On Monday, January 6, I stood in the stadium at Black Mountain in Rumford, Maine looking over the results from the day’s 10K Freestyle race at US Nationals. I had finished 59th. And even though the last time we had Nationals in Rumford (1999) I had finished 4th, 6th, 6th and 10th in the races, I was not upset about my 59th place. In fact, I was feeling pretty good about my day, until
I noticed that the nice people at the Chisholm Ski Club had put everybody’s year of birth next to their name. I noticed that I was surrounded on the results sheet by people with years like 84 and 86. The â€˜74 next to my name began to look ancient. Heck, I remember having a t-shirt that said “Walt Disney World ’84.” People I know weren’t BORN that year, they were learning how to deal with a new thing called homework. And as I looked the results sheet up and down for some sign of older life, it hit me: There were only four people in the entire race older than me. A wave of shock, and a wave of depression, both hit me at the same time and almost made me fall over in the icy snow as I stood there in my ski boots. How did this happen? At what point did I crest the hill and start heading over the other side? And why wasn’t I notified about it?
I was fine with finishing back in the pack. After last season I was feeling burnt out, my body was beginning to feel the abuse of 10 years of hard training, and mentally I had lost the desire to push my body any further. So I took a break. I stayed in shape over the summer months by running and biking, and even throwing in the occasional rollerski session, but I kept the focus on having fun. I never did intervals and only did a couple of running races. The fact that we didn’t get snow in my neck of the woods until mid-December did not help my preparation for the ski season either. Through all of that I knew I wanted to do some races this winter. But instead of hitting the trails with all guns blazing in November, I planned on skiing myself into shape in time for the races in February and March.
I figured that Nationals would be a good chance for me to jump start my season, a sort of trial by fire. And though I will never enjoy seeing the number 59 next to my name on a results sheet, I was happy with the way I had skied in my first skate race of the year and I knew I would do better with every subsequent race. But I didn’t count on feeling so old.
I am 28. As I was growing up, all of the ski coaches preached that it took years and years to become an elite ski racer. “The best in the world are 30 years old,” they all said. “It takes years and years to build up the body in order to become a top cross country skier.”
So I should just be reaching my prime now. If that is true, that I am on the young end of my prime as a cross country skier, then why, in a race of 216 of the best male skiers in the country, am I older than 211 of them? Where are the rest of the skiers in their prime? Why has US Nationals turned into, in the words of another “over the hill” racer at Nationals this year, “Junior Nationals”?
The answer, I think is two-fold. First, lack of support for skiers who are beyond their college years. Second, a tremendous increase in the quality and quantity of junior racers in the past few years.
On the subject of support for twenty-something skiers, I will not harp on it for too long. It is a subject on which I am fairly bitter and I have already said plenty about it on my personal website. But it basically works out like this. In recent history, the only skiers who were able to train and race more than a few years beyond college are those who have the support of the US Ski Team. For the rest of us, sooner or later we have to give it up due to financial reasons or because we are spreading ourselves too thin between work and training. Once in a while an exception will come along who defies the odds and continually improves, getting his best results after years and years of hard work. Patrick Weaver comes to mind. He did not make his first Olympic Team until he was 28 and recently made his second at age 32. Justin Freeman also appears to be doing the same. He is having his best season ever, five years after leaving the Bates College ski team behind. But for every Patrick or Justin, there are tens of other people who had to give up the dream and move on. Not because they wanted to, but because it was impossible for them to continue alone.
The good news is that this pattern appears to be changing. The new US Ski Team coaching staff appears committed to helping skiers of all ages. Sure most of the money is going towards young, promising talent (no argument against that), but they are more than willing to let others join the training camps, or talk over training plans with anyone who asks. This is a huge step forward. The emergence of training programs around the country with substantial funding is probably an even bigger step. Programs like the Alaska Pacific Nordic Ski Team, the Northern Michigan University Training Center, and the Maine Winter Sports Center are the best options that US Skiers have arguably ever had. Even the recent emergence of factory racing teams has led to increased support for Senior skiers. These are all positive trends which, if continually supported and expanded, will help ensure that today’s juniors will still be racing in 10 years.
The increase in junior racing is a phenomenon in and of itself. When I was a freshman in college I attended my first—ever US National in Rumford, Maine (1993). As I remember, there were about 80-100 men racing, and I was one of the youngest. The only juniors who showed up were those who lived within driving distance or those who had a legitimate chance of making the World Junior Team. The rest of the field consisted of the 40 or so elite seniors who were full time racers. Now, the dynamics have changed dramatically. The number of elite seniors has dropped (see point above), but the number of juniors who are attending the top races has exploded. Each year, the Nationals is setting records for the most skiers, and the increase is exclusively in the junior ranks. This is a great trend that started because of two factors that came together at just the right time: increased coaching support and outstanding results from the top juniors. Obviously with junior skiers, coaches deserve much of the credit for all of the tireless work that they do. If it wasn’t for the coaches in places like Sun Valley, Anchorage, Bozeman, Minneapolis, and every other ski town from Presque Isle to Fairbanks, there would be no ski community at all. And these programs have begun to increase in presence due to the high quality of junior coaches that this country now enjoys.
But perhaps the critical factor, which quite possibly comes as a direct result of better junior coaching, is the recent dramatic improvement in the results of our top juniors. At the risk of sticking my neck out, the skier who I think deserves a lot of credit for this is Rob Whitney. Six or seven years ago, we sent our top juniors to World Juniors as sacrificial lambs to be slaughtered by the skiers from Norway and Germany who were already earning World Cup points. Then, in 1998, that all changed. A kid named Rob Whitney showed up and stunned the Europeans, and most Americans, by finishing 8thin the 30K classic at World Juniors. The next year he went back and finished 7th. It was huge. In addition, Rob went to US Nationals and proved that junior skiers did not have to take a back seat to US seniors. They could march into Senior Nationals and compete with the best of them. Juniors around the country took notice. Instead of aiming to make World Juniors, they started to think about placing in the top ten at WJ. Instead of trying to finish within 10 percent back at Senior Nationals, they started to think about reaching the podium. It was at that point that older skiers like me, were doomed. The best of the seniors, like Justin Wadsworth, Nina Kemppel, and Carl Swenson, had to take their own game to another level just to stay a step ahead. The rest of us were quickly swallowed up. The kids had found the keys to the castle and were about to take over.
Since then, young skiers like Kris Freeman, Rebecca Quinn, Kikkan Randall and Andrew Newell have been posting terrific results. And now, even more juniors are feeding off of their success. It seems like each year, the US Ski Team says that it has “the best World Juniors showing ever.” The dam separating the top juniors from the top seniors in this country has been broken and the flood of fast junior skiers has begun.
The key now is to make sure that these skiers continue to receive support — and not just the top 3 or 4 of them. For every Kris Freeman, who has been a star since his J2 days, there is also a Justin Freeman who takes a few years longer to reach the top (they aren’t always siblings). Skiers really do need ten years to reach the top — the problem is that right now not many can stick it out that long. We need to develop more programs for elite skiers after they leave college, so that they don’t feel like they are struggling on their own. We need more feedback from the US Ski Team for these skiers, so they know how to get from where they are today, to the top of the international podium tomorrow. We need a comprehensive support plan so that all skier and athletes are on the same page and have a road map for success.
As I found out by staring at a results sheet in Rumford, there is now a huge void left by 26 year olds and up, but that void is quickly being filled by the next generation. Lets hope that they all get the support they need to keep US Skiing moving forward. We have an amazing group of young skiers in this country right now. Our goal should be to make sure they are all still skiing in ten years.