Survivor Passion: Skiing the Birkie a Real-World Antidote to Cancer

FasterSkierJanuary 15, 2004

HAYWARD, Wis. — She’s a survivor. A 71-year-old embarking on her <17th American Birkebeiner ski marathon slated Feb. 21, 2004. A tenacious woman who didn’t let a non-Hodgkins lymphoma beat her to the ground. A vivacious grandmother you’ll find doing snow angels with her six grandchildren. Her name: Barb Klippel.

Klippel, a retired kindergarten teacher from Hayward, Wisconsin, could challenge any of the participants in today’s reality television shows. But her survivor series — surviving cancer — is real world. She says training for America’s largest cross-country ski race helped her beat the disease.

Experiencing the power of fitness and recovery, Klippel set a new life goal: to complete 20 American Birkebeiner ski marathons.

Mind you, this is one tough race for folks of any age. 51 kilometers over hilly and challenging terrain. Weather conditions that range from blustery and frigid to warm and sunny. Race day ski tracks that may be blistering fast or painfully slow.

But the energy of the 6,500 other participants and 15,000 spectators has captured Klippel. She says she’s like all the younger skiers who experience “Birkie Fever” — the adrenaline rush and sense of personal accomplishment that comes from adding another Birkie bib and Birkie medal to her collection.

Her initial interest to ski the race was sparked in 1978 when Sheila Wise, wife of race founder Tony, asked why she wasn’t skiing the event.

The following year Klippel entered the 25 kilometer Kortelopet, the “half Birkie,” and completed her first ski race with three women companions. In 1980 she skied the Kortelopet with two of the women. When the third went on to ski the full race, Klippel decided to follow suit.

In 1981, Barb Klippel, at the ripe young age of 52, completed her first American Birkebeiner ski race. She was so enamored with the energy and excitement of the event that she skied the next three Birkies but was forced to the sidelines in 1985 with non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

“I had my best race in 1984, so I was in very good shape when I was diagnosed,” she said. “I started 1985 with cancer. I had chemo on Fridays, recovered over the weekend, and went back to work on Monday.”

During that seven months of treatment, Klippel remained active. In August she even finished the Firehouse 50 mile bike race sans hair. Her recovery and attitude was so remarkable that she was asked to speak to a group of doctors, nurses, and cancer patients at Cancer Survivor's Day in Duluth. That the session about conquering the disease was taped was an honor to this teacher always wanting to help others learn and grow.

“Having cancer is very serious, but I was in shape because I skied the Birkie,” Klippel said. “I was sick but my body was ready to fight the cancer. I had a supportive family and friends, church, colleagues. I also had the Birkie.”

By 1986 Klippel was back in the training groove, and the race continued to play a lead role in her life.

“I always said I loved tennis and that I skied and biked to be a better tennis player,” she said. “”Then I said I skied to help my biking. In the end, everything helped my skiing.”

Klippel retired from the kindergarten classroom eight years ago but didn’t leave her students far behind. Each summer she participates in a one-month summer teaching program through the Wisconsin International Educational Science Cultural Organization (WIESCO). She is among the teachers traveling to Poland, Latvia and Lithuania to teach conversational English to high school students. One of her lessons: the Birkie.

As she awaits her next trip abroad, you’ll find this dynamo in the north woods on her skinny skis visualizing her February trek along the Birkie trails and down Hayward’s Main Street to the Birkie finish line. She’ll be hearing the swish, swish of skis, the ringing of cowbells, the cheers of spectators and the encouragement of fellow skiers. And she’ll be feeling that congratulatory kiss from husband Jim as he sends her from the last food station into the arms of daughter Sue at the finish line of one of the toughest races in the Worldloppet series of 14 international ski marathons.

To learn more about the 2004 Subaru American Birkebeiner, Johnson Bank Kortelopet, Salomon Elite Sprints, Hayward Chamber of Commerce Citizen Sprints, Century Tel Junior Birkie, Cheqtel Communications 10K, or the Sons of Norway/Swiss Miss Barnebirkie, or to register for an event, call 715-634-5025, e-mail, or log on to

Birkie 2004 is sponsored by Subaru, Johnson Bank, Polartec, Murphy McGinnis Media and other businesses throughout the region and country.

Birkie 2004 is part of the FasterSkier Featured Race program. Click here to find out how you can promote your race with articles on FasterSkier.

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