Part 3 – European Campaign

FasterSkierApril 4, 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 <
Recipient of only five star reviews at <
(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.

Part Three is below, Part One is here Part Two is here.

European Campaign ‘03.

Our European Campaign began in Rumford, Maine – at the US National Championships.
And God bless the people of Rumford, Maine. There is no more enthusiasm for
putting on a ski race anywhere else in the world. They do it right in Rumford.
After the races Carl Swenson, who grew up just over the border in New Hampshire,
gave a speech to the volunteers who were gathered at the Eagles club to celebrate
the successful race series. Carl told them how he had been coming to Rumford
since the early 80’s to ski race. He told them that without them he would
not be a ski racer, for without them and people like them, there would be no
ski races. He told them how much he had gotten from ski racing, and how much
their efforts meant to his life, and to the lives of ski racers all over the
country. And paused then to look around the room… and then he told these
people, thank you. Thank you. And the room was silent as grown men and women
held back real tears, and then after some period of indeterminate time the room
erupted in applause and cheers, and Carl sat back down, his hat in his hand.

Carl’s speech is one of the most sincere and genuinely excellent things
I have ever seen.
Wendy Wagner put a lot of emphasis on US Nationals in 2002, and she won both
classical races by more than half a minute each. She raced not just to win but
to dominate, and this attitude shone on her face and in her posture all week.
Kris Freeman, likewise was there to win some races, and did. What Kris didn’t
win, Carl did. All the while though, I couldn’t help wonder how fast are
we really? We would find out soon.

Another thing that stands out from Nationals is the continued rise of Justin
Freeman. Several years back he won the first race of the year, and people said
it was a fluke. The next year he won a few of the early season races, and people
said he was a typical Thanksgiving Turkey. The following year, he did well in
races right through December and people said, Christmas Star. This year Justin
skied fast from November right through Nationals and made the World Championship
team. I don’t know what people are saying, but I say he is the real thing.
From the final races at US Nationals, the national team flew directly to Europe.
I drove up to Quebec to coach a Continental Cup. Most the team went directly
to Nove Mesto, Czech Republic. Results were a tad slow in coming, but there
were flashes of hope, and to get the ball rolling, flashes are often enough.

I flew over to Europe with a large portion of the World Championship team and
Under-23 World Team. It was a good long flight, but Trond would be there upon
our arrival and we would zip to Davos, Switzerland, where the skiing was wonderful
and life was grand. Five hours after arriving, no Trond. An incredible snowstorm
was covering most of central Europe, and the roads were nearly impassable. When
Trond did arrive I had all the vans rented, and we departed Munich in a frenzy
through lightly falling snow. We inevitably split up on the Autobahn but kept
cruising south toward Switzerland. The snow came heavier and heavier, and our
pace slower and slower. It got dark. We had no map. Lars Flora and Dave Chamberlain
were taking turns driving one van; I was driving another. The two vans of us
were alone together and lost. We got directions at a train station and continued
through the storm. I knew I had bad tires and I was sure the other van had bad
tires, and this became very clear as soon as we started climbing. The roads
were covered in heavy wet snow and it was coming down hard. I nursed my rig
along, slipping and sliding around until I could go no further. Everyone leapt
from the vans to help. It was awesome, as a team we hooked the vans up with
chains, in the dark, on the side of a mountain, in a heavy snowstorm. The chains
came with the rental vans – rental chains are not good. One of mine was
broken right out of the box. We decided to try with one chain, and so up we
went, limping along with one-wheel drive. This worked but was slow. I decided
to put all the athletes in the other van, which had good traction, and just
make my way along alone. At one point I became cocky. I was only 15km from Davos,
the climb was steady but not steep, I had one wheel drive, but was making progress,
I picked up a hitchhiker. Man, was he sorry he got in with me. It was nearing
midnight. The snow was coming down through the headlights, the wipers were on
fast and clacked ineffectually like lobster claws across the frozen windshield,
the van was barely moving, I had been traveling for… for how long now
since I left the US? More than a day ago? Two? I didn’t know.

The road went around a bend and suddenly got very steep. I pressed the accelerator
and we lurched forward. I smiled at him, no problem my friend, up we go. Then:
wham, wham, wham, wham… what the hell is that? He is looking at me now,
concerned. This is a steep road, cliff on both sides, one a wall up the other
a wall down, into the dark. I have no idea what that rhythmic whamming sound
is. Oh, it’s the chain. Then the sound stopped. Good. No. Bad. The chain
has come off. We are not going forward any more. We are going backwards, back
down the hill, backwards, I am in gear the wheels are turning forwards, but
we are going backwards. I spin the wheel and the front of the van whirls around,
we are now pointed back down the hill, frontward. My passenger’s concern
is growing rapidly. I have no time for concern. I know we are not going to make
it down this hill in one piece. I have no traction. There can be no breaking
now, or we will lose all control. I get the van in second gear, we slow slightly,
then into first and we fishtail, back into second… wait, wait, then into
first, our speed is slowed and in some sort of relative control. The big bend
at the bottom is looming, there is nothing to do but steer as gently as possible,
will the thing around, and it works. We come to a stop and my passenger, we
are right where I picked him up, jumps out, is gone into the night. It is many
hours later that Trond and I get all the vans up to the Hotel. Welcome to Europe.
I consider myself officially initiated and also embarrassingly wet behind the
ears. There is much to learn.

For the next day, in Davos, all over central Europe actually, the snow falls
off the mountains in huge booming avalanches. People are buried, houses are
buried, cars… Trond and Andrew witness three people swept away. They call
the police. I have time to take a photo of another avalanche that swoops down
into a valley and a quarter of the way up the other side. The storm clears,
but many of the ski trails are still closed due to avalanche danger, still there
is plenty of skiing yet to be had in Davos.


This is the final period of preparation before the World U-23 games. Kris Freeman
can win. This is something we have talked about. We think he can podium…
on paper that is our goal. But we know he can win, and so does he.

Training is highly individual. Carl likes to put in hours. He likes to go hard.
He took a train, by himself, to a distant valley, just to do a race they had
there. He came home with a plaque for first. Those who have been here only a
few days feel their way through some intervals. Those who have been here longer
go ahead and pound them out. Everyone does a fair amount of distance skiing
at an easy pace, and even some core strength. The worst thing to do is sit around;
the second worse thing is to go too fast. It is best to be very active, but
attentive to pace.

Kris Freeman has a system. It is Kris Freeman’s system and it works for
him. He trains, gets a massage and then he rests, and then he trains again,
and he eats a hell of a lot – and if he does the things he thinks he needs
to do to race his best – then he knows he is ready.The drive to Bormio,
Italy is uneventful and beautiful. It cuts over gleaming, white mountain passes,
and winds along valleys full of grape vines and old stone homes. There is no
snow in Bormio, but the ski area is a 15-minute drive up narrow cobbled streets,
lined right to the road with exhaust-gray buildings. Up high there is snow,
but only on the north-facing slope – where the racecourse is. The course
is a 3.3km loop. One long steep hill, two shorter hills one of which is steep,
the other more gradual. It is a hard course – perfect for Kris. Conditions
are hard packed man-made snow. Skies are clear and it is cold at night and warm
during the day. The skiing is perfect, the country is beautiful; the food is
delicious. I eat too much, but am able to ski it off everyday testing skis and
wax. It is good to be coach.

Kikkan Randall in the U23 Pursuit

We actually have several potential medallists. We have Kikkan Randall, who has
unfortunately suffered illness after illness early in the season, but who is
an incredible talent and a potential medallist at U-23’s. We have Kristina
Trygstad-Saari, who was 6th at Junior Worlds the previous year, and a Continental
Cup winner earlier this season. We have Leif Zimmerman, who is a rising talent.
We have Torin Koos who is a definite contender in the sprint. We have Andrew
Newell who has proven himself to be the fastest sprint prelim racer in the country
this year. Andy had the second fastest sprint prelim time at Junior Worlds this
season and finished 7th there behind two of his US teammates – including
Leif. There are others who are fast, but not yet fast enough – for now
I won’t list them. They are skiers who will rise with time and training.
I believe in them, and we have patience for them. This is a strong team. Chris
Grover, Development Coach, has just come in from Junior World’s and is
in charge of the team.

The training has been done.

Ethan Foster at U23 Games

In the women’s race Erinn Whitmer puts in a startling performance. It
is only her third year racing and she gets off to a slow start, but moves up
steadily through the field. She is an up and coming star for sure. Our other
up and coming stars do not shine as brightly as they are able to, but that is
ski racing. There will be ups and downs. But, if they keep putting in the work,
we will see them through. The important thing is not to lose confidence, and
to accept setbacks as a tool to improvement.

In the Men’s race I watch as Kris comes by on an early lap looking relaxed.
It is a mass start event. He is sitting in the top five, looking almost bored.
"Looks Good Kris…" what else can I say? Then there is static
on the radio, excited shouts. Freeman has ten seconds on the lead group. He
comes by me alone. Should I keep going? He asks. Yes. Hell yes. He never looks
back. The race from that point on is entirely for second place.

Kris Freeman takes charge

I knew you could do it, I told him, but I didn’t know you could do it
like that. Me either, he said.
We are on the top step of the podium at a World Championship event. That has
never happened before.

In the Men’s pursuit (skiathlom) we are too confident. I don’t think
that has ever happened before either. We expect Kris to ski away to victory.
He goes to the front and the race breaks apart, but he can’t shake a few
guys, and when he is passed…ah well, Kris gets fourth. We have learned
something more. It is possible to be too confident, as far as I know we’d
never tried over-confidence before.

Driving in Europe under slightly less perilous snow conditions

Down to Ziano and Val DiFiemme, site of the 2003 World Championships. The beautiful,
clear sunny weather holds. The snow is the same as in Bormio; we are flying
high. I have fallen in love with crème custard desert, like crème
brulee without the burned sugar on top. It is thick and creamy and vanillaey.
In Italy, it is good to be coach.

Ahh, Italy

We are under armed guard in here at the Worlds. We are watched over by the Carabiniere,
Italy’s national police. There are five or six of them in our hotel lobby
watching television, or pretending to watch television, at all times. They are
undoubtedly on guard, attentive in spite of their attempts to deceive us with
their ultra relaxed postures and sleepy demeanor. They have one machine gun
between the six of them and it sits on the coach behind them, not less than
ten feet away. They appear to be fixated on some sort of song and dance show
featuring an assortment of unbelievably beautiful women dressed in shards of
silk. But I am not fooled. Make one move toward that gun and…man, it is
over. One night they actually let us handle their machine gun. They removed
the magazine, so it was unloaded, but still. It wasn’t so long ago we
wetted our thirst for firearms at "Awesome Guns," in Salt Lake. I
am crazy for this sort of thing.
They escort us from our hotel to the race site. We drive at top speed as if
the police escort gives us the right. This is a game they show very little interest
in, but which I feel helps keep them sharp, which could be important as I am
beginning to doubt that they are as on guard as I suspected. But neither am
I. The first day, I was completely unaware that they were going to escort us
everywhere we went. I left the hotel in a van and was most of the way to the
race site when I saw them in the rearview mirror, lights flashing. Damn, I pulled
over. They came up beside me looking at me like I was an idiot, and started
shrugging their shoulders at me, as if to say, "eh? what’s up?"
I went on my way only a little embarrassed.

We have a very talented group of women athletes. It was frustrating to see them
not at their best at Worlds. None of them raced with the same intensity or spark
they had a month before in the US. The talent is still there and there are seasons
to come and work to do to actualize it. In cross-country ski racing patience
is important. But it is never fun getting your butt kicked.
The younger and less experienced members of the men’s team faltered as
well. Even our veteran suffered – Justin Wadsworth never regained his
health and struggled… these were potentially low times, but team cohesion
policy number four includes the statement: "Leave bad races at the venue.
Learn and move on."

Women's sprint at Worlds

We did. The mood stayed positive. I can tell you from years past that this has
not always been the case on the US team. We could spiral from bad to worse so
fast it’d leave your head spinning, and there was no returning from those

The day of the 15km classical rolled around. Wax testing was the duty of Knut
Nystad, Trond’s brother (who was a volunteer) and I. Early in the morning
we were out on the course. I had perfect kick. On the descents I felt no drag.
We knew we had good skis.

With the wax testing done, Knut and I went out to our split station. At the
first split, we had Kris in second place. This we didn’t say over the
radio, but instead rechecked our figures. Then it came over the radio…
hey, we have Kris in second place. So do we, so do we, and all hell broke loose.

Axel Teichmann was winning, Kris was second. Axel has a very upright style that,
like Alsgaard’s technique, belies the speed he’s going. Kris is
a little bit the same; he seems too relaxed to be going so fast, and he skis
a bit upright. It is good technique, not textbook, not Oddvar Bra, not Scandinavian,
and not perfect, but it is very good. It is very effective, allows for the skiers
weight to be right over the ski’s kick pocket, it allows the hips to stay
in a very high, forward position. It is especially good on steep terrain –
like there is in Val DiFiemme. For too long American’s have measured the
quality of technique by comparing it to that of the Scandinavian model –
and this is a very good model, but it is not the only model. Skiers like Maurillio
De Zolt were considered freaks, rather than technical innovators. It is a fact
that one of De Zolt’s contemporaries, and one rightly considered a technical
master, Torgny Mogren, tried to learn as much as he could from De Zolt about
technique. While we laughed at De Zolt and praised Mogren, Mogren was trying
to ski faster by learning from De Zolt.

While I have never trained with De Zolt, I have trained with Torgny, and it
could very well be that it is Torgny who is the mutant.

Similarly when Axel won Junior Worlds several years back, many in the States
pointed to his technique and drew the conclusion that he must be a mutant or
a doper to ski fast in that style. There is a lot to learn from people who go
fast, but who don’t ski the way we want to see them ski. There is no point
in thinking someone a mutant because they ski in a different style. Let me tell
you, they are all mutants, and while we can learn from all of them, we must
also do our own work or risk being in a constant position of catching up.

On the national team we try to correct blatant technique faults, which for many
skiers means a lot of work, but beyond that we try only to add to a skier’s
technique repertoire. There are many ways to go fast, and it is our job to help
our skiers find their way, not just adopt our way. Carl Swenson is a good example
of this. Carl has a remarkable style. It is very leg-centric, which makes sense
as he is a pro mountain biker and has some of the strongest legs in all of skiing.
His technique is not textbook, but it is undeniably very good. To his technique,
Trond and I hope to add a few elements that will enable him to go even faster.
We don’t want to change him; we want to add to what he can already do.

With some of the Development athletes, this is not yet the case. Their techniques
are flawed in basic ways – often simply related to strength, application
of strength and tempo. Chris Grover is a master of teaching body position. This
is one great gift he has given Kris Freeman and Andrew Johnson. They both ski
with their hips forward, their weight over their feet – in good basic
position. They have things to work on from there, even with body position, but
they are one great step ahead of most.

Andrew Johnson in the pursuit

Kris Freeman came up the hill toward Knut and I for the last time in the 15km
at Worlds still in the top three. He had 4km to go. We screamed his splits to
him. The other coaches parted as we ran by yelling, Knut up the first part of
the hill, then me up the second.

Kris was going all-out hard, but he was relaxed, his face was relaxed. Skiing
is the repetitive act of applying power quickly and then relaxing. Relaxing
is key to maintaining a quick, dynamic application of power over the long haul,
or even the short haul. Regardless of tempo there is a phase of relaxation in
each stroke. Some elite skiers give the impression of only relaxation; some
of only power, but they all combine both.

With Kris past us, the results were well out of our hands. All we could do was
stand by and wait.

So close! Forth place. For a second it was almost disappointing, we missed the
medal, and then, FOURTH PLACE! Hell yeah!

In the Women’s skiathlom Wendy Wagner was in there. She looked her old
self. She cruised along just back of the leader, right in the main field. I
was psyched. She came apart in the skate portion… but there was that glimmer,
and we will take that into next season. We believe in Wendy. She has good races
ahead of her.

Wendy Wagner (middle right in white, red, blue) at World Championships

One thing was very notable, and it must be said that our women were not in their
best form for these races, but there is an intensity on the faces and in the
movements, and an aggressive energy in the style of the women who are winning
these races that we lacked at these championships not just on the women’s
side but among the younger men as well. We are developing a plan to address
this, but for now it is simply worth noting.

In the men’s skiathlom we had two potential winners miss medals by seconds.
The biggest surprise for me was Carl Swenson who classical skied among the best
in the world and came into the exchange with the leaders, not a second behind,
but with them. Also among the leaders was Kris Freeman – this after the
15km was not a surprise. Amazing how easily we slipped into expecting great
things. Two Americans starting the skate leg in the lead pack, in the top ten,
in the top five, and out on the course we are telling them they can win this
With my hand full of spare poles and my emergency feed for Kris I ran from point
to point, and each time there they were… Per Elofsson, Kris Freeman, Carl
Swenson all fighting for the win.
Their eventual places 11th and 14th were misleading. They were right there,
feet behind Per as he crossed the line for the win.

We were in there, man! We can win these things. We said that all summer, we
talked about it all fall…we said we believed it, and we did and do, but
now we can see that it is true. We are close.

The steps won’t be any easier from here on out. If anything they’ll
be harder, more precise. But for now it is good to be close, finally.

It is good to be close, but it is just a start. I watched Johnny Spillane take
gold. It was so sweet to see. I can’t wait to see our skiers do it to.

One of the most impressive races at the World Championships was skied by Andy
Newell. The Worlds sprint course included two tough climbs and a long straight
run to the finish. Newell busted from the start and made up five second on the
skier who started before him by the top of the first hill. He looked fast, lithe
and quick, and he was going as fast as he looked. At 600 meters Andy Newell
had the best time – of anyone in the race. Coming down the long home stretch
it looked like he was suffering, like a sled dog straining at a heavy load alone.
He was fighting a strong, invisible force and was loosing the fight. At the
finish he stood bent over, absolutely still. "Andy," I asked, "are
you OK?" He didn’t answer. He looked really bad, really bad. I started
to get a little nervous. "Andy, seriously are you OK?"

"No…" he was grimacing, "I can’t move." And
then he moved, from the inside out…I took a step back.

Andy Newell gave it everything he had. That guy will be back.

Torin Koos seemed to be coming into his own. In intervals he looked the same
strong, powerful skier he was all summer and into the fall. And he was in a
good place, seeming to have a good time, but his fitness had been on the decline
prior to Nationals and he didn’t have the same spark at World U-23 games
though he did qualify for the rounds, and raced fast only to be nipped at the
finish. Prior to Worlds Torin had not been feeling the love, and to me it seemed
he finally was starting to feel it again.

In the sprint he finished just behind Newell who, though off to a fast start,
faded badly at the end. We hoped for better, Torin hoped for better, but we
hoped for better because we believe in Torin. Torin can fly. I have seen it.
He’ll be back, and this year he will be out of school, so we’ll
be able to work with him on a consistent basis, rather than just once in a while.
I’m looking forward to it.

Continued In Part Four


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