Three years ago, Andy Keller was a college kid looking for an internship toward his exercise-science degree at Michigan Tech. He knew a girl, who knew Jason Cork, and he used the connection to land an apprenticeship at the Central Cross Country (CXC) Ski Association in Cable, Wis.
At the time, Cork was heading up the CXC Team, which executive director Yuriy Gusev established in 2006 to support promising skiers striving for top national and international performances. Keller, who grew up just outside Minneapolis in Chanhassen, Minn., became Cork’s intern assistant.
Months later, before Keller began his senior year, Gusev offered him a job.
“I said, ‘I kind of want a degree so I’ll talk to you in a little less than a year,’ ” Keller reflected on the phone last week.
He skied for four seasons at Michigan and graduated in 2012, then asking Gusev if there was still a spot for him. There was, though Keller’s job title and responsibilities changed three times before he officially got started, he said.
First, he was hired as sport-development manager, tasked with connecting CXC to youth clubs and high-school programs in the Midwest. Then, CXC’s assistant coach Gus Kaeding left to head the Stratton Mountain School (SMS) elite team in Vermont. Cook needed an assistant, and CXC’s board decided Keller would be it.
But before that played out, Cork accepted a coaching position with the U.S. Ski Team in the spring of 2012. Igor Badamshin became CXC Team head coach and Keller took on Badamshin’s previous role coaching juniors.
That first year, he worked alongside Badamshin.
“Then there was a little bit of [difference] with coaching styles and athletes on the team, so Bill [Pierce] got brought on to work alongside Igor [and] I took more of a dedicated role to the junior program,” Keller said of last season. “This year started off the same way … I was focused more on the junior program.”
For the next several months, Badamshin oversaw the program and Pierce worked as the elite head coach. In late January, Badamshin died unexpectedly of a heart attack while skiing the Birkie trail between Cable and Hayward, Wis. He was 47, and his passing left CXC and the surrounding community stunned.
“A guy that works his ass off and is willing to do anything for his program … his passion truly lied with working with athletes,” Keller reflected. “[I] was just trying to carry on his legacy — inspiring kids to ski and getting them excited to be out there. If there’s one thing he was good at, it was definitely that, and also carrying on his work ethic. The guy wouldn’t complain. He’d be out there skiing 50 k and waxing…
“There was definitely big shoes to fill when he passed away,” CXC Team’s new head coach continued. “As I’ve come through, I’ve been working under a ton of coaches; my philosophy is I can always learn something. When I was interning under Jason and Gus that was what I loved to do — learning and listen.”
“There was definitely big shoes to fill when [Badamshin] passed away. … As I’ve come through, I’ve been working under a ton of coaches; my philosophy is I can always learn something.” — Andy Keller, CXC Team Head Coach as of September 2014
Keller Becomes Head Coach
That’s right, Keller, in his third season as a CXC coach, was recently promoted to head of its elite team following Pierce’s decision to accept a job in Colorado (he’s becoming nordic director of the Snow Mountain Ranch YMCA near Winter Park this fall) earlier this month.
But “elite” is a term Gusev and several other U.S. nordic directors like to stay away from: it’s about development and helping athletes reach their higher-competition goals. The CXC Team became Team Vertical Limit in 2009 as part of a sponsorship deal, and a year later it had 18 athletes, including a couple Olympians (Garrott Kuzzy and Caitlin Compton — now Caitlin Gregg).
The CXC Team currently has eight members, most of which will be focused on top-10 results in Midwest marathons to attract sponsors. In addition, Keller is overseeing two postgrads, about 10 juniors and an international guest skier.
“All the coaches agreed, the team needs to get back to the roots of developing athletes,” Gusev explained on the phone. “You would have never called our team the CXC Elite Team, it just came later when this word became very popular.
“We always see our team as a development tool for that higher step,” he added. “We don’t see this team as full of stars, but we want to have a team open to athletes of that level. If it can help them great … It’s just like having a child: at some point you need to let them go and see if they can stand on their feet.”
Considering that, Gusev is encouraged by the direction his program is headed, especially with a homegrown coach at the helm.
“It’s exciting to see somebody who went through the original pipeline and became a coach,” he said. “And that’s a goal from the time he applied from an internship.”
Still, the last few weeks — and months — have been busy at CXC, to say the least. Following Badamshin’s passing, Gusev said the organization interviewed a couple people to hire in his absence, but ultimately, Pierce and Keller stepped up and said they could handled the added responsibilities without another coach.
“It was probably more emotional for some of us, but you just move on,” Gusev said. “The programs needed to move on as well and … we had to adjust right away.”
It didn’t take long for everyone to get back “in the groove,” he added. Pierce continued to serve as head coach and Keller as his assistant and junior coach.
Last Friday, Keller drove 300 miles southeast to Madison to test about 10 juniors at a weekend camp at CXC’s administrative headquarters. The group meets about once a month in various places, holding camps with other Midwest clubs, like Loppet Nordic Racing (LNR), May through December, Keller said.
He also helps host monthly CXC master’s camps, and while he’s not scheduled for every single one, he led a recent camp under Pierce’s guidance earlier this month.
“I made Andy run over half the sessions, and I watched him and helped him a little bit,” Pierce said. Then he told him and the rest of CXC about his decision to leave.
“I saw it coming,” Keller reflected. “Bill did talk to me as he found out more about the new position he was taking.”
In Cable, where Keller lives in a condo on the Telemark property, he spent the summer working with six athletes in CXC’s new college summer residency program, which Pierce initiated.
“That overlapped with what you would call our team now, more of a marathon team,” Keller said of his previous and current responsibilities, coaching juniors and now seniors as well. “The athletes that we’ll have competing on the SuperTour is relatively small.”
Those skiers include two postgrads from LNR — Scott Harrison and Sam Boardman — who plan to live and train full time in Cable this fall and winter. Their main races include western SuperTours, U.S. nationals, and the Midwest Junior National qualifiers .
“We don’t see this team as full of stars, but we want to have a team open to athletes of that level. … It’s just like having a child: at some point you need to let them go and see if they can stand on their feet.” — CXC Executive Director Yuriy Gusev
With an overall emphasis on regional competitions, CXC is looking to assemble the best skiers in the Midwest.
“As the coach now, I’d love to build the program back up to how it was when I interned,” he said, referencing past CXC standouts like Jessie Diggins, Caitlin Gregg, Brian Gregg, and Jennie Bender. “…That was the year they won the NNF Cup so that’s the level I’d like to bring it back to.”
One of Gusev’s priorities is hiring another coach focused on sport development to further connect CXC with grassroots organizations and schools throughout the central U.S. Looking at the big picture, it’s about promoting the sport and coaching development. In the long run, CXC is hoping that will translate into athlete retention.
“Regardless whether the athletes come to us directly or not … it’s a matter of whether we have consistent, easy to follow progressions, like soccer does or swimming does,” Gusev said of two sports he considers domestic successes in the U.S. “[Those sports outline the] steps to high school, college and beyond, which doesn’t exist really in cross-country skiing. We have all the pieces in place, and we can communicate that to parents.”
For Keller, his goal is to help grow the base and competitive nature of skiers in the Midwest, which includes Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.
“It’s where I grew up,” he said. “[We’re] trying to make the Midwest more of a ski powerhouse, and that’s definitely happening. We’re developing athletes, but we’re having a hard time getting them to stay around.”
He counted eight skiers in elite programs outside their region, including Jessie Diggins (SMST2), Anne Hart (SMST2), Ben Saxton (SMST2), Gordon Vermeer (Craftsbury Green Racing Project), and Rosie Frankowski (Alaska Pacific University).
“It seems like everybody wants to go somewhere else and I’ve got to figure out why,” Keller said. “I think the level of support CXC gives is among the best … It’s just we’re not in the mountains and we don’t have a glacier to [train on]…
“The Midwest might not be the most sexy training site as a Sun Valley or something like that,” he continued. “… [But] it’s not that we’re not producing the athletes.”
“It seems like everybody wants to go somewhere else and I’ve got to figure out why. I think the level of support CXC gives is among the best … It’s just we’re not in the mountains and we don’t have a glacier to [train on]…” — Keller
In terms of coaching styles, Keller said he gained a lot from working with Cork, Kaeding, Pierce, and Badamshin.
“I’d hope I’d be maybe as analytical [as Cork],” he said. “I’m hoping I can be half as enthusiastic and motivating as Igor … I try to pull from all those guys and find out what works for myself and what doesn’t fit my personality. I would say I’m relatively soft-spoken and sometimes it’s a little bit harder for me to put myself out there. I hope I’ve gotten better at that.”
When it comes to managing athletes, Pierce will continue to write training plans for those that started with him at the beginning of the season, including Cory Ellertson, Chris Pappathopoulos, Andrew Brown, and Scott Johanik.
Keller said he’ll take on those that joined the team more recently and will be in Cable the next several months: the two postgrads and guest skier Leandro Lutz from Brazil, who plans to travel to Europe to try to qualify for 2015 World Championships.
As for coaching and waxing for 18 or so skiers throughout the season, Keller said that working alongside other Midwest clubs at races, especially at main events like U.S. nationals, should help. And not all the athletes will compete at the same events, given their varied focuses — from marathons to junior-qualifying races.
At the same time, Keller said he’s looking forward to having an assistant or some kind of helper in the future. Gusev said the new hire would largely help with junior camps.
In the last month since Pierce’s decision, he said he’d been working with Keller on the transition and will continue to offer assistance beyond his final day at the end of September.
“I’ve basically given [Keller] my daily responsibilities,” Pierce said earlier this month. That included even the little stuff, like “teaching him how to smooth out a trail and pick rocks and seeds.”
“There’s definitely a lot to catch up on as far as ski selection and things like that,” Keller observed. “Working with Rossignol, getting in contact with those guys, getting up to speed with things Bill might’ve taken care of as far as a team aspect and getting [ready] to compete.”
He’s also tasked with attracting sponsors through top results in Midwest marathons.
“We’ll do fine with that,” he said of his mostly marathon-focused team. “Our postgrads have goals of trying to make World Juniors … definitely a big one is qualifying for Junior Nationals and trying to make top-20 [there]. The goals for the marathon team is being on the podium or top 10 … that should be no problem.”
He’d also like to bring the CXC Team back to an “elite, elite” team, he said, by recruiting recent graduates.
According to Gusev and CXC’s mission statement, the 2,000-member organization has four straightforward goals: to build its base, promote the sport, achieve competitive success, and create partnerships through collaborations. The way he sees it, member athletes are part of that as well.
“[The CXC Team] athletes are in a community to be motivation to adult athletes at clinics, to be role models and whatever else comes with it,” Gusev said. “With competitive excellence, we hope to get them to the level [of someone like Garrott Kuzzy or Tad Elliott, who made the U.S. Ski Team]. We hope the athletes that come through our program will eventually contribute to international success…”
Emerging Adaptive Team
CXC is also focused on building its adaptive program under coach Andrew Poffenberger, another Minnesota native who skied as a junior and studied health fitness at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn.
This year, the CXC Para Team has expanded to include five elite athletes, four of which went to the 2014 Sochi Paralympics: Aaron Pike, Travis Dodson, Augusto “Goose” Perez, and John Oman. Its fifth member, Steve Baskis, a blind athlete and veteran, recently joined the U.S. Paralympics Nordic Team at an on-snow camp in Sweden.
Poffenberger also works with three “emerging talent” adaptive skiers — those “who have tried nordic skiing on several occasions and show promise, interest in competition, and commitment to the sport,” he explained in an email.
In addition, he coaches about four or five junior-development skiers, athletes that “can sit ski for 10 to 15 k in a session,” Gusev said. “Andrew’s done an amazing job with them.”
“Ideally we would like to mirror the development structure of able-bodied skiing,” Poffenberger explained. “Possibly the most important component of that structure is youth development. If we expect to be competitive at the highest level, we need to start developing young athletes.”
Among their efforts: CXC has submitted a proposal to include adaptive nordic at the Wisconsin state meet.
“We are also seeking out coaches who are willing and able to coach adaptive nordic skiing at the high school level,” he added.
Last week, Poffenberger attended a conference with The United States Association of Blind Athletes at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.
“I love working with these athletes because they have perspective of the entire picture, and don’t let small things stand in their way,” he said, now in his second season with the team.
“I hope we can keep having more and more individuals like [Poffenberger and Keller] that get involved with a sport as a profession,” Gusev said. “They understand the way athletes move from one stage to another stage and it’s easier for them to communicate with athletes at the younger level what expectations are. That’s really the goal.”