Phil Bowen: You're in your second year as the US cross country ski team head coach. That seems like the top of the ladder for someone involved in xc ski racing. Does it feel like you've arrived? You raced from NCAAs to the international scene, were an assistant NCAA and assistant US coach and worked in the industry as a member of the Factory Team. What experiences have helped you or informed your philosophies as head coach?
Pete Vordenberg: I don't look at my job in this way at all. It was not a goal to be the head coach or the assistant coach. I had a plan for the team and for American skiing. Working to put that plan in place put me in this place. My goal has been and is to help the USA win World Cup, World Championship and Olympic medals. I will chase that goal in whatever role I can until I decide I am no longer an asset to the team.
Within the USST the staff work together on equal footing. If anything I put myself close to the bottom rung. The athletes are the top rung. The athletes’ coaches are directly under the athletes. Our physical therapists, sports science, medical and the wax staff support the coaches and athletes and so are directly below them. I am somewhere under this pile. Luke Bodensteiner is under me. The organization of the USSA is under us all.
How the USST fits into the ski community is interesting. Part of our job is to help support efforts within the community so that the community can keep the sport vibrant and positive for kids. Part of this is also ensuring that the athletes coming out of the youth programs are prepared to train to become the best in the world. Then it is our job to provide those athletes who have done the work with every opportunity they need to succeed at the highest level available.
The term â€œarrivedâ€ is far from how I feel about my job. To explain will take some history. When I was at my best as an athlete the US seldom put any skier into the top 20 on the World Cup. In 1993 the US scored a total of 48 World Cup points. Right now (Dec 12/07) Kris Freeman alone has 46 points. Newell alone has 62. Basically after one good weekend just two of our skiers have more points than we were able to get as a country in 1993 (48 points), 1994 (31 points), 1995 (81), 1996 (50), 1997 (23), 1998 (12), 1999 (39), 2000 (42).
I dreamed of winning a medal as an athlete but there was no fresh evidence it was possible. Bill Koch was a mythical beast whose trail had gone cold. There was no path. I worked very hard for it but it really seemed like a distant dream. A top 30 was rare and it is a long way from the top 30 to the podium. What I am trying to show is that when two seasons ago we actually got a World Cup podium you would think that would feel like some sort of arrival. A podium was a lifelong goal achieved and yet none of us took so much as a deep breath afterwards. We were off and running toward the next podium, the next goal. At that moment I knew there was no such thing as arriving.
Goals are great because they give our action direction but they do not provide destinations.
The same is true for the US Ski Team in general. Sometimes I get a feeling talking to athletes that â€œmaking a teamâ€ is a destination. Team designation, be it the USST or the J1 trip or Junior Worlds, is not a reward. It is an earned opportunity to take another step forward. To take advantage of that opportunity is the next task. There is only more work ahead. There is always only more work ahead. So you better enjoy the work. We have three podiums now [ed: Kikkan won in Rybinsk after this answer] in the last two seasons and last season we scored over 580 world cup points as a country. I feel only this terrible urgency to push on.
Maybe arrival is when the passion is gone and I can’t help the USA make any more progress. Arriving is stepping away, otherwise there is only stepping up, getting knocked back, stepping up again.
My experience has led me to believe that we can only win medals by working together. We need to help each other and collaborate with each other. Everything we have achieved so far has resulted from the work of many. This program is built on the program Miles Minson and Chris Grover developed in 1999. Our current program is following on the work Trond, Vidar and Grover put in. Most importantly the athletes we have on the podium now are products of home clubs, youth coaches, regional programs. Working with the clubs, coaches and programs is going to be the key.
Finally my experience tells me that while there are many challenges we face in the US there is only one answer: professional preparation every step of the way.
PB: So you didn't say anything about technique, fitness, strength or equipment there. Those are often words we hear coming out of ski coach's mouths. You mentioned support, community, collaboration and preparation. Your goal is to win international medals. Talk about where you most focus your energy as the head coach to do that.
PV: Getting info on what we are doing for technique and training is easy. We have a video out and technique info available at www.ussa.org. We have given clinics and camps across the country at REG and our normal camps. We are available for questions via the internet — and I do get questions regularly. I haven’t turned down doing a clinic for someone yet.
I always say preparation instead of training because training is only a part of preparation. There is diet, using altitude, psychology, team cohesion, rest and recovery, equipment, and the list goes on. Training and rest are the biggest aspect of preparation. Skiers should have no illusions about that. If you want to be among the best in the world you have to be training well and a lot from a young age. You have to be able to overcome and learn from setback and disappointment as well as be able to capitalize on success and earned opportunities.
To address the goal of winning international medals I set three goals. The first is fitness. That is simple. This is a fitness sport — you have to be one of the most fit cardiovascular athletes in the world just to have a shot at winning. Again — skiers should have no illusions there. Work hard and a lot and from a young age all the way through your 20’s even into your 30’s and then you can see how good you can become.
The next goal is continuity. The USST hasn’t been able to see a system put to a real test because our budget used to go up and down drastically, coaches and staff could not survive the travel schedule. So we have to settle into a system that will continue to receive support in the long term or we will always have spotty success at best.
The final goal is partnership. We need to work as partners within the USSA, within the US ski community, within the FIS, within the USOC. We need to cooperate with and support the work of anti-doping agencies like Wada and the FIS. And of course we need to be partners within our own team.
Where my energy goes follows those goals. First, is the staff able to work with the athletes enough and well enough to insure that our athletes are taking the steps necessary to win? I have said it a hundred times, but if I screw up everything else at least I hired a great staff. Are we taking those fitness steps? Testing says that most of us are. Race results are the final answer — but on paper we should see improvement again this year.
Second, is the staff doing OK? We can’t have the sort of turnover we continue to see. Our wax staff is especially hard to retain and that is a big issue. Are the athletes doing OK? Will they last the years ahead? Is the system we are building coming together — what about it is working, what doesn’t seem to be working? How will it survive the years ahead? Third, how are we doing with our out reach and partnership efforts? How are the REG camps working, how is our Education system coming along, how well are we communicating with our partner-coaches, how are we communicating with the other branches of the USSA, how is the team itself communicating with each other?
Then it comes down to the actual tasks — coordinating and carrying out training, travel, racing these are tasks we all share and which take a lot of time and money someone will work on tickets, someone will work on hotels, someone registers for the races, someone helps test kick wax, someone helps apply glide, someone goes to the coaches meeting, someone takes lactate while someone else takes video, someone drives the van, someone flies with the athletes. These tasks are at the core of all our jobs.
One thing that is for sure is that no one knows enough on their own and no one can do enough on their own. I rely on the rest of the staff, on advice from outside the staff, on seasoned coaches from our community who communicate with me directly with their thoughts and ideas, who come to our planning meetings and conferences, who email and call me. We have a great sports science, medical, education departments that help us daily. I personally rely on Luke Bodensteiner every single day. We also have a great advocate in Jon Engen. Finally, I rely on the USSA in general — this is the organization that supports all our efforts and which has really come in under us in all ways to help us.
My concern there is that the community doesn’t realize the changes that have taken place over the last two years. The community needs to let go of the old animosity toward the USSA and get involved with the new USSA and USST in a positive and productive way. This is our team and we can go far together.
PB: With regards to fitness, continuity, and partnership, it seems like 1 and 3 are steadily improving – your current athletes are getting results and it looks like the regional clubs are building you great athletes for the future. So is continuity the biggest hurdle towards accomplishing your goals? Wax service was an issue in the recent Davos world cups. You mention the importance of hiring a great staff. Are you able to do what you need to keep them?
PV: We measure pure fitness on the treadmill and people are improving. In some respects across the board and with some athletes in general we absolutely have got to show more improvement. And we will be adjusting the training after we see the results this season. But we are improving enough on the treadmill to lead me to believe our race results should show that improvement.
We have formed good partnerships within the USSA. We are also building good partnerships with specific clubs and regions. Even with those clubs I am not at all satisfied that we are where we need to be but considering the relationships the USST had just a few years ago this is progress. We have an even longer way to go with the other regions and I am afraid a majority of clubs and schools out there are off the radar.
We have several athletes in college at this time. How well that system works will depend on how well we can work with the athlete and the college coach — and of course how well the athlete prioritizes school, skiing and social commitments.
So grade fitness a B. Grade partnership a C.
Continuity of wax staff gets a D. And yes that is a factor in our Davos fiasco. These guys are some of if not the best waxers in the world. Seriously — they have waxed with some of the best athletes in the world and played a big role in the medals around those athletes’ neck. But a huge part of success in waxing comes from knowing the athletes, knowing the skis and having formed a work system based on the resources available. Once a year every year we totally bomb the wax in changing conditions. This is related to our staff size and the learning curve of working with new athletes, skis and resources. When the weather is stable there is very seldom a problem, but when it is changing we have issues.
Among other solutions we need to train up more American techs. Right now we have Randy Gibbs and Zach Caldwell working with us. That is a start but we’re not there.
Continuity of the program itself cannot be graded yet. The support the USSA is giving cross country is very encouraging. I believe the program has a very bright future. That future depends on consistent support from the USSA but it also depends on the US cross country community getting behind the USSA. Jon Engen has worked hard for us with the USSA board. Almost all our money comes from Alpine. If we want to maintain the support we have now the US cross country ski community must make its presence felt. Again, visit www.ussa.org and see the foundation tab. Rally your regions, rally your clubs, train your athletes. We have an opportunity here and to let it slip is to let down our young athletes.
Continuity of staff in general is looking up. We have developed a good plan to relieve coaches on the road. It seems to be working OK but we have some family guys and that is tough to be away from your kids.
Continuity for the athletes on the team must improve. We are fighting to get more funding for the athletes. In the meantime we do offer a good level of support in the form of financial aid, educational opportunities and insurance. As well as a full schedule of camps and comps with full staff support. There are differing levels of support within the USST. This is necessary as some athletes are full time and some are in college. For athletes not on the USST the club network is taking off. With clubs that have year-round coaching like CXC, APU, SVSEF, XC Oregon and MWSC, someone who wants to do it can. Other clubs like MBSEF are working on post-high school and post-college programs as well. Several ski high schools offer post graduate years. With the factory teams there is another level of support. At the same time a goal of the Super Tour is also to reward our athletes whose training is putting them on the podium. Win a Super Tour and your wallet will thank you to the tune of at least $850. That is the work of Luke Bodensteiner.
Things are looking up. Momentum is building but we better keep our shoulder to the wheel or that momentum will die fast.
PB: you call on the US cross country ski community to make its presence felt to help maintain USSA support. It takes dedicated, passionate people to help effect change at a national level and that same passion is going to show up in their support as fans of the current US athletes. With the rising number of podium or near-podium finishes since 2003, expectations for good results are also up. I guess my point is, if people are going to care enough to involve themselves, they also probably care enough to question the failures and ask for accountability. How do you characterize the current climate of US skiing? It's good to be in an era where top results are expected, right? How do you and the athletes and staff deal with the praise and criticism that comes with public success and failure?
PV: The most important thing for coaches, athletes, parents, and everyone involved in American cross country ski racing to take note of is that we have shown that we can put American skiers on the podium and we can do it ethically, clean, and without the use of illegal drugs or any means of doping or cheating. If this were a one sentence reply to this whole interview that is the sentence. After the three podiums in sprint, the top 5 and top 15 results in distance it is proven that we can put American’s on the podium in sprint and distance. We have the athletes, the programs, the coaches, the community and the NGB to do it. Our young athletes should be able to eye the top step of the podium with confidence. If we can work together we have no excuses. If we cannot work together than we are letting down our youth athletes.
Our expectations rose very high after 2002 and we probably underestimated the amount of time and work still ahead of us. Today (Dec 16/07) we took our first WC victory after coming very close in 2003 and even closer in 2006 and 2007. It is important to notice that Norwegians took the top 5 in the men’s sprint. That means 2 could have been sick, 2 could have crashed into each other and one still could have won. The work ahead of us is going to be the most delicate, the toughest to dial in just right.
This is a sport of perseverance. A single race can be an experience of good points and tough points and often how it really turns out is how well you handle the tough moments. A season can be the same way and a career is bound to contain innumerable setbacks, disappointments and possibly some great triumphs. If you quit or give up or let off every time it gets rough then how it eventually turns out is predictable. We rely on each other — on Team — to get through the bad spots.
To your point about critics and fans, being critical is a vital piece of the process. We are highly self-critical and are constantly evaluating how things are going and how they could be going better. So in that way it is nice to get some positive feedback every now and then.
On the other side of things I do receive criticism and ideas that I can use to improve what we are doing. This sort of criticism always arrives in person, over the phone or via email. It never points to problems without offering solutions and I genuinely welcome it. At the same time it is easy to recognize the sort of Internet chatter that is obviously not actually aimed at helping and which frankly doesn’t.
You ask about accountability. The final answer is results. Results are important. How we get those results is also important. We will not detract from the health of our athletes and we will not cheat. We will work together as a team. We will persevere. We will remain loyal to each other, our goals and our team. We will work to insure a bright future as well as gain the results we can get right now.
If you don’t see the results — I am ultimately responsible. I have failed to gather and guide the right staff, failed to provide the right opportunities.
If you don’t see the nation coming together — I am ultimately responsible. I have failed to build partnerships, failed to provide an ear to the coaches and programs out there in the trenches.
If you don’t see a functioning development system in place — I am ultimately responsible. I have failed to provide the tools our development staff requires to build and implement an education system, a development team, a way to assist other programs in developing their athletes.
However, every one of these tasks is shared. I believe in my staff to do their jobs. I believe in the athletes to do their jobs. I believe in the programs and coaches we have strong relationships with to do their jobs. I know the remainder of the community is capable of playing their role as well, and many clubs, programs are, but this is where we must put in more work. Our junior skiers must train at a higher level if we are to succeed. This is the job of the USST and the junior coaches and athletes — all of us together.
None of this will happen overnight so I am looking at notable and steady progress. Still, pure results are the final answer and so we have set timelines for when we should see certain markers or results. I am into my second year as head coach. As the assistant coach I asked myself: am I the right person for this job, am I helping or am I in the way? It is no different now. The first major deadline I have given myself is at the end of this season: are we on track to a medal in 2010? The next major deadline is after the Olympics: did we medal in 2010? And all along the way there are many, many minor even daily deadlines and checks all of them basically asking: are we on track?
PB: Finally, talk about the team. Team cohesion, team building, bonding…all have been a focus of your tenure with the USSA. Both athletes and staff were quoted talking about team after Kikkan's WC win. From the start to the finish, xc ski racing is an individual sport. Where in the process is team emphasized, and how does that help? Speaking of team, can the men improve on their 5th place 2002 relay result in 2010? Can your excellent group of young women, combined with inspiration from Kikkan's recent success, be ready to throw down a top relay result as well in 2010?
PV: Cross country skiing is an individual sport but a team effort. It is just too obvious to anyone who has ever traveled with anyone else for an extended period of time that you have to have some guidelines or rules or strategies or all of the above if you want to survive the ordeal let alone enjoy it. Combine traveling with each other off and on through the summer and more or less from Nov through March with the competitiveness of a group of athletes, with the stress of trying to accomplish something difficult and long-term, with being in foreign countries, away from loved ones. And you can see the need for a strong team atmosphere.
Then think about how you are yourself and how a friendly pat on the back and a smile makes you feel compared to an indifferent stare let alone a negative comment. Finally there are more than enough books and studies out on the importance of atmosphere and culture of a group on performance. Attitude is so important and the group attitude is infectious — for good or ill. There is no way to get around it. Also there is the saying about the one bad apple and it is true — one person can bring a whole group up or drag everyone down.
I suggest everyone think about it for themselves in their own groups. What sort of behaviors and attitudes do you bring to the group? If things are going well for you personally, how do you act? What about when things are going poorly? A very talented athlete can keep the team from success if they have a negative impact on the team. A supremely smart, dedicated coach can destroy an athlete or program if they cannot communicate well or be a positive influence on the team.
The weekend prior to Rybinsk and in fact the distance race prior to the sprint in Rybinsk were not positive events. Yet the team came through for the sprint. I promise you that those poor races on top of that long and tough travel to Rybinsk could have spiraled in a downward direction fast if the individuals on the team were not conscious of their behavior and attitude and its effect on the group.
The way we are going to perform well in a relay is by preparing each individual at an international, professional level. Development wise the basic path demands that each athlete succeed at their current level before moving on to the next level. Generally speaking that means you race JRQ races and get to Jr. Nationals. You race Jr. Nationals until you are placing well enough there to consider trying out for the J1 trip or World Juniors. You race at Nationals to qualify for either of those opportunities and as you get older to race U23 worlds. As an older developing athlete you race Super Tour until you earn the opportunity to race Continental Cup. You race Continental Cup until you earn the opportunity to race World Cup. Now it doesn’t work out to be as pure a progression as that and I don’t think it always should. For example, it is good to taste the World Cup even if you should spend most of your season racing Continental Cup. The important thing is that you spend most your time racing at a level you can succeed at before moving up.
Of course the danger of looking at it like this is that it indicates that only final destination counts when in fact nearly every step needs to be a pleasure in itself as well as a take off point to the next level. I like to say, enjoy the process. Because man, that’s all there really is.
Of the people on the team right now the oldest were born in 1980 (all of them men) and the youngest were born in 1988. That’s a young team to look for a top distance relay result in 2010. In 2014 we have a real opportunity for both men and women.
I avoid making predictions and I refuse to rely on hope both for the same reason. We need to go into the 2010 games having focused on our top opportunities, having done everything we could have as well as possible, and having proven to ourselves at each step of the way that we are as close to certain of success as possible. One of our mottos is: Without Hope. That sounds negative but in context it demonstrates our confidence and determination. Couple that with our motto: All In. And you have some dedicated, determined people striving together toward a shared goal and that’s hard to beat.
PB: Thanks, Pete. Good luck with the rest of the race season and in your preparations for the 2009 worlds in Liberec and the 2010 games in Vancouver.
PV: Thank you.
Phil Bowen began skiing at an early age in Grand Marais, MN and spent six years on the continental cup circuit and racing marathons with the factory team. He is currently a freelance photographer and shoots for competitive image http://competitiveimage.us Phil lives with his wife in Kampala, Uganda. http://philsgoodphoto.blogspot.com.