We know, you’ve been on the edge of your seat since the release of “The Adventures of Gregg and Liebsch: Part I,” and you can’t wait to find out what happened to the two Midwest pals in their quest to qualify for the Olympics. While the rest of the story has yet to be written, we’re happy to pick up where we left off: the plane ride from Washington state to Bozeman, Mont.
Three hours later, they made it. Aside from an unpaved runway in Oroville, Wash., Matt Liebsch and Brian Gregg described their six-seat chartered flight as the smoothest plane ride they had ever been on. But Gregg’s wife, Caitlin, wasn’t so sure as she waited up for them the night before their SuperTour races.
“Our ground speed was only about 150 knots, but it’s amazing what you can do when you take out the ups and downs and curves in the roads,” Liebsch said on the phone earlier this month.
Had the weather been unfavorable – too windy or altogether too risky to fly – the two would’ve had to drive 575 miles east to Bozeman, a trek they made less than a week earlier in the opposite direction. In an effort to better their FIS profiles, Liebsch and Gregg competed in the first NorAm distance race of the season at Sovereign Lake, British Columbia, 2 ½ hours north of Oroville. They had raced the SuperTour season-openers the week before in West Yellowstone just south of Bozeman.
Now they were on their way back to Montana to race the next day.
With the plane’s passenger seats pushed down in to fit their skis and oversized duffel bags, Liebsch sprawled out in the back and Gregg sat up front with pilot and friend Monte Catlin as they took off shortly after 8 p.m.
Flying about 9,000 feet above the ground, Liebsch said they could see the mile-high Mount Spokane in the distance. All the while, he had cell service. Knowing that they were going to touch down in Bozeman around 12:30 p.m. – too late for anyone to pick them up – Liebsch called a taxi.
“I had 4G the whole time,” he said. “I didn’t know how we were gonna race the next day. When we landed in Bozeman it was like -17 [degrees].”
Dropped off at the hotel at 1 a.m., Gregg greeted his wife with a knock on her door. She handed them their dinner – Walmart rotisserie chicken, Jasmine rice and homemade applesauce – and nodded off while they ate in the lobby.
“We told her she should try to sleep, but the challenge is, there’s sort of a lot of excitement and I think Caitlin was nervous about the small plane,” Gregg said on the phone.
The next morning on Sunday, Dec. 8, Gregg woke up at 8:30 a.m., “bouncing around,” Liebsch said.
“I was kind of mad,” Liebsch recalled.
With temperatures well below zero, the men’s 15-kilometer classic mass start was delayed until 1 p.m. The women were scheduled to race at noon.
“There was so much adrenaline from the excitement of the flight and having a good race in Silver Star,” Gregg recalled after he placed first and Liebsch was second in the Sovereign Lake 15 k freestyle individual start.
The two had made the last-minute trip to Bozeman because of their results. They agreed if they went 1-2 in the NorAm, they’d splurge for the $2,100-dollar chartered flight that same day.
The morning after, Gregg said he suffered a bit of an energy crash. The fatigue starting to set in, Liebsch skipped warming up and tested his skis at noon. With two skate races in West Yellowstone followed by another in Canada, he didn’t pack any classic race skis.
“I was going to race in my rock skis,” Liebsch said.
Fortunately, Liebsch is the race services director at Gear West in Long Lake, Minn., and he had his coworkers wax and overnight two of his best classic skis to Bozeman. Once there, Montana State University (MSU) helped Liebsch and the Greggs with race wax.
“It was just crazy that it all worked out,” Liebsch said. “Thinking back, that was nuts.”
To satisfy the legal-racing limit of -4 degrees Fahrenheit, organizers delayed the women’s start delayed to 1:30 p.m., and the men didn’t go off until 2:30. Liebsh couldn’t believe they were actually going to race until he saw the women head out. Frostbitten from similarly cold temperatures the day before, he stayed inside until eight minutes before his race.
Three months ago, Liebsch rolled his ankle in a half-marathon trail run and had relied on Level-1 classic training since. With low expectations for his first classic distance race of the season, he said the first couple kilometers were rough.
“I felt pretty in control the whole classic race and I was pretty content to sit a row or two back from whoever was in the front,” he said. “I didn’t know if the travel or the race before would catch up with me … it was good to sit behind some really good classic skiers, too.”
Frigid temperatures canceled the Bozeman classic sprint the day before, putting Gregg ahead in the overall SuperTour standings. Doing well enough in the classic distance race would solidify his lead for Period 1, which Caitlin led as well on the women’s side.
“Brian was really like, ‘Hey, this opens the door for me to get that overall SuperTour World Cup leader and I’ll get to travel with Caitlin overseas,’ ” Liebsch recalled.
“We went in with pretty low pressure,” Gregg said. “Our main goal was to be in the main pack, the lead pack.”
Fueled by the nearly $2000 dollars they raised overnight to pay for the flight, Gregg and Liebsch kept in mind that they needed to perform.
“It was nice that we had the fundraiser going, like, ‘Oh man we cant go down there and suck!’ ” Liebsch said. “Even during the race Brian and I would look at each other like, ‘We gotta stay in here.’ It was kind of funny. You just think of all those people that were donating to help you get there.”
With two hills left in the race, Dmitriy Ozerskiy of Central Cross Country (CXC) attacked ahead of Miles Havlik (Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation) and Patrick Johnson (Far West) up front. Liebsch searched for an opportunity to pass Johnson on the narrow-and-twisty trail, but without much luck.
“There wasn’t a lot of space to move up and Dmitriy was gone by that point,” he said. “A lot of herringboning the last two big hills and I actually kind of liked that.”
Liebsch finished fourth and Gregg took fifth, 12.8 and 13.5 seconds back from Ozerskiy, who won in 44:47.7. Gregg ended up beating Ozerskiy by 1 point for the overall SuperTour lead and accompanying Period 2 World Cup starts in January.
“We’re both very happy with fourth and fifth, and we’re really lucky MSU stepped up helped us wax both of our skis and Caitlin’s skis,” Gregg said. “It’s kind of a cool story, but it depends on a lot of different clubs that made it possible.”
The Ongoing Journey
A week later, the Greggs were back in British Columbia – this time for the Rossland NorAm – and Liebsch was home in Minnesota with his two kids and wife, who’s expecting their third child in late March/early April.
Liebsch had considered racing the Davos World Cup in Switzerland that weekend, but decided to take a breather and rest up for U.S. nationals Jan. 4-10. He had spoken to the US Ski Team (USST) coaches in October about it, and there was a possibility that as many as three World Cup starts would be open for the men’s distance race in Davos.
“It just got tight on turnaround time and do that international travel right before Christmas and leading up to nationals it didn’t make sense; it was going to cost a lot of money,” Liebsch said.
He reasoned that an international flight with 11 to 13 hours of air-travel time plus another 4 ½ hours on a train would’ve left him “basically worthless” when he arrived three days before the race.
“I’d also be trying to get the body used to that time change,” he said. “It just wasn’t going to set me up or Brian up for a successful result there. If we had really crushed it was West Yellowstone we might have skipped Silver Star and gone over.”
In West Yellowstone, Gregg was second in the 15 k skate race (the first American), and 16th in the skate sprint. Liebsch placed fourth in the 15 k after sitting out the sprint.
“My opportunity for a better FIS point result was going to be in Bozeman,” he explained. “We kind of knew after doing that crazy weekend travel we were going to be blown out. Racing right at that legal [temperature] cutoff, it takes a lot out of the body.”
And so the two continue the Olympic-qualification dance and weigh their options in the next month leading up to the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. In early January, the Greggs will take advantage of World Cup starts immediately after the U.S. nationals 20/30 k distance races on Jan. 8.
“Right now, the plan is that Caitlin will take a 5 o’clock flight after the 20 k … to Prague,” Gregg said. “I’ll stay in Utah and help wrap up things here. I would probably fly the next day or two while we’re trying to work out logistics. I probably won’t do that first weekend in Nove Mesto [Czech Republic].”
The goal is experience and racing overseas as much as possible this season, he said.
“I think you learn so much just being over there,” he said. “Caitlin’s only had five World Cup starts; I got a bunch of starts in 2010 as the Period 4 World Cup leader. I think the more starts, you can get the better. If nationals go well, we’re staying over in Europe as the Period 3 and 4 World Cup leaders. There’s still a lot of work [ahead] … but it’s cool to know that that possible.”
While the Greggs try to turn some heads on the World Cup circuit with top-50 results or better, Liebsch said he’d need to notch a top 15 at a race like Davos in order to crack the top-50 overall World Cup criteria.
“The number one criteria is you’ve got to be ranked in the top 50 overall in the World Cup rankings,” he said of the U.S. Olympic standards. “A lot of women are going to make that criteria.”
The men’s side is a bit more open, he said.
“If I had gotten top 15 at Davos, I would’ve liked to think that would’ve been enough to get discretion done … that’s the number two criteria,” Liebsch explained. “And then the third criteria is looking at the FIS distance and sprint list. They’re gonna name up to a maximum of four sprinters and look at the distance list and fill in the rest of the team with distance guys.”
That’s where he’s hoping his low FIS points, boosted by recent races in Montana and British Columbia, will help. At nationals, Liebsch will focus on the 30 k – just like Gregg – in order to be one of the top picks on the non-USST men’s distance list. That’s why he hasn’t focused on sprinting.
“I didn’t do any sprint racing this year because historically I don’t have that genetic gift of tiger spring,” Liebsch said with a laugh. “If I could win the 30 k skate at nationals, that would be huge. I’ve never really had a bad 50 k skate result … Hopefully [I’m] skating well enough to get the nod for the 4 by 10 [relay at the Olympics].”
With a World Cup top 30 under his belt (in Canmore 2010), he said the USST might consider that. They’ve also waved the discretion limitation; last season only 25 percent of the World Championships picks could be based on discretion. “This year, there’s no such clause,” Liebsch said.
“Last year for world champs, they took five men; I was number six on the list,” he added.
“They’re gonna name the people that make the hard criteria, then they’re going to look at the FIS distance list,” Liebsch explained. “They have that discretionary card in there to see if somebody’s trending upward very rapidly that gives them leeway to put them on the team, or if somebody’s tanking, they can take them off as well, that’s what I think.”
“Brian and I have pretty good FIS profiles,” he continued. “The point opportunities at nationals will be pretty good, so the guys that have a good nationals have a good potential to move up.”
Because of the rolling 12-month FIS profile, Liebsch said he can rely on his best races from last season, which came in the spring.
“If I have a bad [nationals], I’m not going to move backward,” he said. “I want to stay healthy and make sure I have some good solid results. Ideally I’d like to be able to train and peak for February, but if you’re not on the Olympic team, you don’t get that luxury.”
But for now, he was happy to be home.
“It was super special to surprise my kids and get them off the bus,” he said after returning from Bozeman. “It’ll be nice to be at home for the holidays.”