Bozeman — Montana State University, which sits among snowy mountain ranges of Southwest Montana, once again has a Men's Cross-country Ski Team. It's been nearly two decades since the university competed in NCAA men's competition.
With the help of three new coaches — two from Norway — MSU skiers plan to storm their way through the collegiate ski season to the sound of “Heia, heia, heia,” a Norwegian cheer for “go, go, go.” The skiers intend to qualify for the NCAA championships to be held in March in Truckee, Calif.
“MSU has lacked a men's ski program for about two decades,” says new head coach Grethe-Lise Hagensen, a Norwegian racer and 1986 NCAA champion. She looks to the sky for new “sludd,” wet snow, to frost Bozeman ski trails.
MSU athletics dropped skiing in 1986. The university resurrected the Nordic team for women in 1993-94, yet coaches found difficulty in recruiting top women skiers without a men's program because team results are combined at NCAA ski meets.
“Skiing is a natural choice for MSU,” says Peter Hale, a Bozeman-based Madshus ski factory representative. “Few universities can offer a ski program where the racers can be on snow in early November. (Their first ski day was Nov. 3.)”
While storms shake groppel, sleet and “pudder,” powder, over the Northern Rockies, Hagensen plans tactics of low-altitude ski sprint sessions and high-altitude distance days — both trail elevations are a few minutes from campus. She has help from one of the top ski coaches in Norway, Nils-Fredrik Ronbeck, a professor of skiing and outdoor sport in Alta, Norway. He is spending a year's sabbatical at MSU and volunteering as ski coach.
“For Norwegians, skiing is our culture,” said Ronbeck who notes that the word “ski” is a Norwegian verb, noun and skill. “Skiing is our national sport, like football and baseball are in the U.S. In Norway, cross-country ski races are shown (prime time) on television. Children ski as soon as they can walk.”
The Sami people, also called the Reindeer People, used skies 10,000 years ago, he says. A Norwegian petroglyph cave drawing of skiers, approximately 5,000 years old, indicates that hunters traveled on skis. Centuries later as Norway became engulfed in civil war, it was the skiing army, the Birkebeiners, who saved the life of a young king in 1205 by skiing him to safety.
Because skiing knits and purls through the culture, Norway produces many Olympic gold medallists and World Cup victors.
American colleges recognize such talent. Traditionally, the collegiate ski powerhouses recruited heavily in Scandinavian countries. In fact, Hagensen was one of those NCAA recruits. She was Norwegian National Champion in 1979, a member of Norway's National Ski Team, NCAA All-American four times, and NCAA champion at Wyoming.
“It is a remarkable twist that MSU hired Hagensen and Ronbeck,” said Hale. “Often, universities hire coaches who recruit in Scandinavia because of such successful skiers. The undercurrent in parts of the U.S. ski community is to win instead of to blaze trails and to build strong American ski programs. American skiers were traditionally not fast enough to win NCAA championships, but that's changing rapidly. So, it is like the exposure to Canadian hockey a few decades ago in U.S. college hockey. The exposure to very skilled Canadian players helped American hockey to success.”
All nine MSU skiers are from the U.S. — Alaska, California, Maine, Montana, Oregon and Washington. Hagensen continues to recruit domestically. She doesn't have to look too far.
“When I found out that Montana State would have a men's team, I didn't look anywhere else for a college,” said Travis Hansen, a freshman from West Yellowstone who placed second at last year's junior nationals as a high school competitor. “Because we have early snow, we luckily have a head start over most college teams. And Grethe started dry-land practice fitness training with ski-specific workouts like 'spenst,' Norwegian for 'bounce,' the explosive jumps that result in more powerful skiing.”
The team learns other Norwegian words, too. “Luck,” is “flaks,” and it is “flaks” that played a part in forming the coaching staff.
After spending last winter in Bozeman and racing on her own, Hagensen applied for an assistant coaching position.
“When I left for summer holiday, I knew that I would be the assistant ski coach,” said Hagensen. “When I returned to Bozeman in August, the head coach had taken a job elsewhere, and I became head coach.”
During a summer visit to her hometown Tromso, 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle, she met Ronbeck.
“Nils and his wife had been corresponding with an English professor at MSU regarding a year-long sabbatical,” said Hagensen. “Nils holds Norway's highest coaching credentials possible. His research on equipment is nationally recognized in Norway.”
Meanwhile, another experienced coach, Nathan Alsobrook, visited Bozeman en route to graduate school in Michigan. Aware that he had assisted former Olympic Coach Marty Hall, the Bozeman ski community lassoed Alsobrook into applying for an assistant coach position and attending graduate school at MSU.
“We have good energy on the team and among the coaches,” says 22-year-old Emily Robins, who qualified for the NCAA nationals last year. “The coaches balance each other out. Grethe is very competitive, very direct. Last summer, she beat me, in fact was overall winner, in the John Colter Run. Then I beat her in the Tour d' Hylite, another local running race. She is good-humored about everything she does.”
With a bit of flaks, some sludd and pudder, the Bobcat skiers kick and glide their way through the seven-race-long collegiate season. Their first event, their own Bobcats Christmas Pole on Dec. 13, will test their flaks. Along the way, they will hear plenty of “Heia, heia, heia.”
For more information on the Bobcats Ski Team and the Bobcats Christmas Pole fund-raiser race, contact the MSU Ski office at (406) 994-4118.