Erik Gottman. Photo by Doug Doughty.
Erik Gottman. Photo by Doug Doughty.

LEXINGTON — It was only fitting that Erik Gottman, a midfielder on VMI’s lacrosse team, was moved from offense to defense following the 2022 season.

From now on, Gottman will be known for another kind of defense after a Christmas vacation with his family.

The Gottmans, who are from upstate New York, were headed to Europe to ski in the Alps, only to have an even more unforgettable event ahead of them.

Gottmann told Inside Lacrosse that he was skiing with his brothers and some family friends in Austria on Christmas afternoon when they were about 100 yards away from an avalanche.  They started recording with their phones but quickly decided they needed to do something and rushed to aid up to 10 skiers trapped in the downfall.

“There’s no paramedics, there’s no ski patrol and no one else to help,” Gottman, listed at 5 foot 9 and 170 pounds by VMI, told Inside Lacrosse. “Until someone gets there, it’s not my job, but it’s the right thing to do.

“And I think at that moment, I wasn’t even really thinking.  I was like, ‘Well, there’s one guy buried here.  There’s a couple of people higher on the trail.  I just need to see what I can do to help.” 

The Gottmann brothers helped with the recovery for about an hour. All of the skiers survived.

Gottman didn’t miss any time at VMI, where he recently began the second semester and was in training for lacrosse earlier this week. The Keydets have an exhibition at North Carolina next week before beginning the season Feb. 4 against visiting Detroit Mercy.

Gottman is listed on VMI’s lacrosse roster as being from Ballston Spa, N.Y., near Saratoga, N.Y.

“I was a lacrosse player and a skier,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “I started skiing when I was three years old at a resort called Sugarbush in Vermont. I started playing lacrosse in the second grade.”

He played in seven games as a freshman at VMI. 

“I wanted to go to a school that offered both military and sports,” Gottman said of his decision to come to the mid-Atlantic for college. “My dad talked to me about it originally because he knew I wanted to do both.

“I sent them an e-mail and a highlight tape and it just went from there. Although the Rat Line [at VMI] was a little bit challenging mentally and physically at first, you get the hang of it and I really enjoyed it at the end of the year.”

His cumulative grade-point average was in the 3.5 range.

He has two older brothers and a sister, who wasn’t on the trip to Europe.

Erik flew to Munich with his mother on Christmas eve, and they were joined by his father when they went to the ski resort the next day, the same day that avalanche occurred.

“That was pretty much a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said Gottman, interviewed outside the VMI men’s lacrosse locker room Wednesday. “It wasn’t just the avalanche. It was being in a life-or-death situation.”

He obtained information about one of the injured skiers and has kept up with him in the short term.

“It’s up to my parents whether we might go there again,” Gottman said. “If they say ‘yes,’ I’d love to go back.”

He had been to the Alps on two earlier occasions, but stayed home due to coronavirus concerns in 2021.

Lacrosse has been a staple for him as far back as the second grade, “which was basically little kids running around with sticks,” he said. “Ever since the third grade, I played community [lacrosse] around our town.”

Upon his recent return to VMI for the second semester, there was considerable favorable response from his teammates and coach James Purpura.

Gottman was one of Purpura’s first commitments in his first recruiting class.

“Erik is a special young man who embodies the core values of the program and is super humble,” Purpura said. “We didn’t find out [about the avalanche] until about a week after the event happened. 

“We thought it might be a joke at first because Erik is one of the goofy kids on the team who has a great sense of humor. Guys were razzing him and saying ‘look at this guy, saving people.'”

There was a picture circulating that showed three people who were dug out.

“One of the players on the team sent me the actual video.” Purpura said. “I was at dinner with my wife and one of our assistant coaches and his fiancée had actually seen the video and I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness. This is true!’

“Erik had just saved these people’s lives in the Alps. It sounds like a crazy story but who else but Erik Gottman? It speaks a lot to his character.

“I think he played three or four sports in high school. We knew he would turn into something.”

There are skiers in the Alps who would certainly vouch for that.

Doug Doughty

Doug Doughty has been writing for more than 50 years starting as a high school student in Washington, D.C., through his undergraduate years at the University of Virginia, and 47 years at the Roanoke Times...