Many mornings, Eliška Hájek Albrigtsen’s husband, Tobias Albrigtsen, has to peel her out of bed. Living the life of an early bird like her spouse is nowhere near the top of her list — partly because she spends most nights prodding her hubby awake as he finishes his work, partly because she is strung out between four jobs of her own.
Being in charge of three ski programs while assisting a fourth is not where the 29 year old envisioned herself when she moved to Madison, Wisconsin, this past June to work for Central Cross Country (CXC). But a lot can change over the course of a summer and for Albrigtsen (formerly Hájková), a lot did.
After relocating to the Badger State’s capital from Lake Tahoe, California, to serve as CXC’s Community Olympic Development Director, Albrigtsen’s responsibilities began to accrue.
It started with the addition of coaching CXC’s online master’s program. Then she had an interest in helping with CXC’s Paralympic and adaptive athletes. Finally, in late August, Andy Keller left his head-coaching position with the CXC Team to join Northern Michigan University (NMU) as an assistant coach, and Albrigtsen was in a prime spot to take over the reins.
“When Andy took the assistant coaching job at NMU, it was kind of natural that I got the CXC Team head coach position,” Albrigtsen, a Czech Republic native, said during a recent phone interview. “For me, it’s not like a big promotion, it’s just more stuff to do while I still do all the stuff I was doing before. I have a lot of responsibilities all of a sudden that I didn’t start with.”
Among those responsibilities, she has been busy making informative videos for CXC Academy under the job title of Community Olympic Development Coach.
Getting stuff done — and a lot of it, efficiently — seems to be somewhat second nature for Albrigtsen. Back in 2016, she placed sixth in the senior women’s distance race at U.S. nationals, despite having three jobs and indicating that the only training she had done in preparation was with her Boulder Nordic Junior Racing Team (BNJRT) athletes during practice sessions.
While attending the University of Colorado-Boulder (CU), she finished in the top 10 of 45 out of 48 races over the course of her college career, according to a CU press release, all while maintaining above a 3.5 grade-point average.
After three seasons coaching the BNJRT in Colorado, Albrigtsen moved to Kings Beach at the north end of Lake Tahoe last year, where the juggling act continued. There, she served as the head coach for Tahoe XC, while also volunteering with the Auburn Ski Club’s elite athletes, taught private ski lessons for Tahoe Donner, coached an online master’s program, and once again raced U.S. nationals, placing 12th in the 20 k classic mass start.
She’s also raced more than two dozen World Cups, most recently in 2014.
Though Albrigtsen indicates that she “never stops officially training or racing” this year might be a little different as it will be her first season coaching senior elite skiers. Still, the idea of more challenging practice sessions is enough to draw her in, even if it means scaling back her training a bit. As a coach she brings not only race experience, but the empathy and understanding of an athlete.
“With U14 kids, I mean, I was challenging them, but I was not getting challenged,” she reflected. “I think being challenged as a coach, being able to hang out with your athletes, you really see and you can really feel their pain. When you’re right on their butts and doing every exercise, you can see, ‘OK, I know that in the Level 4 on the fifth minute, during the sixth interval you died, so let’s figure that out.’ I think that’s one of my powers, that I can really be there when it’s happening.”
When asked of her strengths as a coach, CXC Executive Director Yuriy Gusev was quick to respond.
“Her racing experience, number one,” he said on the phone. “And [she’s] just very energetic and hardworking and organized.”
Albrigtsen will work with three CXC Team skiers this winter: Felicia Gesior, Kyle Bratrud and Sam Elfstrom. All three graduated from NMU, are currently based out of Marquette, Michigan, and will set their focus on the first few SuperTour races and U.S. nationals before re-evaluating their season goals. The fourth CXC Team member, Nichole Bathe (who graduated from the University of Alaska Fairbanks) remains on roster, but headed to Europe earlier this fall to train in Norway with a goal of making the 2018 Winter Olympic Games for Great Britain’s national team.
Until the first week of SuperTour racing in early December, the amount of time the other three CXC elite skiers and Albrigtsen work together will depend on the athletes. Albrigtsen wanted to keep the summer and fall schedule fairly flexible so her athletes would not feel restricted in the amount of paid work or fundraising they could accomplish while training for the upcoming season.
For example, Gesior made a trip to Madison earlier this fall for a training session on CXC’s rollerski treadmill with Albrigtsen, but will spend most the next few weeks training in Marquette and preparing for a fundraiser she’s organizing: the Bergkönig trail run on Nov. 11. The event features 10 k, 5 k and 1 k races and was originally created by Maria Stuber and Bryan Cook in an effort to raise money for local cross-country skiers looking to continue their ski careers post-college.
Gesior also works as a substitute teacher in Marquette, and most of her training this summer and fall has been with the NMU women’s team. Similarly, Bratrud and Elfstrom train with the NMU men’s team.
“I think that’s OK that they follow [NMU],” Albrigtsen said, “That’s kind of the program that really took them where they are and they have something to top it. They don’t train like college skiers; I mean, it’s their job right now so they do train more. But the base is very similar and [NMU Head Coach] Sten [Fjeldheim] is being really nice about allowing them to train with them. Not all college coaches are that way, so we’re definitely really lucky.”
According to Gusev, partnerships like the one CXC has with NMU and other programs in the Midwest are the reason for CXC’s expansion. Over the last decade, he said CXC has grown from a $50,000-dollar organization to a million-dollar one.
“It’s all of those partnerships,” Gusev said of the CXC programs’ continued growth. “They’re incredible organizations so we’re able to work with all of them together and help them work together.”
The organization hopes to continue its expansion with the addition of a $12-million-dollar training complex just outside the Madison suburb of Middleton, Wisconsin, which is currently in the planning stages. The facility would not only include a competition venue, but snowmaking equipment, a lit rollerski loop, and 30,000-square-foot facility open for recreational use as well.
The idea behind the complex, Gusev indicated, would be to provide CXC athletes with a training venue, while simultaneously encouraging community members to get outside and active, using skiing as an example. The center already has one complex, the CXC Center of Excellence in Madison, complete with rollerski treadmill.
“With the CXC Team, our number-one goal is to support the athletes that need the support. That’s as simple as that,” Gusev said. “But overall, our goal as an organization is to grow the sport at all levels.”
To Albrigtsen, the new facility is another reason Madison and CXC seemed like a good choice for her and her husband, Tobias, who is CXC’s media and communications coordinator, when moving from Tahoe to the Midwest. That, and the cost of living.
“We always talk about what can Midwest offer that other regions can’t. We don’t have the mountains, we don’t have the best winters, but what we really have is the best quality of life,” Albrigtsen said.
“You can live much cheaper here than anywhere else in U.S. and still make somewhat good money,” she continued. “Not everybody, especially in the U.S., there’s maybe 10-15 people who can do this professionally and get paid being skiers, otherwise you have to work and that’s something Midwest does have to offer. You can have a normal life and be a skier. You can do it here.”
While Albrigtsen’s “normal life” is somewhat busier than others might prefer, she is in no way deterred.
“I am a total sport addict, and I think every coach has to be, otherwise it’s not really worth it,” she said. “Tobias and I, we’re just trying to do what we love and give something back.”
Give something back, and get a little training in at the same time, even if it’s in between her multiple jobs.
“My motivation is also to fit in my jeans, wearing tight dresses,” Albrigtsen added with a laugh. “I have a five-year-younger husband so I have to take care of myself.”