Editor’s note: This is the second installment of a four-part series on the impact of female nordic coaches in the U.S. In Part I, former U.S. Ski Team member Nancy Fiddler introduced herself and reason for writing about the topic. Part II takes a look at several female collegiate coaches and their influence at that level. Parts III and IV will discuss female coaches in the Junior Nationals pipeline as well as grassroots programs across the country.
Part II of my series on female cross-country ski coaches in the U.S. looks at the careers of five female collegiate coaches. As I have said before, back in the 1970’s, when I was a collegiate racer, there were no female coaches on the scene. I contacted these women through email and was pleasantly surprised by their generous and very eloquent responses. Each has made a contribution to skiing and has a distinctive story to tell.
To give a little background, Cami Thompson-Graves is an old teammate and friend, Tracey Cote someone I have heard much about and finally met a year ago, and Becky Woods is the daughter of Bob Flynn, who was the head ski coach when I was at Bates. As a coach, I watched Abi Holt and Kristina Trygstad-Saari during their racing careers, and now am following their coaching careers with interest.
Women’s Team Coach, Dartmouth College, 24 years
“I see myself as just one person contributing to a team.” – Cami Thompson-Graves, on how she’s contributing to the big picture of women’s skiing in the U.S.
Cami Thompson-Graves has indeed contributed to the recent success of the U.S. Women’s Cross Country Ski Team. Just this spring, 2012 Dartmouth graduate Sophie Caldwell was named to the U.S. Ski Team (USST) B-team.
While Dartmouth did not win the 2013 NCAA Championships, its women are definitely players on the national collegiate stage, with freshman Mary O’Connell taking second and fourth places in March in Ripton, Vt. With the woman affectionately known as Coach Cami at the helm, Dartmouth won NCAAs in 2007.
Her own racing pedigree, which spans a career from Vermont High School Ski Meister to USST member, has seen some success. Thompson-Graves was a promising racer in the mid ’80s with near perfect technique whose career was cut short after a bout of overtraining. She turned her talents to coaching.
Thompson-Graves’ 24-year career at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., puts her at the leading edge of the phenomenon of female collegiate coaches in a traditionally all-male environment. Pursuing an interest in motivating and developing athletes, Thompson-Graves began her career at Dartmouth as a development team coach, soon moving up to the head women’s coach position.
“I love the women I work with,” she said. “They have such different personalities and work towards their goals each in their own way.”
Dartmouth women have a strong role model to look up to in their coach, who juggles her career with being married and parenting. Thompson-Graves feels like she is making a difference for the skiers in her program.
“I think we have a great team here, and it is all those women working together that help each of them achieve whatever their goals are,” she said.
Beyond teaching the women in green the secrets to maintaining a rigorous training and racing schedule while attending classes in one of the country’s top schools, Thompson-Graves is impacting her skiers in other ways.
“Hopefully they are learning to think big … and to make their own decisions,” she said. “It is so important for women to realize they can do this.”
Her coaching style is distinctive; one might say she leads in a soft manner.
“I feel strongly that a coach is a mentor, not a dictator,” she said. “We should be challenging, guiding, and nurturing rather than micro-managing and directing.”
On the subject of whether female nordic coaches are on a par with their male peers, Thompson-Graves is vehement that a woman is capable of doing anything a man can in this field. The difficulty for women, she believes, is that the lifestyle is tough, especially for young coaches.
“If we want more women to be involved in the sport, then we need young women to see it is something they can and might want to aspire to,” she said. “I am lucky that I can do my job and still have a family. Some coaching jobs are much less family friendly.”
Thompson-Graves will be leading young women in skiing for some time to come; she knows she has a great coaching situation and she appears to get just as much back as she gives to the team she coaches. As long as Thompson-Graves feels like she is doing a good job, she will continue to coach.
“When I see so many of the women I have worked with still involved in the sport in some way I am proud of what I have accomplished,” she said
Head Nordic Coach, Colby College, 16 years
“I’m modeling the great things about being involved in skiing for a long time. Some of my proudest moments have been to watch my former skiers in their new roles as coaches. This contribution, I know, is making a difference.” – Tracey Cote
Tracey Cote was running cross-country at the University of Minnesota-Duluth when her teammates convinced her to go out for the brand-new nordic team. Cote ended up pursuing her love for her the sport even after the Duluth team was cut two years later, transferring to Northern Michigan University, where she ran and skied for the duration of her undergraduate career.
A year after taking a part-time coaching position at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, Cote was offered a full-time faculty position there, coaching the men’s and women’s nordic teams. On top of her racing experience, Cote has a Master’s degree in health education and a teaching degree.
Heading into her 16th year at Colby, she hasn’t looked back.
“The one thing about ski coaching is that as sad as it is to see your seniors leave, you’re always excited to see your incoming skiers develop and you can’t imagine not being her for their four years,” she said. “This pattern could keep me coaching for the next 25 years!”
Citing fellow college coaches Becky Woods (Bates College) and Dartmouth’s Thompson-Graves as mentors, Cote soon hit her stride as a coach and leader of young people. Athlete development is what she likes most about her job and the challenge to inspire each skier to reach his or her potential.
“My biggest reward is seeing what my skiers accomplish after Colby,” she said. “I feel lucky to have developed close relationships with such amazing people.”
Cote said she’s not afraid to push her skiers to make them better, but she is their biggest fan and supports them when they are struggling.
With three boys, ages 4, 6 and 9, Cote and her husband, Patrick, are an involved nordic-skiing family. Waterville has recently been a hotbed of activity with the formation of the Central Maine Ski Club four years ago and the recent addition of the Quarry Road racing venue just a short distance from campus. While on sabbatical leave last year, Cote jumped into athlete development at the grassroots level and got the “Get Ready to Race Program” for third- and fourth-graders off the ground.
Cote will be back on the college circuit next winter and looks forward to getting back to her job developing athletes at the highest level.
“Although I coach a small program in the scheme of things, I do my best to develop athletes at the highest level,” she said. “I see my program as a step to bigger opportunities in skiing.”
On the topic of gender equality in coaching nordic, Cote said she “feels very lucky to be in the college world, as I feel men and women are treated very equally and the Eastern [conference] coaches are very professional.”
She is not sure that coaching at the Junior National level has reached that degree of professionalism and is more male-dominated, but thinks this will change with time.
Between her jobs as head coach, associate athletic director and senior women’s administrator at Colby, Cote is a wife and a mom. She knows what it is like to be busy.
“Obviously, the U.S. Ski Team has been primarily coached by men, and I may be wrong, but I don’t think too many women are willing to live the lifestyle it takes at that level,” she said.
Cote sees herself as a role model for women and said she’s “really proud to be one of a few women in any college sports program coaching men … with the U.S. women doing so well and being such an inspiration to a whole new crop of women, I hope we see female coaches at the highest ranks.”
Head Nordic Coach, University of Utah, four years
“I think I am one of a few coaches in the country who has coached at literally every level of skiing. I have coached youth ski leagues, middle school skiers, high school skiers, college, US Ski Team, and masters… and taught beginner ski lessons.” – Abi Holt
Abi Holt, head coach of the men’s and women’s nordic teams at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City has a solid grasp on the skiing pipeline. Her own ski-racing background covers just as much ground.
As a junior from Sun Valley, Idaho, Holt was a three-time junior national champion and an 18-time junior All-American. Skiing for Dartmouth, she was an NCAA All-American. She said she fell into coaching “sort of by accident.”
All it took was a phone call from Park City coach, John Callahan (formerly of The Utah Nordic Alliance, or TUNA) to steer Holt to a career in ski coaching in 1999. Fresh out of college and new in town, Holt needed a job, so she spent the winter as Callahan’s assistant coaching the high-school-age competition team the following season.
After three years in Park City, Holt moved back to Sun Valley, coaching there for five years, then put in a year in Vancouver, British Columbia, as the Hollyburn Ski Team head coach. Back in Utah, she took a position as University of Utah assistant coach and signed a joint contract with the USST as an assistant development coach. Holt is now heading into her fourth year as Utah’s head coach.
The lifestyle appears to agree with Holt, who said she likes her job for
“the variety! Getting outside and not sitting at a desk all day. Watching young people develop into fantastic human beings. The challenge of managing team dynamics.”
Holt’s impact on the men and women she coaches goes beyond the management of training and racing.
“I believe that involvement with Nordic skiing creates great humans,” she said. “I hope that young skiers who I am involved with learn how to mix the necessary intensity of the sport with some humor.”
Holt knows she has a great situation in her position at Utah. She loves her job and her confidence demonstrates that she is at the top of her game. After finishing second at NCAA Championships for the last three years, Holt is focused on winning in 2014. She believes that college skiing has a place in the pipeline of U.S. skiing.
“College programs are well-funded and we have access to a tremendous amount of support for our athletes,” she said. “Additionally, nearly every coach in this country has come through a college skiing program, so if nothing else, we are feeding the coaching system.”
Holt sees herself as a role model for her athletes, but also for women looking at coaching as a career option. At Utah, she is the only woman who is a head coach of a men’s team at a university where many men serve as head coaches of women’s teams.
“I’d like to think that my team’s success serves as proof that women can be successful as ski coaches, no matter which gender they are working with,” she said.
Holt has dedicated herself to her career and sees herself as “one of the women who is leaning in to the profession and the industry,” she said. “I have worked hard and pushed hard to get to this position.”
She is a self-proclaimed “true fan of American nordic skiing” and a “constant advocate of college skiing.” Finally, Holt believes that “women coaches are on par with the male coaches in the U.S. – there just aren’t enough of them!”
Head Nordic Coach, Bates College, 20 years
“Performance and success correlate with one another! If I can help my athletes perform well and find success in ski racing this will translate into their personal lives as well. It is about building confidence, finding self-assurance, and believing in your abilities.” – Becky Woods
The head men’s and women’s nordic coach at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, for the last two decades, Becky Woods can be described as a quiet force. She has built the team into a reputable program over the years and has become a much-beloved coach by her athletes.
Woods, who skied for Bates and graduated in 1989, began her career as an assistant coach on weekends, where she helped out on the Carnival circuit. After a stint in coaching juniors of various ages in Colorado, she returned to Maine, where she was asked to come back to Bates as head coach.
While Bates might not be the biggest heavy-hitter on the NCAA circuit, Woods consistently turns out high-quality skiers. Among them are four All-American skiers – Sylvan Ellefson, Justin Easter, David Chamberlain, and Justin Freeman – who have all had a big presence on the U.S. skiing stage.
For Woods, coaching runs in the family as her father, Bob Flynn, coached at Bates for many decades. In the ’70s, he served as head ski coach and also served many years as a coach of baseball and golf. He continues to coach as one of Woods’s assistants in the winter. She called him her mentor: “My Dad ‘Coach Flynn’ was and continues to be someone I go to for advice, support, and a few laughs!”
As a collegiate coach, Woods is highly in-tune with her athletes.
“I think I build some solid relationships with my skiers,” she said. “It is really important for me to get to know the ‘whole’ person so I can help them be the best ski racers they can be.”
She considers herself to be a big part of their lives while they are at Bates. “We consider ourselves a ski family here,” she said. “So in that sense, once you enter the family, you are here to stay!”
The life of a college skier is a demanding one, and Woods is there to help her athletes.
“Balancing their workloads is a challenge,” she said. “Academic schedules combined with daily, consistent training and racing is a tough combination but something that is so worth it.”
Woods is a strong believer in collegiate skiing. “The opportunities that my athletes have are just fantastic and to be a part of that is a privilege.”
She knows she’s preparing her skiers for a career in ski racing beyond college, should they choose this path. “When skiers from Bates are skiing on the World Cup and at the Olympics, it certainly feels like we are having an influence at a level larger than just collegiate skiing.”
While not all Bates skiers continue on to the big leagues beyond college racing, Woods prepares everyone for life. “I think my role as a D1 college coach is to prepare athletes physically, mentally and emotionally for what is to come,” She said.
She said she’s equally proud of “those folks who leave Bates and go on to give back in skiing. It is a true testament to their experiences here at Bates and their passion for skiing.”
Woods credits her husband, Tucker, with whom she has two teenage daughters, for giving her the support she needs to pursue her career. She believes that the women who coach skiing are absolutely on par with their male peers.
“There are fewer women coaching, but I don’t think that speaks to the abilities of the coaches, more to the choices that people make professionally,” she said.
Interim Men’s Coach, Dartmouth College, one year
“From both my experiences as an athlete and a coach, it’s important to have women in the mix … as a junior skier, it was always beneficial to be around strong, healthy, positive women. I figure that more perspective and diversity is always better.” – Kristina Trygstad-Saari
Dartmouth grad Kristina Trygstad-Saari (’07) thought she was returning to her alma mater last year to serve as the development-team assistant. In the end, the men’s team needed her more and she wound up coaching that team for the fall and winter.
Trygstad-Saari has been a cross-country ski racer most of her life, and now she wants to give back some of what she learned during her racing career. She had a stellar career as a junior with the Bridger Ski Foundation (BSF) in Bozeman, Mont. She holds nine Junior National titles and was sixth at World Juniors, and has competed in World Cup races and skied on the U.S. Development Team.
While studying at Dartmouth in Hanover, N.H., Trygstad-Saari decided to take a break from serious skiing. She didn’t stay away long, making a trip to the NCAAs her junior year in 2006. After a few years of racing out of college and an Olympic-team bid, Trygstad-Saari turned her experience toward coaching.
Trygstad-Saari quickly climbed the coaching ladder, returning to BSF to work for her former coach, Dragan Danevski. Coaching J5’s her first year and J2’s and masters the next year, Trygstad-Saari drew from Danevski’s knowledge.
“Once I started coaching for BSF, he was an obvious mentor and a resource,” she said. “He has incredible experience with coaching and athletics.”
It was just a year later that Trygstad-Saari was learning from another revered coach, this time at Dartmouth.
“Coach Cami Thompson-Graves was an exceptional mentor,” she said. “She gave me the freedom to learn through experience while also sharing her own knowledge and experiences to help me along.”
Trygstad-Saari sees herself as a role model for the athletes she works with and feels that she is making a difference through her coaching. She has a big worldview of cross-country skiing, but works on a very “local and personal level,” she said. “I really try to connect with each individual I‘m working with, and if I can have even the smallest positive effect on most of the people I work with, then I’m happy. A little bit can go a long way.”
Trygstad-Saari uses her own experiences as an athlete, ski racer, and student to guide her athletes. “I had a lot of ups and downs in my ski career, especially during college, and I try to share what I learned to help others.”
Having fun and working hard go hand-in-hand for Trygstad-Saari and are the foundation of her coaching method. She reminds her skiers that a love of the sport is just as important as success.
“Creating a healthy environment for training and racing is one of my priorities,” she said. “Providing this on the development levels will only help skiing on the highest levels.”
Trygstad-Saari sees a future for herself in ski coaching and would eventually like to be a head coach of a college team. Her coaching plans are open-ended, but for the time being, she is working at her favorite summer job: catering. That said, come next winter, Trygstad-Saari will be pursuing her passion for coaching cross-country skiing.