Coaching a college team which you yourself are part of might not seem like the best way to learn the tricks of the trade – or to become a better athlete, for that matter.
And yet that was the situation in which Piotr Bednarski found himself in the late 1980’s at Cornell University in upstate New York. From there, he has gone on to be one of the most successful coaches in the Midwest, across a range of endurance sports and with several teams that he invented himself. All the while, he has kept racing, even at age 45 and with two children.
“I’m still competing,” Bednarski laughed in a recent interview from Minneapolis, where he lives and works. “I’m still a frustrated athlete.”
That’s Piotr (“Pea-ought”), as everybody calls him, being modest. Despite his heavy coaching load, Bednarski is still fit to have placed in the top 20 of the classic race of the American Birkebeiner in several of the past few years; he’s also a former masters national champion in biathlon and a frequent mountain bike racer in the summer.
Coaching, though, is his focus. Between the Minnesota Biathlon team he ran in the 1990’s through 2002, and his Go! Training program that lasted through this spring, Bednarski has trained a handful of Olympians in both biathlon and skiing, as well as mountain biking 2011 World Championship team member Jack Hinkens.
These days, he is working through Loppet Nordic Racing, a new program of the City of Lakes Nordic Ski Foundation, which absorbed Go! Training along with Reid Lutter’s Minnesota Valley ski team. It’s a new role for Bednarski, but one in which he will have no less of an impact on Midwestern skiing.
“All I can say is that he is super, super psyched, always, to have athletes that are interested and motivated,” said 2010 Olympian Caitlin Gregg, who has worked with Bednarski for the last eight years. “So when I first met him, I thought, man, this guy seems really awesome and he seems like he has a lot of energy.”
Learning To Coach
After graduating from Cornell, Bednarski stayed to coach the team for two years. But it wasn’t there, he said, that he realized that he had a passion for coaching. He can pinpoint the exact moment when his career was born: a 1989 clinic in Marquette, Michigan, with U.S. Ski Team coach Steve Gaskill.
“That really just got me super excited about coaching long-term,” Bednarski says. “Then the following year I started graduate school in biomechanics. That was because I realized, ‘I don’t know anything.’ It seemed like the best way to pursue it. You know, in other countries they have formal schooling for coaches, but that doesn’t exist here.”
After starting his masters degree in biomechanics at Oregon State University, Bednarski became frustrated by the lack of snow in Corvallis. So he moved to Saint Cloud State in Minnesota, where there was plenty of skiing, and also a biomechanics department focused on the sport.
“The program in Saint Cloud actually did a lot of skiing research, both with equipment and a variety of skiing studies,” Bednarski explained. “The professors were part of a sports science committee for the biathlon team. So they were traveling to West Yellowstone to do video, and just help with doing stuff like lactate profiles and a variety of little studies. That was a little more exciting than Oregon State for me.”
By the time he finished in 1993, he had studied mechanical forces in double-poling and done two studies based on the 1992 Olympics: the first looking at mechanical energy transfer in skiers, the second analyzing the timing system in a biathlon race. He had also developed a prototype for a quick-release pole strap for biathletes.
In other words: he was ready to go.
Bednarski cut his coaching teeth at Team Birkie, a team organized by Gaskill that brought together juniors, seniors and masters skiers. When the team folded due to financial constraints, Bednarski was left searching around for another coaching gig. He went into business more or less by himself, creating Minnesota Biathlon.
“Minnesota Biathlon was a really successful program but it was small,” Bednarski said. “We had usually four or five seniors at a really high level, and then maybe 15 or 20 juniors. They all paid something, but it was really pretty well-supported, a little bit by USBA, and then the Community Olympic Development program came into being and helped fund us. I did that in a full-time way for seven or eight years.”
In his interview, Bednarski glossed over that part of his history. But very few biathlon teams have had so much success: Andy Erickson raced at the 1998 Olympics, Dan Campbell in 2002, and Carolyn Bramante in 2006. Bednarski’s athletes also competed at senior World Championships, the World University Games, and World Junior Championships for both skiing and biathlon. He was the United States Biathlon Association’s Development Coach of the Year in 1996 and its Elite Coach of the Year in 2000.
But as good as the program was, it didn’t last. After the 2002 Olympics, many winter sports saw drastic cuts in funding from the Olympic Committee, and biathlon was one of them. Minnesota Biathlon was done, although Bednarski still keeps the name of the program; you can find its website online, where he announces biathlon races that he organizes in Minnesota.
Time to Go!
Left once again searching for a job, Bednarski changed tactics: instead of a biathlon program, he would start a ski team, employing only himself.
“I was still doing some biathlon, but mostly to a smaller degree it’s really hard to make it pay for itself,” Bednarski explained. “You need a larger number of coaches and a lot of time to do biathlon training. It’s difficult to make the cash flow. Plus the biathlon range is pretty inconvenient, it’s almost an hour away, so training became super difficult for me.”
While staying on with USBA as the Athlete Development Director, Bednarski started what was essentially a training group, calling it Go! Training. Early in the program’s existence, Gregg showed up for her first practice. She had moved to the Twin Cities to support her mother, who had cancer, and a few friends had suggested that she train with Bednarski.
“The first workout that I met up with him was at 6:45 in the morning,” Gregg remembered in an interview last week. “I drove half an hour to this little alpine area – it was minus fifteen outside, super slow, pitch black. Everything that would make you think, ‘you know, I’m cool. I can just go for a run.’ I got to the parking lot and I was sitting there thinking maybe he wasn’t going to show up. But then he came up to my window, and he was like, ‘Are you ready? Are you psyched?’”
Bednarski’s attitude, Gregg said, was infectious. It was impossible for her not to be psyched, so she started coming to more workouts. At first, Bednarski said, she’d show up with the masters group, in many ways the odd one out. But the program grew and grew, and Bednarski eventually had more elite racers – and a particularly strong group of Minneapolis-based women.
“In a winter we’d have 50 or 60 adults enrolled, and in the summers and fall and pretty much year-round 50 juniors or so,” Bednarski said. “So it was a pretty good group.”
Gregg grew as an athlete, as well.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that Piotr was the catalyst and the one that convinced me that I could train in the Twin Cities and kick ass there,” Gregg said. “After seeing him spread that to so many athletes – it’s just absolutely incredible the number of athletes he reaches. So for myself he’s always been there.”
But as successful as Go! Training was, it had its downsides, Bednarski readily admits that it had its downsides. First of all, it was not a non-profit foundation like so many top clubs, and he didn’t have any supervisors, board members, or oversight.
“Running a club in basically a for-profit mode is something that always rubbed me the wrong way,” he said. “You can’t really ask people to volunteer. It’s not a normal club, it’s like the Piotr club, and that’s not so good. I mean, it worked fine, but it’s not how you’re supposed to run something.”
Skiing For Everyone
Throughout his tenures at Minnesota Biathlon and Go! Training, Bednarski managed to coach a widely varying group of athletes seemingly simultaneously. That, says Gregg, is part of the reason that so many people flocked to his teams. Bednarski doesn’t discriminate.
“He’s the kind of coach that doesn’t get stuck on ego or whether you’re ‘his’ athlete or not, or this is the way that he does things that’s so much better,” Gregg said. “In my opinion he has the perfect attitude. He’s always eager to learn new things from other programs, whether it’s athletes who are coming back from college or athletes like myself being a part of CXC, or other athletes working with the biathlon national team.”
That’s how Gregg was able to keep working with Bednarski even after she joined CXC in its infancy – a move that she said Bednarski encouraged. Other skiers have done the same, including Garrott Kuzzy.
And after they are done racing, or perhaps while they’re still training for elite competition, they have also come back to Bednarski to help coach in his program. It’s a good move for the racers, but also for Bednarski and his junior and masters skiers, who have the chance to learn from skiers whose names they recognize from the very top of the results sheet. Matt Liebsch, Johanna Winters, and Audrey Weber are among the Go! athletes who have come back to pitch in.
“Piotr has really helped me develop an enjoyment and passion for coaching,” Gregg said.
It helped that she was able to do some training as she coached – and that’s another trademark of Bednarski’s training sessions. Instead of dividing his training sessions strictly by age or ability level, skiers can train together any day, and each reap the benefits.
“The beauty of Piotr’s workouts is that, from my experience, we have a huge variety of athletes,” Gregg explained. “We have high school, then elite athletes like myself and Matt Liebsch, all the way to masters or even beginners who are trying to do their first Birkie. And what Piotr is able to do is somehow attend to all of us… he really has the workouts dialed in so that we can train with him on any given day, any workout, and we’re guaranteed to get a good workout.”
The Big Picture
That didn’t change when Go! Training morphed into Loppet Nordic Racing this summer. Rather than losing any of his team’s well-tested strategies, Bednarski mostly gained the advantages of being part of a larger, foundation-based club, and he is digging into his new role with gusto. One reason is that looking at the whole region, Bednarski has seen shortcomings which he was unable to address with his own for-profit team. Minnesota should be the best place in the country to be a skier, he said.
“Historically, there’s such a Scandinavian and Finnish history here; there really is a culture,” he explained. “People ski. From where I live, I can go to probably 20 different places in a 30-minute drive to ski on groomed trails. And four of those have manmade snow. There’s tons of places to ski.
“So we really should be one of the top places, in terms of having the best juniors, there’s no question,” he continued. “And we do have the most – there’s more skiers, whether it be juniors or adults, than anywhere in the country. So the fact that the level of performance is okay, but not great, that’s a fault of programs and coaching, not facilities or lack of that. If we get it right, we should have the best programs and the best athletes.”
With Loppet Nordic Racing, Bednarski thinks that the Twin Cities are getting one step closer. The foundation does not yet have an elite program, but he hopes to develop one in a few years. For now, they are looking at the comprehensive picture of skiing in the cities. Starting with kids – 150 of them this summer.
“Clubs in the Swedish and Scandinavian models have little kids, and juniors, and seniors and adults, everybody,” Bednarski said. “That’s how we’re structured now. Most of the programs start at about age 8. Something we’re really pushing now is that range of 8 to 13, which is something that has been missing in the Midwest in a big way.”
He cited the fact that while the Midwest frequently excels in the J1 and OJ races at Junior Nationals, the J2 results are poor. That’s because, he says, most kids in the region don’t start skiing until they are in high school. Despite the urban environment which guarantees the sport plenty of potential participants, it’s hard to actually engage the thousands of children who could join a ski team.
“There’s lots of kids,” Bednarski said. “But there are also a gazillion other programs going on that we compete with, whether it be soccer or swimming or whatever it is. It’s tough to break in. we get a lot of kids who are learning how to ski in ninth grade. That’s way too late. You can’t expect them to do well at a Junior National level. It’s possible, but it’s hard to be competitive.”
So for now, Loppet Nordic Racing is sticking with the high school programs previously run by Lutter and Bednarski, while focusing on grabbing more of those elementary- and middle-school aged athletes. In the future, Bednarski hopes, it will lead to a more robust ski community.
Gregg, for one, is sure that it will.
“I think that Piotr will still be a huge [in the Twin Cities], and I think it will even strengthen the ski community,” she said of Loppet Nordic Racing. “And I think that was his focus in getting this job. The Loppet has really gotten behind his training and allowing the whole network of programs, instead of having more fractioned little segment programs. They’re emphasizing that the whole west side of the metro should get together and help each other, which is awesome.”