak and you can imagine yourself on the peak.

“In some cases there’s a trail, and in some cases it’s a bushwhack. It’s a route-finding experience. You just keep going and just put one step in front of the other. Before you know it, you’re somewhere. Before you know it, you’ve climbed the damn mountain.”

The causes of Parkinson’s, which about 60,000 Americans are diagnosed with annually, remain unknown, but theories abound.

“For most people with (Parkinson’s), the disease is caused by a combination of underlying genetic predisposition and environmental exposures,” states the website for the national nonprofit Parkinson’s Foundation.

Holland gives a lot of thought to what might have caused or contributed to his Parkinson’s. Research suggests exposure to pesticides could be a culprit.

As a teenager, Holland worked summers at a vegetable farm, planting lettuce and picking cucumbers and beans.

Strangely enough, research shows lower rates of Parkinson’s among smokers and coffee drinkers. Holland was neither, although he’s now taken up chewing nicotine gum.

“I’ve followed the owner’s manual for my body since I was kid,” he joked. “I exercised. I ate my broccoli.”

He’s still mountain biking and downhill skiing. This summer, he also took another crack at kitesurfing.

“It was challenging, but I survived,” he said. “My balance is good, but there’s no guarantee it will last.”

Parkinson’s is a progressive brain disorder that affects mobility and speech due to a loss of dopamine, a chemical messenger in the brain.

“In people with Parkinson’s disease, nerve cells that produce dopamine slowly die. The loss of dopamine leads to slower movements, resting tremors, and other symptoms that worsen over time,” a Yale Medical School website wrote in July about a new study by its researchers.

During a 90-minute interview, Holland kept his right hand tucked between the cushions on the couch where he was sitting. It was his way of controlling the muscle contractions.

“It’s just more comfortable to have some pressure on my hand,” he said.

He has bouts of double vision. He speaks clearly, but the longer he talks, the more effort it requires.

While Parkinson’s itself isn’t a fatal disease, complications related to the disease can reduce a person’s life expectancy.

But Holland doesn’t seem to view the search for a cure as a race against the clock.

“One day soon, I’m going to be able to say I had Parkinson’s.”

Judy Holland, a print journalist-turned-book author who lives in Washington, D.C., once asked her brother: How do you not feel angry about the hand you’ve been dealt?

“I don’t go there,” he replied.

Before going to bed at night, Holland makes a mental note of five good things that happened to him that day.

“He’s such a positive thinker,” his mother said. “We’re proud of the way he’s handled his life.”

Like other people with Parkinson’s, Holland is fighting his personal day-to-day battle with the disease. But at the same time — through his philanthropy and quest to learn everything he can about neuroscience — he’s taken on a much bigger fight.

“For the vast majority of my life, I felt very healthy,” Holland said. “I constantly challenged the bounds of my physical capabilities and my body responded remarkably well.

“This is a very different experience — a complete 180. There is an upside to this predicament, however. When I see someone struggling physically, and not just with Parkinson’s, I get it now. I can connect, and I really want to do something to help out. There’s an opportunity here to have a significant positive impact on the world.

“I’m energized by that.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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