With the 2017/2018 season officially in the rearview, FasterSkier is excited to unveil its annual award winners for this past winter. Votes stem from the FS staff, scattered across the U.S., Canada, and Europe, and while not scientific, they are intended to reflect a broader sense of the season in review. This set of honors goes to coaches of North American teams in any nordic discipline, at any level – although in an Olympic and Paralympic Games year, that’s what we focused on.
Previous categories: Junior Skiers of the Year | Collegiate Skiers of the Year | Biathletes of the Year| Para-Nordic Skiers of the Year | NoCo Skier of the Year | Canadian Breakthrough Athletes of the Year | American Breakthrough Athletes of the Year
Eileen Carey, U.S. Paralympics Nordic
As we have already noted recently on the site, the U.S. Paralympics Nordic program made a huge jump between the 2014 and 2018 Games, winning three medals in Sochi but 16 – from five different athletes – in PyeongChang. That also included both men and women, and two types of para-nordic events: sitting and visually impaired.
A big architect of the team’s success has been head coach Eileen Carey. It’s not an easy or simple job to coach athletes at all different levels of sport and different athletic backgrounds, and bring them all towards success.
“The diversity in disciplines and levels of athlete in our program is one of the most interesting and motivating parts of my job,” Carey wrote in an email last week. “On one hand, I love getting into the details of what might make someone a fraction of a percent faster. I love the process of breaking down a performance into parts and working with athletes to problem solve how to make a small element better. So much of that is about failure, modification, and trying again. The potential gains are so small, but so are the gaps from 4th to 1st and every once in a while something sticks and that is incredibly motivating for me. Andy [Soule]’s sprint finish [for a gold medal] in PyeongChang is a great example of that.
“On the other hand we have some promising new athletes in our program who are at such a different level in what they need as athletes,” she continued. “For our program, our goal is always to provide best in the world service to our athletes. For our athletes who are aiming for the podium today, that involves every detail coming together, the execution of their plan. For Grace [Miller] and Mia [Zutter] and Ruslan [Reiter], our next generation of podium-potential athletes, providing best in the world service is more about making sure they see what their medal winning teammates and competitors are doing to achieve their performances and showing them a roadmap to get to that point.”
Development coach BethAnn Chamberlain is a big piece of that effort. For the top-level athletes, Carey lives in Bozeman, Montana, where she works intensively with the sit-ski team, which took an incredible 15 medals in PyeongChang.
“They move to Bozeman in the winters,” Carey explained. “I am with them every day from November through March, in addition to training camps that we have most months from May-October. Most of them compete in summer sports, so in the off season, there is always an individualized balance of figuring out how to optimize their preparation for skiing, while working with their goals for other sports.”
The standing and visually-impaired athletes have a different situation, and are primarily supported by clubs in their local areas. Carey works with both the athletes and their home coaches and teams to make sure they are getting the best development, but a big part of that can be training with an able-bodied ski team.
“We can help with funding, or workout ideas that might be unique to Paralympic skiing,” Carey wrote. “But at the end of the day, Jake Adicoff and Sawyer Kesselheim’s success at the Games [where they took silver in the visually-impaired 10 k classic, the first visually-impaired medal by the U.S. in modern Paralympic history] is much more about Sun Valley SEF and Bowdoin (Jake’s club/school) and Bridger Ski Foundation and Montana State (Sawyer’s club/school)… We can help fill the gaps with funding and equipment and communication with their coaches, but their best path to the podium is the same as every skier who wants to be on an Olympic podium.”
Carey and her colleagues, such as High Performance Director John Farra, have intentionally written their criteria so that standing and visually-impaired athletes can make the para-nordic national team without actually competing in para events – instead, they can make the C Team or Development team using USSA points from SuperTours, college races, or regional races. That means that they can spend more time with their home teams.
“We are lucky in that we have incredible partners in the USSA community who are really the ones developing many of our athletes,” Carey wrote. “I hope the more that coaches and clubs around the country see our athletes competing in USSA and collegiate races, the more they see opportunities for providing a ski development pipeline to even more members of their communities. As much progress as we have made as a program over the last several years, we have at least that much again to improve, and this is the next big opportunity for us as a program, and also for ski clubs and communities around the country.”
But while Carey is thinking about those big-picture goals and opportunities, she is also working one-on-one to help Americans become the best para-nordic skiers in the world.
“The fall after Sochi, we started a technique modification process to target Andy [Soule]’s speed on flats, in particular finishing speed,” she explained. “In Sochi, he was moving quickly and had great hand speed but he was not going fast compared to the athletes he was competing against. We tried and failed at so many things in the past four years to improve that. Every once in a while, we would find a mental cue or some technical detail that seemed to make a difference and we would build on that and find ways to analyze it. It can be so frustrating, because there are inevitably times when progress stalls or reverts and there rarely is a clear answer why… When he turned it on during that finishing stretch of the sprint to take the gold, that was the epitome of a plan coming together at the right time.”
A few minutes later, Oksana Masters won gold in the women’s sprint, overcoming an injury that had happened just weeks before the Paralympics. It was her first gold medal after collecting a silver and bronze earlier in the Games, to go with a silver and bronze from Sochi and a bronze from the 2012 summer Paralympics in rowing.
“Both of those races, strictly from a sport performance standpoint, were just incredible,” Carey wrote. “In addition, those two athletes have really been the architects of our program’s rise over the last quad. The two of them were at every camp and World Cup, and their instincts as athletes drove the strategies of our program. That day could not have been a more meaningful culmination of the last four years for them as individuals, for us as a program, and for me as a coach.”
Honorable Mention: Robin McKeever, Canadian Para-Nordic Skiing
Also taking home 16 medals from PyeongChang? The Canadian Para-Nordic team, which like the Americans had a big jump in both the number of medals and the number of athletes winning them. Far from being just the Brian McKeever show – although the veteran went undefeated for the third Paralympics in a row – the team also picked up multiple medals from Mark Arendz, Natalie Wilkie, and Collin Cameron, plus an individual medal by Emily Young and two relay medals.
Carey’s counterpart up north is Robin McKeever, who incidentally said that he looked at what Carey was doing as an inspiration in being able to recruit summer-sports athletes and successfully transform them into winter gold medalists. The two gold medals by Kendall Gretch, an American triathlete who didn’t pick up cross-country skiing until 2015, were “eye-opening”.
The para-sport landscape is slightly different in Canada, which also has a much smaller population to draw from (while at the same time having some of the same issues associated with far-flung geography). McKeever faces different development challenges, but has helmed the program towards depth and diversity in the last four years.
“It started as an eight-year process in 2010,” McKeever said in an interview last week. “At that time, we only had funding for Brian. I was given the reins to rebuild, effectively. Now there are some next-generation funds we have the opportunity to access, and now that helps build the base. In the last few years we have had a development coach on board, Kate Boyd, and that has been huge.”
There have been notable successes, such as the three medals Cameron took home; having picked up skiing just a few years ago after being involved with sledge hockey, Cameron was named one of our Breakout Athletes of the Year.
Then there was Wilkie, a teenager who came to the program after losing four of her fingers in an accident.
“We know where our pool of athletes comes from,” McKeever said. “It’s about the un-luck of athletes having trauma, which starts their Paralympic path. And it’s about luck in terms of recruiting athletes from summer sport.”
Those newer athletes in the program have veterans to look up to, whether that is McKeever’s brother Brian, or now Mark Arendz, who took home a remarkable six medals between biathlon and cross-country skiing.
“Mark was no surprise,” McKeever said. “Six medals was maybe a surprise, but he was a World Champion coming in.”
Given the limitations on how the team can find new athletes, McKeever didn’t want to be too concrete about whether the program would see a big swell in numbers coming off its recent success.
“It is still to be seen where that will go,” he said. “Some of it is a bit of luck, and some of it is really good management… A lot of staff has been around for eight years. They remain keen and excited. They stick around and are really integral to my support, and to the team’s support.”
One of the biggest highlights for McKeever, and an illustration of how the program has changed in just a few years, was the mixed relay team of Arendz, Young, Wilkie, and Chris Klebl taking silver, the first ever relay medal for Canada.
“The mixed relay is a real highlight,” he said. “Even if the full Russian contingent had been there, that would be a podium for us. I didn’t know eight years ago that the possibility was even there.”
Honorable Mention: Matt Whitcomb, U.S. Ski Team
Another team that had a huge jump this year? The U.S. Ski Team women. Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall took gold in the Olympic team sprint, the first-ever gold medal for the U.S. in the sport.
But the Olympics weren’t the only thing that happened this season. Diggins also won a World Cup, was third in the Tour de Ski, and second in the overall World Cup standings. Randall picked up a World Cup podium; Sadie Bjornsen picked up several; and Sophie Caldwell had enough to earn third place int he Sprint Cup standings. The team had more days with many women in the sprint heats, and more good distance results, too.
“It’s been a many-year goal of ours to be ranked in the top three for the women’s team and we secured that for the first time today,” U.S. Ski Team Women’s Coach Matt Whitcomb told FasterSkier of his team’s best-ever Nations Cup ranking after the final World Cup of the season in Sweden. “We’ve come into [past] finals, I believe, ranked third and then come out of finals ranked fourth. We’ve been fifth… It was really quite an achievement.”
The U.S. women all spend large amounts of time with their club teams and coaches, including at APU and Stratton. But they come together to form a national team, the strength of whose relationships are a storied aspect of building their own success. And Whitcomb is a big ingredient there, facilitating not just training but atmosphere and long-range goals.
When Caldwell secured third in the Sprint Cup, she thought back two years to a conversation she had with Whitcomb about race goals. Whitcomb wanted Caldwell to write down goal in particular: to be in the Sprint World Cup overall top three.
“At the time I was like, ‘Eh, no, that seems pretty far off,’” Caldwell reflected in a post-race interview with FasterSkier.
But it wasn’t, and the determination to work seriously on big goals, and believe you can get them, is a hallmark of the U.S. team.