Interview with Alaska's Head Coach Ja Dorris

FasterSkierMarch 26, 2008

First, FasterSkier would like to congratulate the athletes and coaches of Alaska’s Junior Olympic Team on winning the 2008 Junior Olympics. Alaska’s Head Coach Ja Dorris was kind enough to recap a great week in Anchorage.

FasterSkier:Could you tell us a little about yourself and and your coaching experience?

Ja Dorris: I have coached High School in Alaska for over 20 years with stints at West HS, Chugiak HS, and most recently Eagle River HS. I honestly can’t remember how many JO’s I have coached, I know that I have coached most of them since 1987 in Lake Placid. (does that make me old!!) I also run a year round program for junior athletes formerly called ERNTC which is now called Alaska Nordic Racing (ANR).

FS: Were you confident heading into JOs that Alaska had put together a team that would compete with New England and Intermountain for the overall title?

JD: I thought that we had a pretty good team this year. We had several pre-quals with a few kids making WJC and the J1 Scando teams, but I also thought that we had some pretty good teams the last couple of years. Certainly I thought that we could and would compete with New England and Intermountain for the Alaska Cup. What really surprised me this year was our depth that we showed in all the classes. As there seems to be more parity, I think home course advantage makes a bigger difference, whether its home race courses, conditions, or altitude.

FS: The overall standings were very tight after the sprint, with New England very much in the mix. Did you expect to pull away? Or were you surprised by the Alaska’s overall domination in the distance races?

JD: Historically we’ve done well in the sprints. I was a little surprised by how the distance races played out, and how we were able to put a little gap between New England and Intermountain. Intermountain really climbed back into the race after the skate day, had they done better in the sprints then it would certainly been closer 3 way battle. I also think our kids gained a lot of confidence that just seemed to carry over to each race.

FS: How about the athletes. Were they confident heading into the event? After the sprint?

JD: The kids skied their asses off all week. We had a brief conversation about the Alaska Cup and the last time that we won was the last time JO’s was in Alaska (Fairbanks 2003) so most of these kids were never really part of that history. The Alaska Cup is a big deal, especially since it’s named after Alaska, so it was cool that they got to make a little bit of history. It was even better that we were able to bring it back with JO’s being in our back yard. As far as the athletes were concerned, as I stated above they just seemed to feed off each other and gain confidence as each race unfolded.

FS: The volunteers at Kincaid Park did an amazing job pulling off all the races with limited snow, but some of the Alaskan skiers were upset not to be able to ski on the planned courses. Do you think it was necessary to make these changes?

JD: NSAA did an awesome job in pulling the whole event off. I started the week thinking that we weren’t going to even have a relay race. The kids were pretty bummed about the course changes they wanted to showcase the toughest trails that Kincaid had to offer. Some of the down hill sections were a bit icy and with all that was going on with the organizers putting so much extra work it was probably the best decision.

FS: Other than the team victory, what were some of the high points for Team Alaska, and for the event as a whole?

JD: There were several highlights during the week. First were all the 1st place winners, it’s been a while since Alaska had that many on top of the podium. The sweeps in the J1 boys (twice), and J2 boys and generally just the depth that Alaska displayed, we had a ton of kids in the top 10. The mass start was a pretty amazing day, going in the last event (J2 girls) Alaska had won every race. Kinsey Loan came into the final 100 meters with a slight lead before her pole strap broke ending up third. (a great result never the less) if she had won that would of meant that Alaska would of won every age class. Still one of the best days I can remember to be a ski coach, everything was perfect, the conditions, the athletes, the skis everything!!

FS: Do you think there is an advantage to the region that hosts the event?

JD: As I mentioned above as there becomes more parity among regions then I think that home course really starts to make a difference. Not only home course, but conditions, altitude and more rest from less travel. Especially in a case like ours, most of the team gets to ski at Kincaid all year long and they really know the courses. Its one thing to know the courses, but to know them racing makes a huge difference.

FS: With skiers and coaches from many different clubs and parts of the state, how do you feel Alaska came together as a team?

JD: We do have a wide variety of clubs, and school programs from all over the state. These kids are ski racers and they came to race as hard as they could. Having JO’s in your hometown posses’ different obstacles, such as team cohesiveness. This group did a great job of bonding and coming together as a team. We had a team bowling night, a talent show and I think the kids genuinely cheered for each other to do their best. We have a long season, and these skiers get to bang heads against each other all year, so I think they were psyched to team up and bang on someone else’s head for a change. The coaching staff for Alaska did a fantastic job. If it weren’t for them then the success this year at JO’s would not be attainable. We have a wide variety of coaches from around the state and from different programs. Many of them have been a part of the staff for several years. The staff all has the same goal and that is to provide the best circumstances for the athletes to achieve their best results. This year’s staff was on top of everything. I would like to thank them for a job well done. (Holly Brooks, Jan Buron, Ben Arians, Brian Erickson, Jon Kehler, Mark Strabel, Eric Strabel, Ira Edwards, Erin Hamilton, Pete Leonard, Charlie Renfro, Stan Carrick, Erik Flora.)

FS: Alaska is always a contender for the Alaska Cup (awarded to the top region at JOs) and many of the top skiers in the country are from the state. What is Alaska doing well as a region that is helping prepare skiers for national and international competition?

JD: Tough question. We would certainly like to be putting more athletes on the National team for sure. We are always trying to get better just like everyone else. We have a great HS system that provides a broad base of athletes, and we also have some really great clubs that are taking our athletes to the next level. We also have our struggles like most regions, but I believe that everyone has the same goal and that is provide the frame work for our athletes to be successful at the highest levels

FS: Over the past years, how has the sport changed in Alaska? Have you been noticing any trends toward a higher level of competition?

JD: I think the sport has changed all over the US and Alaska is not an exception. We have seen more and more clubs and programs raising the bar in terms of training, results, and probably more important expectations. I believe that success is generated from a grass roots effort and the success at the higher levels only bleeds down to the grass root efforts, showing what can be done. We certainly have a long way to go, but there does appear to be some light at the end of the tunnel.

FS: Over the past several years, the US Ski Team has had a number of exciting results at the World Cup level. From a development standpoint, what do you think is the next step toward continued improvement and consistency at the international level?

JD: Another tough question. We do seem to be heading in the right direction. In terms of development there are 2 fundamental things that have to occur. 1) we need to get to our best athletes and get to them sooner. 2) we need to keep raising the bar, its wasn’t long ago a top thirty at WJC was a good result, not any more.

FS: Thanks for your time Ja and once again congratulations to Alaska on being the 2008 Junior Olympic Champions!

Ja Dorris: Keepin’ it Real, Year after Year, Coaches around the country interview from November 8, 2006.

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