(As full journalistic disclosure, I participated in the Ford Sayre Norway trips in 2003 and 2006. However, I have interviewed multiple other trip participants as well as the coaches to make sure that my interpretation of what’s going on isn’t biased.)
Last month, a group of high school students from New England had the chance of a lifetime: to travel to Norway in time for the biggest and most culturally iconic ski races of the season. While the athletes of the Ford Sayre junior nordic team, based out of Hanover, NH, competed in several races, a large goal of the trip is to expose junior athletes to a culture where skiing is what everyone does, and to a country that is on the whole very different than the U.S. It was an eye-opening and awe-inspiring experience for the skiers, and if the results of past trips are any indication, it might change their approach to skiing forever.
While a small number of clubs have the resources to run trips to Europe, the majority seem to be focused on racing, making the culture focus of Ford Sayre’s trips fairly unique.
Dennis Donahue helped found the Ford Sayre nordic team in the early 90’s, and Scottie Eliassen stepped in as head coach in 1995. After helping run trips to Junior Olympics for several seasons, they had the idea to take skiers to Norway. At the time, there was no Scando Cup trip, so even the highest-level juniors were rarely getting to Europe. In New England, the first JO qualifiers weren’t being held until January, and the season was done by the first weekend in March. One of the ideas behind the trip was to extend the ski season for the athletes, and give them some time to really enjoy skiing after the race season was over (and this is still to some extent the case; in 2010, most of the team had already competed at New England J2 Championships and had no more races on the radar). Because of their experience running JO trips, the logistics of such an endeavor were not intimidating to Eliassen and Donahue.
The first trip was run in 2000. That year, the club partnered with the Holderness School and took a large group of skiers. In 2003, skiers from Gould Academy, Proctor Academy, and the Saint Paul’s School participated. The trip has also been run in 2006 and 2010, with a group solely consisting of Ford Sayre skiers and alumnae.
Since the trip is run every three or four years, the goal is to give skiers in the program a chance to go once during their high school years. It’s not an experience you get to enjoy every year, but rather something you look forward to. Eliassen and Donahue believe that this leads participants to really make the most out of the trip, rather than taking the opportunity for granted.
Oslo and Drammen
The first few days are spent in Oslo. While the itinerary varies, the group usually has the chance to watch some high-level racing: the World Cup sprints in Drammen and/or the 30k/50k and nordic combined races at Holmekollen. In 2003, the group watched a special national J2 championship event at Holmenkollen. They also tour the ski museum there, walk around the city and check out other landmarks.
Watching the World Cup races is a highlight of the trip for many athletes. Says Isaiah St. Pierre, a J1 from Charleston, NH, “My favorite part had to be the Drammen Sprint. It just worked out so perfectly to arrive in Norway and the first thing we do is go watch Andy Newell get a podium finish at a World Cup.”
In 2006, the skiers had a chance to meet Sarah Konrad after she competed in the Holmenkollen 30k. It was an unusual opportunity for junior racers, most of whose horizons were no broader than a possible shot at JO’s, to talk about what it’s like to race in a place where skiing is highly valued. Konrad was clearly exhausted after the race, which also might have taught the juniors something about the rigor of World Cup racing.
The Holmenkollen race is an experience in itself, and the athletes got a taste of what it might be like to race in a country that values skiing. Said Rosalie Lipfert, a Ford Sayre alum who is now a freshman at Dartmouth, “Norwegians young and old, fit and out-of shape, come to watch these races…their entertainment for the weekend. Many camp out the night before, build igloos and campfires, and drink lots of beer. Watching a World Cup race is a party. Thousands of people line the sides of the trail, even when getting there means skiing 5k up hill.”
This year, the team trained with Bærums-Verk club outside of Oslo. The connection was made when a Norwegian epidemiologist came to work for a few months at the Norris Cotton Cancer Center, where Donahue provides computer support. The Norwegian researcher happened to live next to one of the parents of a junior athlete at the club; when Donahue got in touch, they were invited to ski and eat dinner with the junior team.
The differences between the two clubs were drastic. Bærums-Verk was proud to say that they had a junior national champion on their team (Ford Sayre skier Paddy Caldwell won a race at JO’s while the rest of the team was in Norway). The Norwegian team trained together every day, often twice. Due to the combination of high school and club racing in the U.S., the Ford Sayre club only trains together 2-3 times per week, and only races together every couple of weekends. And finally, the Norwegian club team consisted of a few very fast boys and no girls – so inevitably, Ford Sayre’s J2 girls were out of luck.
The Ford Sayre skiers were excited and nervous to ski with their Norwegian counterparts. In St. Pierre’s words, “Originally I expected everyone to be wicked fast, so that a ‘mediocre’ Norwegian would basically be considered world class by most any other country’s standards. When we got to ski with the Baerems-Verk Club, that was almost met.”
And Rosalie Lipfert, a Ford Sayre alum who is now a freshman at Dartmouth , said “I just tried not to embarrass myself too much in front of the coach.”
The Norwegians were excited, too; one boy told his mother that he couldn’t go into the highlands to the family cabin with his father because he wanted to “see the Americans and eat pizza.” The Norwegians led the jet-lagged Americans on a ski out to a beautiful lookout point, then suggested they play some games and have a relay in the stadium. Voila, everyone skiing together. And yes, everyone enjoyed the pizza, too.
From there the trip moves to Lillehammer, home of the 1994 Olympics. Skiers get to test out a number of different trail systems: the Olympic trails in Lillehammer proper, the Birkebeiner trail in Sjusjøen, and touring trails in the surrounding countryside. They also go on a tour of the Swix factory, sometimes the NTG (Norges Toppidrettsgymnas/College of Elite Sport), and the Olympic ski jumps, as well as walking around the town.
Because the majority of the trip is spent in Lillehammer, the skiers get to settle in. I remember browsing at ski shops, where it seemed like there were at least three times as many brands as in the U.S. for most soft goods. We also went to the town library, with its giant statue of the warriors carrying baby King Haakon to safety, to check e-mail.
Almost all of the cooking and shopping is done by the skiers. Walking through a Norwegian supermarket is a lesson in itself. For one thing, almost everything is more expensive, especially meat, and the vegetable selection is more limited. But St. Pierre took away something else, too: “While in the US an athlete might be used to advertise a sports drink or maybe even a car, Norwegian skiers are used to advertise everything from banks to milk and bread.”
It’s interesting for skiers to think about the reality of being a ski star in Europe. If you ski fast, you can be famous, wealthy, the whole nine yards; you might be set for life. For talented skiers, even at a young age, decisions are guided by this reality, and athletes might make some different choices than the Ford Sayre athletes would even consider; seeing Northug on a bread bag and Bjørgen on a milk carton taught trip participants something.
One of the main events of the Lillehammer stay, both athletically and culturally, is the Birkebeiner. Each year, a few of the older skiers participate in the long race (there is an age minimum: 16). In 2003 and 2006, the younger skiers competed in the Ungdomsbirken or Youth Birkie, which runs from Sjusjøen to Lillehammer, before returning to some point along the trail to watch the marathon.
Much like at Holmenkollen, the skiers were part of a rowdy spectator base unlike any you would see in the U.S. Unlike the Holmenkollen, however, this time they had a chance to watch Norwegians (and others) from all walks of life compete, 14,000 to be exact. If the whole trip is an essay on how a culture embraces skiing, then surely the Birkebeiner is the statement of its thesis.
Lipfert describes the marathon this way: “I was living in a state of awe the entire day. As we drove into Lillehammer for our 6 a.m. bus ride to the start, hundreds of people were walking from every direction, skis and poles in hand. The bus ride was a true Norwegian experience as well: everyone brought out their meat-and-hearty-bread sandwich.”
She continued, “We were all in wave 19. This meant that the wave in front of us was the last seeded wave, the slowest people who have skied the Birkie before. I was surrounded by masters with flawless technique, but who were racing just for fun…this was the highlight of their year!”
I raced the Birkebeiner in 2006. There are two things I would say from the experience. The first is that the race is harder than almost any marathon you’ll ever do – Lipfert described it as “brutal” – with the long uphill start over the mountains. And secondly, I had no idea, then, how lucky I was to get to that race. Since then, I’ve many times wished that I had another shot, a chance to race it now that I have a few more marathons under my belt, now that I might be able to really race it. But it turns out getting to the Birkebeiner is no small task. For junior skiers to have the opportunity to do so, well, it’s incredible.
On most of the trips, the Ford Sayre athletes have competed in local club races. More so than when practicing with a club team or racing the Birkie, it’s a chance to see how you stack up against Norwegians. Granted, they aren’t the fastest of the Norwegians, but still, it’s a chance. At each race, the team has been warmly welcomed. Race organizers have talked about how their Wednesday-night race series is special this week because it’s the first time there have been Americans, or handed out small Norwegian flags to each of the Ford Sayre racers to say thank you for coming. It’s heartening to see American skiing embraced in this way.
Sometimes, the Ford Sayre kids get dusted. But sometimes, they are right in there. Either way, there is an opportunity to learn from the competition – particularly with regard to classic skiing. Says Jennie Brentrup, a Ford Sayre alum who participated in the 2006 trip, “The race we did showed me how superior [the Norwegians] are even at a young age. They were able to ski with such grace and power, fully exploding from one ski to the next and gliding twice as far. It was an amazing learning experience to hop in behind them and try and mimic their technique. It showed me that Americans are doing some things right, but we still have a lot to learn.”
After skiing with the Bærums-Verk club, where the skiers “were just like wicked fast and didn’t seem to be working hard at all,” St. Pierre had a more heartening experience at a local night race. “It really turned my opinion around. Being able to ski right in the mix of the Norwegians made it apparent that they were completely human.”
In addition, the team competed in a pursuit race this year. While pursuits are a staple in international competition and championship events, there hasn’t been one in New England in years, and most of the athletes had never tried one. It was like killing two birds with one stone to get to race against the Norwegians and also familiarize the skiers with a new race format.
While the trip is plenty of fun, the whole point is to give the Ford Sayre racers a broader perspective on skiing. Eliassen hopes that spending time in a culture where being active is important “gives credibility to what the skiers do in the club program – they are no longer the ones who are different from their friends in high school,” and their hard work is validated.
Across the board, the Ford Sayre athletes have said the trip changed their perspective about skiing. For St. Pierre, who is still in high school, it simply motivated him for next season. “From this trip I have more confidence for the coming seasons. I now know that I’m capable of skiing with Norwegians, of skiing 54km, and that the training I do with Ford Sayre is similar to how Norwegian juniors train.” He knows that what he is doing is right, and that he has more to accomplish with skiing.
Looking back, Brentrup says that the trip confirmed her desire to ski in college, and helped her make it through the first few months of adjusting to a new team. “I knew that I wanted to continue skiing when I got to college, but going to Norway really solidified that for me because I saw how dedication and hard work could pay off. Being in a country where skiing is such an important part of their lifestyle and getting to watch skiers compete at the World Cups was truly inspiring and influenced me to continue to pursue racing at a high level. When I first got to college, I remember thinking maybe skiing wasn’t for me as I tried to adjust to all of the changes but I remembered the feeling I had in Norway and stuck with it.”
And for Lipfert, the trip changed her perspective on what it means to be an American skier. “I’ve been to Europe many times and this was the first time I was okay with being an American. Even a loud, obnoxious American cheering for Andy Newell. When Andy came in third at the Drammen Sprints and stood on the podium with a Norwegian and a Swede, I felt like we were showing the Norwegians how there actually are legitimate American skiers out there. I was proud to be associated with this accomplishment. I’ve never come close to wearing a U.S. suit and racing internationally, and would be surprised if I ever did, but after this trip I felt like maybe I did represent the U.S. in a small, symbolic way.”