Three years ago, Leif Zimmermann decided to go for it. A talented cross-country skier since he picked up the sport at 13, Zimmermann knew he was on the cusp of something great.
In 2003 at the age of 20, the Bozeman, Mont., native broke through with a fifth-place finish at Junior World Ski Championships in Sollefteå, Sweden – the best American result. He excelled in another skate sprint a year later at U.S. Cross Country Championships, winning his first national title in 2004. That followed six Junior National wins, and Zimmermann went on to achieve three more senior national titles.
In 2006, he went to the Olympics in Turin, Italy.
“I feel fortunate to be able to have experienced that,” Zimmermann said on the phone Tuesday in Bozeman. “It was a full month of the whole Olympic movement. You can go to the Olympics, which is awesome as a spectator, but to go behind the scenes as an athlete is special.”
Four years later after the 2010 Winter Olympics (and 2009 World Championships), he realized what was required to make the team again. A U.S. Ski Team member for five years, Zimmermann knew he needed to fully commit with hard work, mental perseverance and a strategic plan.
“The level I was skiing in maybe 2008, 2010-ish was right below being able to ski competitively on the World Cup,” said Zimmermann, who’s started more than dozen World Cups with an individual best of 38th. He wanted to crack into the 20s.
“I felt like I was on the verge of getting up to that level, and I knew I wasn’t going to do it in three months,” he added. “I needed sustained training, multiple years to build that up. You have to go about it systematically. That was the basis of me developing a plan.”
He did so with longtime coach Dragen Danevski, the Bridger Ski Foundation director who had mentored Zimmermann since he began as a biathlete. In his third season of carrying out the plan (which carried into 2014/2015), Zimmermann made another decision earlier this year: it was time to step away from full-time, competitive racing and retire.
“The last couple seasons I’ve had a hard time keeping the fun up enough for me to be able to do this,” he said. “In turn, I was training about 75 percent than I needed to and working 25 percent.”
Employed in the offseason part-time by a contractor in Big Sky, Mont., Zimmermann traveled to Peru last summer for 10 days of guiding clients along the Inca Trail. An athlete ambassador to Inca Runners, he visited Lima beforehand for a few days of surfing. He returned to Bozeman in July and resumed full-time training with BSF.
Last winter in Aspen, Colo., Zimmermann posted his season-best SuperTour result of fourth in the 10-kilometer classic. He was 47th in the freestyle sprint at nationals, and at the American Birkebeiner 52 k skate race in February, Zimmermann placed 28th.
“I’ve skied well the last couple years but not like I had planned to,” he said. “Physically my body needed a break and I was satisfied with what I’d done. I’m not disappointed; it was a good time to transition to the next phase of my life. All of my adult life has been skiing.”
Nearly 16 years ago, Zimmermann started skiing with Danevski. A multi-sport athlete who played baseball and soccer, one of his soccer buddies prompted him to try biathlon. Zimmermann liked hunting; he’d appreciate the marksmanship, his friend’s father reasoned.
“I enjoyed biathlon and started to improve a lot,” Zimmermann said. “My skiing came quickly, especially skating.”
A year later, he realized his true calling was cross-country as the BSF biathlon program started to fizzle. He hasn’t done any biathlon races in eight years, but still has his rifle. “It just didn’t pan out,” he said.
Fortunately, his ski career did.
“I really enjoyed World Juniors and U23s and being able to learn and develop at all those entry level world championships,” he said. “I think that’s a pretty cool phase of your career as a junior. You just learn so much and experience so much in such a short amount of time. I don’t think you really appreciate it as it’s happening.”
He does now.
“I don’t necessarily have any regrets,” Zimmermann said. “I would’ve liked to have put 100 percent into skiing … I could’ve done a little more fundraising, done things a little bit differently, maybe moved to another spot. It was a tough time for all skiers the last five years with all the economic instabilities…
“I’m definitely pleased with all the things I’ve been able to do with my ski career,” he added. “I wasn’t able to fulfill that goal to reaching the World Cup or going to Sochi, but I’m definitely pleased with how it turned out.”
This spring, he started an adult baseball league and played again for the first time in 10 years. After his last races at Spring Series in Truckee, Calif., Zimmermann drove up along the northern West Coast in April, visiting friends and family in Oregon. He climbed an active volcano called Mount Shasta, the second-highest peak in the Cascades and fifth highest in California.
He’s currently working full-time with the Big Sky contractor on custom and remodeling projects, but won’t be far from skiing come winter. Zimmermann anticipated he’ll jump into a SuperTour now and then, and continue helping new BSF elite athletes get settled in Bozeman.
“I’m going to be involved with BSF,” he said. “I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do this winter. I might go to some junior qualifiers or help out with the elite team a little bit.”
Perhaps he’ll assistant coach or help wax, but ideally, he’s looking for something full time in the nordic industry. Until then, Zimmermann said he’ll enjoy a less hectic fall and spend more time in the woods, setting up camp and bow hunting.
A few weeks ago, 2010 Olympian Garrott Kuzzy, 30, came to Bozeman and the two had dinner. Kuzzy retired in 2011, and Zimmermann the decision to step away from racing is a generational thing with skiers his age.
“A lot of it is, it’s time to move on to different phases in your life,” he said.