When Andy Newell took to social media about a week and a half ago to announce that he was parting ways with the U.S. Ski Team (USST) after 16 years, some people might have assumed that he was leaving the sport. They would be wrong.
Newell, a 34-year-old Shaftsbury, Vermont, native and USST A-team member for the last 12 seasons, was quick to clarify that he’s not retiring from racing. After four Olympics and 16 years on the team, he’s just ready to be his own boss and set his own schedule.
“I guess in the back of my mind I always knew once the  Olympics were over I would most definitely take a step back from being a full-time international ski racer and definitely take a step back from being a U.S. Ski Team national-team racer,” Newell said in a phone interview earlier this week. “Because that way, it allows me much more flexibility with my schedule even in the summer as far as training camps go and obviously a ton more flexibility in the winter as far as how much time I need to spend away from home racing World Cups.”
Newell spent all of last season — from Oct. 29 until mid-March — on the World Cup circuit in Europe (except for when he was at the Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, for the month of February). He rarely saw his wife, Erika Flowers, whom he married last June. The two arranged quick trips to see each other when they could, but as full-time ski racers on different circuits, it was a challenge.
“Five, six, seven, or ten years ago, I was making many of these decisions as an individual, and now that I’m married, I definitely have a lot more to consider than just myself when I make decisions when it comes to planning and scheduling,” Newell said.
While he was hesitant to elaborate on his plans moving forward, Newell emphasized that he’ll continue to race in the near future.
“Right now, I guess my plan would be to get back to a simpler schedule where I am still training at a high level but not focused really at all on World Cup racing,” he said. “So I might target a few races that I’ve always really wanted to do, for example some of the Ski Classics possibly over in Europe like the [Norwegian] Birkebeiner, possibly the American Birkebeiner. I think there’s so many great ski experiences that we have out there other than racing World Cups every weekend.”
And at this point, he’s not completely ruling out another run at World Championships.
“If I’m feeling like a complete champion by doing some of these different races, then you might see me trying to take a stab at something like World Championships,” Newell said. “But I’m not really putting any pressure or expectations on that, I’m more just looking to get back to a more simple training and racing routine where I can come up with my own schedule and plans and just remember what it’s like to really enjoy ski racing and doing the ski races that I want to do.”
Growing Up on the Ski Team
Newell first landed a spot on the U.S. Ski Team as a high-school senior at the Stratton Mountain School (SMS) in Stratton, Vermont. He was initially selected to the development team, which came with invitations to national-team training camps — like the present-day development “D” team — as well as summer housing at the USST base in Park City, Utah.
That season, in 2002/2003, Newell raced at World Championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy, and nearly qualified for the heats in the skate sprint (placing 31st). Just 19 years old at the time, he also competed at Junior World Championships in Sollefteå, Sweden, where he placed second in the qualifier and seventh overall in the freestyle sprint.
He competed in his first World Cup in 2004 and made the leap to the USST A-team in 2005. Newell then began his 12-season streak on the A-team, which entailed the team’s highest level of financial support. He reached the World Cup podium three times as an individual — first in 2006 in Changchun, China, where he placed third in a freestyle sprint. In doing so, Newell became the first American to medal in a World Cup race since Bill Koch did the same 23 years prior.
While Koch was a distance racer — like every international nordic racer of his era — Newell earned his chops as a sprinter and came onto the World Cup scene when short-distance sprint races were in full swing (the format was introduced at 1999 World Championships and 2002 Winter Olympics).
“I think back on those years, and they were so cool,” Newell said of his early days on the team. “To be, like, 20 years old and beginning to race World Cups. … I remember in ’05, I got a top 15 in a World Cup, and that was the first time that had happened for the U.S. in the last however many years, and because of things like that, every weekend something new and exciting was happening.
“I started doing better in some of the sprints and winning the qualification and getting a top 10 here, and the next year I was on the podium after that in ’06,” he continued. “And so it was a very quick trajectory to becoming one of the best sprinters in the world at that time.”
He raced at eight World Championships with his best result coming in 2007 in Sapporo, Japan, where he placed fifth in a classic sprint.
“I won the qualification in the sprint and ended up finishing fifth, but I remember being pretty disappointed,” Newell reflected. “I thought I totally could’ve been on the podium there.”
His other two World Cup podiums came when he placed second in a 2008 skate sprint in Lahti, Finland, and third in a 2010 classic sprint in Drammen, Norway. In four Olympics, Newell achieved two individual top 20s in skate sprints (16th in 2006 and 18th in 2014), and ninth in the freestyle team sprint at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, B.C.
In PyeongChang this past February, he raced to 37th in the classic sprint and 14th with the men’s 4 x 10-kilometer relay. Reflecting on those Olympics, Newell said he was personally disappointed with his results, but thrilled to be a part of history with his team.
“I felt like I had put in the time, time and effort and preparation to race better than I did,” he said. “But at the same time, we created such a great, tight unit and team throughout the last four years that for me, it was just so great to be there, to be there on the day that Jessie [Diggins] and Kikkan [Randall] won a gold medal. … Even though I didn’t ski my best, it was still, to me, in a lot of ways a success to be there; it’s been a successful year in that respect.”
‘A Little Bit of a Guinea Pig’
Asked how the sport, specifically sprinting, has changed over the years, he said it’s been gradual but noticeable. Moreover, his ability and willingness to adapt is what has kept him in it this long.
“If you were to look back on a World Cup sprint from 2005, the technique would look a lot different than it does now,” he said. “Many of the courses are the same, some are a little longer now than maybe what you would see back in the early 2000s for sprinting, but I think, in order to be competitive then, and also still competitive now, I’ve had to try to adapt as best as I can, and always be willing to learn new things.
“I think if I would have assumed I was doing everything right or couldn’t improve, then I would have definitely been left behind I think years and years and years ago,” Newell continued. “I think people like Kikkan have done a really good job of that, and something that I’ve really tried to do, too, over the years, is always being willing to learn something new and not really have an ego about your shortcomings as an athlete.”
He explained that a consistent theme of his career was his willingness to venture into unchartered waters when it came to training.
“I’ve been a little bit of a guinea pig for the U.S. Ski Team in a lot of ways,” Newell said with a laugh. “I was probably the first athlete to go over and race an entire World Cup season. They hadn’t done that before we started scoring those kind of World Cup points in the mid-2000s, so it was like, how do we create a training plan that’s going to allow us to be successful at World Championships but also still race an entire World Cup season? So it’s been a great learning process for me and also I think the coaches over the last 20 years.”
Over the last two decades, Newell said he’s mainly worked with Chris Grover, the current U.S. Ski Team head coach, and more recently, USST Assistant Coach Jason Cork.
“Chris Grover wrote my training plans for probably the majority of my career,” Newell explained. “In the last four years or so, I started to work more with Jason Cork and also myself, I do a lot of the writing myself.
“I think I’m someone who likes to be a student of the craft of what I’m working on; I think I’ve always been like that,” he continued. “When a coach tells you to do something, you’re always kind of like, OK, but I would always want to ask why we do a certain workout the way we do and how it builds … I’ve just liked to learn about training principles over the years, and so as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten more involved in writing, going over training plans myself, and incorporating ideas and workouts that I want to do. And I’ve done a lot of dumb, crazy stuff over the years, too.”
Newell may be best remembered for his extreme stunts on ‘X Ski Films’, a filmmaking company he owned and starred in for several years, which included backflips and other airborne tricks on cross-country skis.
He’s also spent the last two decades training out of Stratton with three main coaches: Sverre Caldwell, Gus Kaeding, and most recently, Pat O’Brien, head coach of the SMS T2 Team. Newell met Flowers on that team, and while he won’t be a full-fledged member of SMS T2 this year, Newell said he’s looking to maintain a strong relationships with both Stratton and the U.S. Ski Team.
“In some ways I don’t think it feels like I’m retiring because I’ve kind of always had such a passion for pushing the level of skiing forward in this country,” he said. “And for me as an athlete, that was the best way I could do that, and I know as I transition into different roles in the skiing community, my goal [is] to continue hoping to improve the level of skiing in this country and improve the professionalism of skiing in this country and inspiring the youth skiing movement in this country — all those goals that I had as a ski racer — I will continue to have as a coach or a team leader or whatever my next role is going to be.
“I’d like to work with development as far as helping some younger kids out, so I’m going to try to look for opportunities where I can do that,” he added. “I think it’s kind of a natural transition from athlete to coach in a lot of ways, but I’m still very much going to be an athlete at least in the near future.”
Looking back on his years with the national team, he likened it to the pride one would have in a college or university they graduated from.
“I’m just really proud of my time that I’ve spent with the team and so grateful for all of the opportunities that the U.S. Ski Team has given me over the past two decades,” he said. “It’s probably the same way that people who go to universities and so forth feel about having that kind of pride for their alma mater. I never went to college so it’s like the U.S. Ski Team kind of scooped me up at 16, 17 years old. Everything that has built me up into the kind of person that I am now, that has molded me into my character, everything has more or less has come through the U.S. Ski Team.”
Is he nervous about going out on his own? Newell said it’s been a long time coming, and he’s more excited than anything.
“The spring’s always a funny time because you’re pretty exhausted from the season,” he said. “In a lot of ways, kind of the last thing you want to think about is skiing, but for me, I’ve always been one of those people that in the springtime gets super excited about all the opportunities. … By April 1, I [would be] already thinking, ‘Oh, what can I do for training next year?’ … and I start throwing around all these crazy ideas. I think that’s one of the things that’s kept me in the sport for so long, is having that excitement around training and preparation.
“I think it will be exciting in a lot of ways to try to be my own boss and do some of the training camps I want to do and partner up and train with some of the athletes that I want to train with,” he said of this spring and summer. “Not that I was ever held back by the U.S. Ski Team, but you definitely had to adhere to a certain schedule so I think it will be exciting to do some different things.”
From Sprints to Marathons?
In late January 2016, shortly before Newell spoke with FasterSkier about mulling retirement, or at least taking a step back from full-time ski racing, he double poled his way to second place in the 42-kilometer Dolomitenlauf classic marathon (part of the FIS Marathon Cup series) in Lienz, Austria. Never one to like being labeled a “sprint specialist”, Newell is looking forward to trying more marathon races like that.
“I have a lot of great friends who train for the Ski Classics [marathon series] and a lot of my Norwegian buddies who I have raced World Cups with over the years have gone that route after their World Cup racing career,” he said. “It’s a cool idea because those races are super fun, there’s great prize money, there’s a lot of excitement over them, and I think it’s really impressive when you see somebody just crush 90 k’s of double poling like they do in the Vasaloppet.
“So I’m definitely inspired by those guys and I, as an athlete, really like classic skiing,” he continued. “I love traditional-style classic skiing and I like double poling, so I think maybe in the future I will try to get into a few of those races, but it’s hard to do those and not be committed 100 percent because those guys that do those, they’re training to crush double pole like nobody’s business, so it’s hard to just show up on a weekend and race one of those races.”
Aside from the fitness required to double pole an entire marathon, the logistics of these races — many of which start in one town and end in another — is particularly challenging without a full-support crew or team.
“I’d really like to do the [Norwegian] Birkebeiner and I think it will take a few times to be able to consider yourself a threat to the podium in a race like that,” Newell said. “I would be foolish to think I could just jump into a Ski Classics race and crush it, but it’s definitely a goal of mine to maybe do some of those over the next years because I think they’re such legendary, badass ski races.”
In the near future, Newell and Flowers are headed out on a three-week “surf trip” to Australia and Indonesia.
After that, “it’s yet to be seen how everything will fit in,” Newell said in regards to his future plans, both living, training, racing, and otherwise. “There will be more to say later as far as what I have going on for next year as far as what my goals will be.”
— Gavin Kentch contributed