This profile is part of a ‘Where Are They Now’ series, made possible through the generous support of Fischer Sports. Learn more about their products at www.fischersports.com.
MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – Thirty-five years ago, Patty Ross couldn’t wait to leave town. Born and raised Middlebury, central Vermont’s cozy college community with a few thousand year-round residents, she grew up with everybody knowing her business, including her father – the business administrator at Middlebury College.
No way was she going to go there. Her grandfather offered her $100 to reconsider.
“I was like, ‘Gramps, you gotta up it a little bit!’ ” she recalled with a laugh. Sitting at her desk inside the Middlebury College field house, Ross, now 53, grinned about the irony of where she ended up.
One of five women to compete at the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics in nordic skiing, Ross went to the University of New Hampshire (UNH). Upon graduating in December 1982, she became a member of the U.S. Ski Team and jumped right into the World Cup circuit.
The youngest of three siblings, she was the only one that didn’t go to Middlebury. Yet one afternoon last fall, about an hour before the Panthers’ nordic team practice, there she was. In her 25th straight season as Middlebury’s assistant coach, she couldn’t get enough of that place. And she couldn’t imagine leaving, either.
With two kids of her own — Marley, who just finished up her first year at Barnard College in New York City and Bo, in the middle of his high-school years — Ross said she was perfectly content where she was. She also loved working at a college, assistant coaching cross-country running as well.
“I totally lucked into a great job that I love,” Ross said. “The love of the sport and the love of the skiers. It’s just so much fun, just to be around college skiers all the time.”
Reflecting on her career and involvement with the sport, Ross kept referring to her luck and knack for falling into things. In her eyes, timing was everything – from making the U.S. Ski Team fresh out of college, to anchoring the women’s relay at the 1984 Olympics, and later coming home to a full-time job at Middlebury.
Initially an alpine racer, Ross wasn’t interested in the cross-country skiing until her high-school coach and chemistry teacher insisted she try it.
“One practice, he said, ‘You’ve got long legs, you should try this,’ and I was like, ‘No way, that’s way too hard,’ ” Ross said. “I was into the glory and glamour of alpine skiing.”
She eventually followed the path paved by her brother, Peter, and sister, Lauren, who participated in both alpine and nordic. Once she got comfortable striding across flat ground, Ross decided cross-country wasn’t so bad and raced both disciplines in high school. On a given day, they’d have two downhill races in the morning followed by a cross-country competition in the afternoon.
Once she started college in the late ’70s, Ross committed to nordic alone, mostly relying on her natural talents and slapstick personality to carry her through.
According to current UNH head coach Cory Schwartz, one of her longtime friends and former college teammates, Ross brought fun to the team and focused more on skiing as her results improved.
“Patty is a very talented person and was good in so many things that as she learned how to harness that focus towards skiing, she became one of the best women in the country,” Schwartz wrote in an email. “She wants to be the best and enjoy what she is doing. At the same time Patty liked to question everything. This ‘rebel style’, I believe helped Patty learn what worked and what didn’t.”
The summer of her junior year, Ross learned about offseason training. Under the wing of her college and eventual U.S. Ski Team (USST) teammate, Kelly Milligan, Ross traveled to Moose, Wyo., to work at a deli and hike around Grand Teton National Park on her days off.
Milligan’s family lived close by and helped Ross find housing in the only private ranch inside the park. Ross referred to it as a dude ranch with dirt floors.
“It was awesome,” she said. “Kelly outfitted me with a bicycle so I biked to work, but we did these amazing hikes, like 17- to 23-mile hikes in the Tetons. … It was an amazing experience and sort of fooled me into training.”
After a few months of making sandwiches, Ross returned to UNH in Durham, N.H., where she found all that hiking paid off.
“I came back and did well and I was like, ‘Crap, training actually works so I’ve got to keep doing it,” she said.
On a partial athletic scholarship at UNH – with Middlebury paying half her tuition because of her father’s 37 years of employment there – Ross said she had “one or two good results” before she started training year round.
“Patty was very, very talented,” wrote Schwartz, who coached Ross her senior year as an assistant coach. “In a way that was her problem. It took her some time to figure out the training would take her to the next level and commit to the daily routine that was needed to compete with the best in the country. The training allowed her not only be faster, but it made her mentally more confident and even hungrier.”
The following summer, she returned to the Tetons, where then-USST women’s coach Peter Ashley lived in Jackson, Wyo. Not long after, the Wildcats’ team captain soared in her senior season, earning All-East collegiate honors and convincing the national team she was worthy of its ranks.
She made it and never really tried out.
Shortly after graduating college, Ross went to the 1983 World University Games in Sofia, Bulgaria, where she finished 17th in the 10 kilometer race (all classic technique back then) and 21st in the 5 k. That season, she also made her World Cup debut.
“I was in heaven,” Ross said of making the national team. “My eyes were, like, this big. It was amazing. This is funny, but getting the uniform was like, ‘All right, I’ve made it. I can die tomorrow because I’ve made it.’ ”
Ross smiled and related that to what first-year college skiers go through. At the beginning of each season, she and head coach Andrew Gardner laugh at the freshmen’s reaction to getting the Middlebury uniforms. But she knows what it feels like; it was a big deal.
A Moment in Time
Perhaps even bigger in Ross’s memory was her experience at the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia (now Bosnia). Three weeks before, Ross qualified for the Winter Games at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Lake Placid, N.Y. Problematic asthma forced her to miss the last race, but Ross did well enough in three others to make the cut.
Before she could process what was happening, Ross and her Olympic teammates boarded a bus to Long Island, where they were completely outfitted at a large hotel. Every floor, they picked up something new – all of which was Levi Strauss – down to the underwear.
At the opening ceremony, she remembers organizers trying to usher the Americans in. They were all hanging around in cowboy boots, out of order and chatting up a storm. Every other team was arranged and ready.
“Finally we went in,” Ross said. “You’d walk through this tunnel and all of a sudden it was like, ‘Oh my God.’ I’m not a flag-waving patriotic person, but boy, right there, you’re just like, ‘I’m pretty proud.’ ”
While scanning the grandstand, she immediately spotted the parents of her teammate, Kelly Milligan.
“We thought we’d never see them, but they were there,” Ross said. “We were just like, ‘That’s unbelievable.’ ”
Once again, Ross was in the right place at the right time. Eight years later, Sarajevo fell victim to the Bosnian War for independence in 1992 and was under siege for nearly four years – the longest of any city in modern history. She saw the capital in its prime, and despite its gray decor because of burning coal, she said the people were anything but drab.
“They were so welcoming and just happy. That’s what breaks my heart now and I’ll probably start crying,” Ross said. “After that, it just went into a mess, but at the time it was such a celebration for them, at least that’s what we saw.”
She remembered one bus driver who badly wanted to trade pins. Reaching over her office shelf, she found the one he gave her.
“He gave me this thing, a Firestone Tire [pin],” Ross said, laughing. “It ended up being my favorite pin because he was so thrilled.”
As for the races, Ross recalled her shining moment in the 4 x 5 kilometer relay. Leading up to the Games, she hadn’t felt much pressure, probably because she was so naive, she said. Her asthma morphed into full-on bronchitis in the weeks before, but despite being sick for the Olympics, she had a blast.
“Nothing could have brought me down,” she said.
Her team’s seventh-place finish in the relay was the highlight, especially with Ross as its rookie anchor.
“I was the weakest leg so they were just like, ‘If we go out hard, hopefully Patty can hang on,’ ” Ross recalled. “I was pretty nervous for that, mostly because Judy [Rabinowitz] and Lynn [Spencer-Galanes] were my heroes, my idols.”
Susan Long was also on the team, but like Ross, she was new. Rabinowitz and Spencer-Galanes had top-10 results on the World Cup.
“I was like, ‘Oh God, if I let them down, that would be bad. … I’d better go!’ ”
So she went for it, beating East Germany and coming within 10 seconds of Switzerland in sixth place.
“That was amazing; that was the best,” Ross said.
Ross laughs a lot. When she does, it’s whole hearted – her whole body moves and sometimes her eyes close. An assistant coach who has never wanted to take over the head responsibilities, she’s uncomfortable with talking about herself, but when she does, you wish she wouldn’t stop.
“The whole winter we stayed in Europe until April,” Ross said, starting into a story about the period after the Olympics.
She was sick and got sicker, but couldn’t get over how cool it was being on the World Cup. The U.S. team finished their season at the Polar Cup in northern Finland and Sweden, where some skiers first started using the skate technique.
Ross remembers being in disbelief that they skied an entire race without wax. She didn’t try it back then, but by the time she retired in 1986, skating was part of the nordic mainstream.
The equipment changed with it. Ross giggled when she recalled cutting off the ski tips and tails, and burst into laughter as she described the boots they raced in. No way could she ski in that stuff now, she said.
Going back to the 1984 Polar Cup, Ross had one heck of a story about a plane ride. All the teams traveled together to those races, similar to the U.S. version of Spring Series, but held in different countries. They took an overnight cruise ship, which Ross called a “love boat” from Helsinki to Stockholm, and shared a charted jet to Oslo, Norway.
On that flight, she asked the pilots if she could sit in the cockpit while they landed.
“They said, ‘Yeah, come on in!’ and we’re in a 747 or whatever and buzzing the jumps at Holmenkollen,” Ross said. “The buzzers are going off to warn us that we’re going too close to things, and [the pilot’s] like, ‘Ah, shut up!’ ”
She watched them safely land and walked off the plane with the rest of the skiers. Two years later, Ross decided she’d reached the end of her ski career when her frequent asthma became too discouraging, ending her USST tenure the winter of ’86. She returned to Middlebury and less than a year later in the fall of 1987, she started as an assistant ski and running coach.
“I totally lucked into that,” she said. “It was full time, but I got paid $5,000 dollars for like nine months or something, but it was perfect, at the time anyway.”
The next year, the college offered Ross a true full-time position with a salary to match, and she was able to leave her job at a downtown sports store and focus solely on Middlebury’s athletes.
“I totally lucked out with all that timing,” Ross said. “I sort of lucked out all the way along.”
Terry Aldrich, the Panthers’ longtime head coach before Gardner, explained on the phone that Ross was hired to fill an open position. Before he coached Middlebury skiers for 31 years (and cross-country runners for 36), Aldrich started at UNH without any coaching experience. He remembered that when he selected Ross to help him.
“She was a former Olympian, and at the time, was one of the top female skiers in the country,” Aldrich said. “We knew her from the fact that she was a Middlebury girl, and the fact that her dad was a business manager of the college.”
Not to mention, her father was the starter for more than 40 consecutive Middlebury carnivals and events. He also helped develop the Bread Loaf Mountain Campus and Snow Bowl, the college’s cross-country ski area with 110 kilometers and 17 trails.
“Any time you have someone of Patty’s caliber come in, she brings in new ideas, new training methods, new ideas about waxing,” Aldrich continued. “That’s a good thing.”
He also stressed the value of her interpersonal skills and ability to relate with athletes of both genders. In 1985, Ross coached at the Special Olympics World Games and received a Distinguished Service award in the regional category.
She went to Italy as an assistant coach at U23/Junior World Ski Championships in 2008, and three years ago, brought the first adaptive sit-ski races the Rikert Nordic Center at Bread Loaf. The college has held such races at its annual carnival and citizen’s race every year since.
“I think Middlebury has been very fortunate, very lucky to have her,” Aldrich said. “Obviously she’s been great for the program. We’ve had some phenomenal skiers come out of the program … and that comes directly from her ability to support them.”
More Than a Coach
On the back of Ross’s office door is a life-size poster of Simi Hamilton, shirtless and jumping in a pair of jeans, with the words: “I get knocked down, but I get up again.”
Ross can’t read it all out loud without laughing. Before the current USST member and 2010 Olympian graduated Middlebury in 2009, one of Hamilton’s teammates made it as a joke, and Ross got it in a yankee swap.
“The Middlebury alums that I’ve had just make me very proud,” she said.
Photos like Hamilton’s and the framed ones that occupy her shelves are a tribute to the people she’s coached over the years. Upon listing some of them – including Vancouver Olympian Garrott Kuzzy, Bill Koch League directors Barney Hodges and John Ogden, and several coaches in Matt Whitcomb, Justin Beckwith, Kate Barton, Tim Weston and Chris “Flash” Clark – she didn’t want to leave anyone out.
She was proud of them all, many of which are still involved in skiing.
“That’s the beauty of the sport, you can do it forever in so many different forms,” she said. “It’s not just racing, there’s just so many ways to stay involved.”
The accomplishments of athletes like those also help prove what she and Gardner tried to tell prospective college skiers: You can go to school and become a high-level competitor. She did.
“There’s always been a controversy about college and ski racing, should you go to college or just focus on racing? Obviously, it’s very possible to go to college and be a good ski racer,” Ross said.
A few minutes before practice, Gardner walked into Ross’s always-open office and said they’d be explaining Middlebury’s J-term option – a semester’s worth of courses in one month – before heading out for a rollerski.
Mostly in charge of the team’s administrative duties, such as accommodating 25 skiers on a trip to West Yellowstone, Mont., Ross also drives the van and meets with athletes on a regular basis.
“As a person, Patty is pretty amazing,” Gardner said. “She’s one of the most honest, principle, kind people. … I’ve learned a ton from her.”
When he became head coach nearly seven years ago, Gardner said he wasn’t given an option of choosing an assistant. Ross came with the job, and he was fine with that.
“It was a big cultural shift for the program because Terry had driven the van for 31 years,” Gardner said. “There were elements of the transition made easier by having Patty there.”
To this day, said he writes the training plans, but lets Ross see them before moving forward. He values her input, especially in adding strength and complementary work, and knows she’s in tune with external factors that might affect an athlete.
“If a kid wants to sit down with her and talk about anything, she’s seen it all and been through that,” he said.
And when she does speak up in front people, they listen. Gardner enjoys watching her work at team races, inspecting skis and making keen observations about the day. He often wonders what she’s thinking.
In the lower-stress moments, which are common around Ross, she’s the one handing out packs of Bubblicious after a hard workout or at the top of a tough climb.
“Patty came into my office today and she had a mailman-revolving light to put on the van,” Gardner said. “In a sport we take so seriously, she understands how to find that fun, which is really great.”
Enjoying Every Minute
Last winter, the Middlebury nordic team – one of the largest in years – celebrated Ross and her 25 years of service with a collection of old photos and quotes.
She can’t believe how much time has gone by and doesn’t see it ending too soon.
“It’s funny, before I took this job I didn’t do anything in my life for more than a couple of years at a time,” she said. “I feel sort of bad for saying I don’t have any huge aspirations or anything. I just love it. … No matter if you’re having the worst day ever, when you go to practice everything gets better.”
She also can’t complain about the schedule. With summers off, she can spend time with her own kids and younger ones in need through Respite care, a short-term relief program for parents and foster parents. Last fall, Ross had a short list of children she took in regularly for overnights, weekends or sometimes just a few hours. She discovered the volunteer opportunity two years ago on a day off from practice.
“Everything got me like that,” she said. “The timing when I graduated college, I made the U.S. Ski Team. I never had those in between years like kids have now, like, ‘Where do I go? Who’s going to support me?’ Everything, the timing has been lucky.”
When she was in doubt after she stopped racing in ’86, Ross headed west to California for vacation. There, she let a friend talk her into buying a motorcycle. A few months later, she rode it to Mexico to get a leather jacket, up to Bend, Ore., for a training camp and then back across the country.
“I had short hair at the time so I think most people thought I was a guy, so that was sort of my protection,” she said.
To keep people guessing, she wouldn’t take her helmet off. At one truck stop, she had to remove it while paying inside and several men immediately swiveled on their stools to look at her.
“One guy goes, ‘It’s a chick!’ and I’m like, ‘Yep,’ ” Ross said. “But it was the best thing. [Riding across the country] was definitely the best therapy ever for just moving on.”
She later sold the bike when she had kids, but rekindled her two-wheeled fire two years ago, buying a Yamaha 650 on impulse while driving through Rutland, Vt.
“I love it,” she said.
It’s also something she can do with Gardner – a road cyclist – in their spare time.
“Last year, he did a workout and he was drafting behind my motorcycle. I had to go a certain speed,” Ross said, laughing as she remembered the sight. “I just don’t grow up. I think it’s partly this job.”