This past March, Maria Graefnings capped off a hugely successful college career in winning her second NCAA title in the 5-kilometer freestyle at Bohart Ranch in Bozeman, Mont. In her two years at the University of Utah, the Swede dominated the Rocky Mountain region with eleven total RMISA wins. She once gave Kikkan Randall a run for her money in Idaho at SuperTour Finals.
But instead of riding off into the sunset after graduation, as many European recruits have done before her, 26-year-old Graefnings returned to Europe this spring with more ambitious racing goals than when she first left.
“I really want to represent Sweden in some World Cups,” Graefnings said. “I haven’t been home for three years or raced that much at home, so we’ll see how it goes… I just know I’m a lot better now compared to when I started studying in the U.S.”
That’s saying something when you consider Graefnings already had a handful of World Cup starts under her belt before she enrolled at an American university. The Falun native raced at a high level for four years while she worked towards a degree at the University of Östersund part-time. Graefnings took sixth in the classic sprint at World U23 Championships in 2007 and was fifth at Swedish Nationals in 2008.
Overall she had moderate success in Sweden, never quite making it past the bubble in securing a place on a World Cup roster. Feeling her career start to stagnate, Graefnings decided to make a change.
“I was at a point where I didn’t develop as much as I wanted, and my friend said, ‘You should come to the U.S. and ski for the team one semester,’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, why not,’” she said. Seeking to recharge her skiing, Graefnings crossed the Atlantic and enrolled at the University of Nevada in 2010.
Her friends in Sweden thought the move was a sure sign she was done. “They said, ‘Oh, so you’re going to quit skiing now, Maria?’ And I’m like, ‘No, not at all, I just need to do something else.’”
Graefnings was fourth that winter at NCAAs, and enjoyed herself so much she decided to stick around to finish her degree.
“I think it was good for me just to race against other people and see new places, see a new culture, learn English” Graefnings said. “All the pieces just came together. I started skiing really fast.”
Nevada’s ski team was cut from the athletic department after that season, however, and Graefnings was left to figure out where to go next. “I was like, ‘Oh shit, what do I do now?’” She wound up transferring to Utah while maintaining the working relationship she’d established with the head coach at Nevada, August Teague. In her first year with the Utes she won eight regular-season races and her first NCAA title.
The following winter Graefnings got more ambitious; with two successful college seasons under her belt she wanted to test how she’d stack up at home. With the blessing of her coaches at Utah she traveled back to Europe in December to try to earn World Cup starts. Illness held Graefnings back in Scandinavian Cups and Swedish nationals, but she was “definitely glad I went back” even though the trip didn’t turn out like she’d wanted. She hardly had time to dwell on it, as she only a few days between nationals and her next college race in the U.S.
By the end of the 2012 season Graefnings was back to full form, and at NCAAs she won the 5 k freestyle by 20 seconds over UVM’s Caitlin Patterson. It would be easy to imagine college results being trivial to a Swedish athlete raring to get her career going again outside the U.S., but this is not the case with Graefnings. “I won NCAAs two years in a row. I have goose bumps when I think about it; it’s special,” she said.
Her thoughts on her college experience are equally positive: “The team and the coaches there were great. I had a great time, I continued to develop as a skier and there was no doubt that I wanted to go back [to Sweden] and try to ski. I just love to ski.
“I think being at altitude for a long period of time, having good teammates — the whole package with school. When you feel good you have fun, you have a good social life, you know? You get in a good flow. That’s definitely important to develop as a skier, too.”
Teague, who has been Graefnings’ coach throughout her transition from Nevada to Utah and now back to Sweden, noted that her approach to college was somewhat unique among other European athletes who come to the U.S. to compete in college. A few skiers before Graefnings have successfully made the transition back to skiing at a high level internationally — fellow Utah alum Snorri Einarsson is a prime example — but the trajectory is altogether rare.
“A lot of athletes come to the U.S. because they haven’t achieved their goals in Europe and they’re ready to retire,” Teauge said. “Maria came here seeing it as a pathway to that next step, saying, ‘I need a change with my training here at home. I’ve gotten to the level I’ve gotten to and I need to change something.’ She thought of the U.S. as a positive change in helping her get onto the Swedish national team and potentially ski at the Olympics, where other athletes in the past have seen it more as a retirement party.”
With a degree in exercise physiology in hand, Graefnings is now training and skiing full-time in Sweden. Her support comes from both the Swedish military and the Falun Borlänge Skiclub, and she’s currently working on adding personal sponsors. Her racing season has already begun; in August she traveled to Australia to compete in the Australia/New Zealand Cup and bank a full month of training at altitude with Teague, who also coaches the Australian national team. Graefnings podiumed twice at Falls Creek, winning the final 10 k freestyle over Russia’s Marina Chernousova.
“It was perfect,” Graefnings said. “We were at altitude and I got some good training and racing.”
Graefnings is currently training with her club in Ramsau, Austria, doing everything she can to log the work necessary to meet her goals. Beyond the World Cup she’s set her sights on World Championships and, maybe, the Olympics.
“[The Olympics] are a dream, that would be so cool,” Graefnings said. “Of course, I’m aware it’s super competitive and a lot of girls are really good. I think if I get everything together, maybe some luck, I’ve been training really hard — you never know!”