A tale of the US Ski Team’s 02-03 Season – Part 1

FasterSkierApril 2, 2003

Pete Vordenberg is the Assistant Coach of the US Ski Team. He is the author of Momentum: Chasing the Olympic Dream, available now at <www.outyourbackdoor.com. Recipient of only five star reviews at <www.Amazon.com
(type in “Vordenberg”). Ask for it at your local ski or book shop.

We are very excited to bring you this look at Pete's year with the U.S. Ski Team. Initially we planned to post Pete's story as one article, but it is so in-depth and fascinating that we will post it in 3-4 sections, one a day for the next few days. Check back each day for more.

I first met Trond Nystad in Norway in 1993. We had raced each other the previous
season at the NCAA Championships but did not meet. He beat me at that Championship,
which I considered a fluke, and he likely considered status quo. In Oslo, where
we met, we did not say as much, but like dogs meeting for the first time at
the ends of their leashes, we would have tangled if given the chance –
just to see who was tougher.

Later we were teammates on the Factory Team, and there became friends. We trained,
traveled and raced together all over the US for a few seasons. Train, Travel
and Race with someone and you come to either respect them… or not, to
like them, or not.

Over the next five years I came to both like and respect Trond. We were competitors
first and friends finally. And this is important, because I have just spent
the past two months with Trond in such close quarters as to be literally living
out of the same suitcase, and before these past two months, the two months prior
to that, and before that, save for a few blessed weeks around Christmas, we
have been together nonstop since June when he hired me as his assistant.

Trond is the head coach of the US Cross-Country Ski Team. I am the assistant
coach. Our boss, the man who hired Trond and, at Trond’s request, me is
Luke Bodensteiner. Luke is a man who if we were dogs I would hope was restrained
by a strong leash, a heavy chain, for there is no hope tangling with Luke. Luke
is in the captain’s chair. He is the man who would go down with the ship
if it were sinking, and he is the reason it is not sinking. He is bulletproof
– the target of many ski snipers. I know. I have shot at Luke. I still
shoot at Luke – though these days more constructively.

This is the tale of Trond and my first year with the team as coaches, the tale
of the US Ski Team’s 02-03 season. It is told from my perspective and
my perspective alone – not necessarily that of the US Ski Team or anyone
else connected to it. There are stories and some detailed info on our training
and technique as well as racing, travel and life on the road… enjoy.

Trond gathered the troops for the first time in mid-June. Park City, Utah was
ninety-five degrees. It was one-ten in Salt Lake. We sat together for the first
time as a group, sweating. There is Chris Grover, Development Coach. He is the
man behind Kris Freeman and Andrew Johnson’s rise from the top of the
junior to the top of the senior ranks. Chris has helped revolutionize how we
train strength and how we teach and understand technique in the US. There is
Chris Hall, our wax and ski man, Katie Gould, our manager. There is Luke and
Trond, and me.

There is Justin Wadsworth, the oldest member of our team, staff included. Justin
was racing in his first world championships in 1989 while I still had a year
of high school left. Carl Swenson is the second oldest member of the team, staff
included. Carl, Luke and I raced each other as juniors – we go way back.

Justin, Carl, Luke and I were teammates together on the US Team ten years ago.
We had ideas on what could be better – a lot of ideas.

There is Wendy Wagner, our only woman on the National Team. I have known her
since she was a star at Western State College. In 1997 we took a trip together
to race a series of races in Northern Sweden. That is what a lot of people don’t
know or understand. These racers have been at this a long time. Long before
you ever heard of them they were training and racing and paying their own way
to race four times a week and ride around places like Northern Sweden in an
over-crowded van dreaming of one day being fast enough to win medals.

Even among the youngest athletes on the team there are no spring chickens, no
over night successes. Believe that.

Just because the first time you ever heard of Torin Koos was at the 2001 pre-Olympics
doesn’t mean he rolled off the hay wagon that morning. Torin Koos can
run a mile in four-minutes and five seconds. He spent his youth panting around
the oval and skiing in the North West’s sloppy excuse for snow, and these
things he has done a lot. And he is the youngest on the team, the one with the
least amount of training behind him.

The next youngest is Kris Freeman. Kris trains close to 800 hours a year, and
has for several years. So has the next youngest, Andrew Johnson. Kris and Andrew
can be grouped together because they are the first skiers to come from the new
school of thought in US Skiing. It is more of a hands-on approach. They have
lived and trained together under the guidance of Chris Grover, and now Trond
and I, for three years – year round. They were good to start with and
they got better.

Kris Freeman, first place, at U23 Games

This year Kris won the World Under-23 Championships, the 30km, by a minute forty-five.
He was fourth in the 15km at the regular World Championships, seconds from a
medal… feet from the gold. He was only seconds from the win in the Skiathlom
(running-pursuit) at the Worlds, and won the opening leg of the relay. He dominated
the opening leg of the World Championship relay. Damn.

Carl Swenson took fifth in the 50km, was a second closer to a medal than Kris
in the Skiathlom, and had the fifth fastest relay time. Damn. That is fast.
That is Koch fast, or almost.
New Koch! Coming soon!

Carl Swenson, second from right, 5th place at Worlds

Our first task that sweaty June was to create a team. This task took priority
over all others – over training, over results. Over everything becoming
a cohesive team was the number one priority. Together we could succeed in an
atmosphere of support, open communication, confidence and fun. To solidify this
notion we would jump, as a team bonding exercise, from a 440 foot cable car
toward a shallow rocky river below… but that is later.

Cohesion is not so tangible as medals. How do you measure its success? By medals?
No, for, though not likely, you can win without it and you can fail in spite
of it. I measure it in hindsight. It was not a total success. There are yet
bugs in the system. We have more work to do. But it was a big success. I know
this because as I write this I am on my way home on a plane from a long stint
traveling and racing in Europe with the same small group of people, which followed
on the heals of a long stint in Maine, which followed a long stint on the road
all over the Western US, Fairbanks, Alaska and Canada which followed a long
stint training and coaching in Utah and New Zealand all with the same small
group of people – and even after all this I don’t want to kill any
of them. That is success. We have communicated well, we have talked through
the difficult situations that have and will inevitably arise. And we are all
in one piece. I’ll call it a good start.

Kris Freeman, first place, at U23 Games

"Yo homes! How’s it hanging?" Is Trond’s patent greeting.
It is July and team training has begun in earnest. Team training, not training.
The athletes have been training since their last race last April. In July we
start official team training. We train together at least once a day, more often
twice a day.

A typical July day we meet at the ski team office at eight. The skiers are there
at seven fifty-five. "Five minutes early" is team cohesion policy
number seven. There are fifteen policies. The athletes came up with them.

"Yo homes, how’s it hanging?" Say’s Trond.

"You’re late, man," says Andrew – smiling. It is eight,
but as we are not early, we are late. Communicating openly and in a timely manner
is cohesion policy number three. We operate by these policies.

We load in the van and depart for training at roughly twenty times the appropriate
speed. We came together easily, fell into our routine as if it were habit, and
it is habit. At the start of the rollerski road the skiers pile from the van,
pull poles and skis out behind them and in pairs, singles and small groups (the
Development team is training with us too) start off down the road.

Today Trond stays in the van and drives. I get out and ski with Wendy and Aelin
Peterson who trained with us much of the summer. Trond zooms ahead, stops and
takes video. He stops skiers, offers some technique advice, takes some lactate
measurements to make sure everyone is going the right pace, jumps in the van
and zooms ahead again. I offer a few technique suggestions to Wendy and Aelin
as we ski, watch them, see what I think they could do better. Being open to
constructive criticism is policy number eight – Wendy and Aelin play with
my suggestions, make adaptations, feel for themselves what works.

Some days I drive, take video and lactate measurements and Trond skis. Sometimes
Chris Grover drives. We have to trade off, or we’d die from the training.
We are ex-racers all of us. The Italian National Team is coached by an ex-racer;
the German National Team is coached by an ex-racer. The Norwegian team’s
coaching staff is full of ex-racers, as is the Swedish staff… It is likely
we all had ideas on how it could be done better. Now we have the chance to do
After the rollerski we return to the Ski Team office, the athletes go home,
or head to El Chubasco for lunch. El Chubasco is awesome.

A typical morning distance session is two hours. We do it in level 1; only on
a few hard climbs do they hit level 2. They move with snappy, powerful yet relaxed
technique even at this easy pace. They generally throw in sprints along the
way – just pick-ups of around ten seconds. Technique is always a focus.
Training is not social time. There is little conversation, save for the coaches
making suggestions. In training they focus on training. Anything else is just
going through the motions.

Midday there are projects for the coaches and rest for the skiers… most of
the skiers. Andrew Johnson heads to work at Home Depot in Salt Lake. It can
be a hundred and twenty on the asphalt down at the Depot in Salt Lake. Andrew
works inside. Skiers have a very hard time supporting themselves by skiing alone,
even on the national team.

Too much of our work this summer involved trying to find extra funding –
and without success. We can never do everything we want, but we tweak our budget
and ring it for all it is worth. There is much organizing and planning to do.
There are dates and locations to nail down and luckily we have Katie Gould to
help us or we’d never have made it. Also, we are trying to develop our
training program and trying to bring our sports science department into the
mix. Along with Grover we are working to come up with some better teaching tools
for our development efforts. For Trond and I, everyday is brand new. We are
fresh faced and new on the job and we are just finding things like the copy
machine, the coffee pot. The question is always the same, what can we do better,
what aren’t we doing, how do we win medals? How do we win medals? That
is our business.

Afternoon training starts at four. It’s a dry heat; this Park City afternoon
we run up a trail of soft, brown fluff. Our feet beat the dust into the air.
It sticks to our legs. We are brown with it when we reach the weight room after
a half hour jog and twenty minute session of plyometric jumping called spenst.

Spenst is hilarious. Picture a herd of skiers hopping like mad on one leg up
a dusty trail, in a cloud of foot-kicked dust, and then they walk down relaxed,
arms swinging loose, as if nothing happened, only to turn back around at the
bottom and repeat the uphill assault on the other leg. Each jump is maximal.
We do 10 jumps per leg, three times, times three exercises. And then we do some
bounding. All efforts are maximal – the idea is to develop explosive power.

The weight room is sparse for cross-country skiers. There are plenty of squat
racks, but not many dip bars. With the help of the strength staff we have devised
our own exercises and created a means to train the muscles we want to train
– we made our own dip bar. We believe in lifting heavy weights. We believe
in throwing the medicine ball at each other as hard as possible. The first time
I caught the medicine ball for Andrew Johnson I stood there ready to receive
a lame lob of a toss, and was literally knocked ten feet back by the 8kg ball
he launched straight at my head. I made a sound like, "guck!" and
was unable to toss the ball back to him at anything but an arching lob. The
next day my forearms were useless and sore from catching the medicine balls
rocketed at me.

Andrew Johnson can do three sets of five dips with 110lbs hanging from his waist.
Wendy Wagner can do three sets of five pull-ups with 40lbs hanging from her
waist. Kris Freeman can hoist 220 pounds into the air by a doublepole pulley
so fast and hard the whole machine trembles. Wadsworth’s stomach is a
grotesque xylophone of muscle. There is no messing around in the weight room.
While many programs in the US treat general strength as a side addition to training,
for us it is an integral part of the plan, of getting fast enough to win medals.
We did two main blocks of max strength training where in we did five exercises
three times each using weight so heavy it could only be lifted around five times
per set. We focused on weighted pull-ups and dips, a double-pole simulation
devised by Trond, and leg press – all using huge weight. In addition to
this we did an extensive routine of core strength – mostly tossing heavy
balls around using all the muscles of the stomach, hips and back. We also did
some rollerboard with the board canted as steeply as possible, so steep it was
frightening trying to mount the tipsy little seat. This routine we did three
times a week. The weight session was always proceeded by a run of half an hour
to an hour and once a week by the routine of spenst. Simple.

That is one day.

<Continue to Part Two


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