Editors note: This is the last Coaches Around the Country feature for the winter. We hope you've enjoyed them!
Ben Arians is a coach for Alaska Winter Stars in Anchorage Alaska. He's been involved with Team Alaska JO Team for 7 years and has been coaching for 10 years. He also is the manager at Alaska Mountaineering and Hiking (AMH), a popular store in Anchorage.
What is your personal advice for a high school senior student/athlete xc ski racer?
I would say that it’s important to remember that skiing isn’t the end-all, be-all of your existence. It’s a road to travel that can take you to some interesting, exciting places, but don’t lose sight of the big picture: be a good person, a positive member of your team and community. Mainly, I guess I would say, â€œDon’t be a prick.â€ I suppose I could say â€œBe yourselfâ€, but if being yourself means you’re going to be a prick, then maybe that’s not such good advice. You’ll probably have to edit all that out. Anyway, it’s very important for Jan, myself, and the other AWS coaches that our kids are polite, respectful, and positive, both to each other, to their coaches, and to people in the community, and I think in large part we’ve had that. A kid will probably not last too long in Winter Stars if he/she has a big mouth. Probably the only times I’ve gotten really upset with a skier is if they’ve been rude or disrespectful. I mean, how hard is it to say â€œHowdyâ€ and smile to a random stranger you pass on the trail? One of my skiing heroes is Vegard Ulvang, who always seemed to me to be the epitome of class, both on the trail and off. Bjorn Daehlie is popular in Norway, but Vegard is still the favorite son. A Norwegian college teammate, when I asked him why Vegard was more popular, replied â€œWell, he is from the North, and he is Viking. Bjorn is a city boy, and he wins too much!â€ I consider myself to be a student of the sport, and I love reading about historical moments in racing, or accounts of big competitions. I like reading Marty Hall’s articles about coaching back in the day, and I still get goosebumps when I tell kids stories about Kochie being physically pushed up a hill by Juha Mieto in the ’76 Olympics 50km while both were racing, or about Thomas Wassberg, who, after beating Mieto by one one-hundredth of a second in Lake Placid for the gold, cut both the gold and silver medals in half, and then soldered the opposite halves together so that both would have the same medal. That’s why those guys are legends, not just because they went around and won a few races. So, train hard, study harder, and be a good person.
Why is Anchorage a good place to be a nordic skier?
Oh, wow, it would be a lot easier to name why it isn’t, the list is much shorter! I’d say one of the best reasons is that it has a tremendous trail system for training in summer or winter, with a super-supportive community around it. It’s also sea level, which, after racing for 4 years at Western State College (7500′ +/-), I see the benefit of better recovery after hard sessions, and more quality speed work. I don’t think it’s bragging to say that as a group, AK had the fastest finishers out there, and a significant part of that is due to high intensity speed workouts that really hone top end speed. Also, there is a lot to do that is not ski-oriented. Anchorage is a fun town, and it’s important to be able to do stuff (social, outdoor adventure, cultural) that you might not be able to do in other ski towns. Like I said, I spent 4 years in Gunnison, which I loved, but I don’t see myself leaving the AK anytime soon. And one more thing: while it might get cold here, it’s rare that we get temps much below -10 F. Fairbanks actually calls us Las Anchorage, or â€œThe Banana Beltâ€. It’s not often that it’s too cold to train outside. Just this last week, Anchorage got 1-2 feet of snow, and all the trails are groomed. Come on up for the best skiing of the year.
You've been on quite a few JO trips acting in various capacities coaching/organizing over the years. Have you noticed anything new/exciting/changing these past few years?
I just counted it up, and this year in Anchorage was my 7th year coaching JOs, and 10th year as a coach period, and I’m nowhere near the most-tenured (Ja, step forward). I wonder if I can buy in my 2 years as a skier on the JO team towards my retirement? I am super pleased with the club championship award that is now presented at JOs in addition to the High School trophy, especially with the recognition that AWS skiers received this year, winning the Girls, Boys, and Overall Club Team award. I guess the most exciting thing I’ve seen over the past few years is that the talent and speed of the top flight of junior racers is pretty damn good. I tell ya, I’m glad I’m not racing against these guys (or girls!). I remember when most of the top racers were coming from about the same four regions, whereas now they’re coming from all over. RMD, Far West, PNSA, High Plains, Mid Atlantic, all these regions are really stepping it up, and the bar is being raised. It made winning the Alaska Cup back this year even more satisfying! 🙂
What's your take on US Jr skiing in Alaska? Alaska has loads of jr talent, but the talent pool shrinks hugely after high school?
Well, I think that’s going to be the case in pretty much any sport that’s out there, and I don’t think that it’s just Alaska, but in all of the regions. There are only so many college programs out there, and even with the addition of alternative, non-NCAA programs, it’s going to be pretty tight. Alaska has an established high school racing program, with great participation across the state, but the majority of the kids on the high school racing teams are enjoying skiing as a participation sport, and a social endeavor, and that’s great. I think high school and club racing can coexist in Anchorage, it just requires some give and take on both sides. Part of the reason for the drop-off after Juniors in the past has been that the skiing in AK is so good, and it is treated as a major sport with quite a lot of media coverage, that it’s sometimes hard for our juniors to go off to a school where the skiing is, by AK standards, pretty marginal, and Nordic skiing as a sport gets very little attention or respect. Also, what incentive has a young skier historically had to continue ski racing full time and commit to ski racing full time? What does the US ski team have to offer? There’s no safety net, there is no infrastructure in place that can take care of an athlete. Say you’ve been on the USST for 5-6 years, didn’t do the college thing, and spent those 5 years beating your head against the wall, but never really cracked the top level. What now? It’s not like you can live off all those endorsements and that fat contract money you signed for. Most of our skiers are really smart, motivated people, who get good grades and can get good, well paying jobs right out of college that allow them to live comfortably, enjoy life, go skiing for fun, go to Costa Rica for vacation, etc. I support my skiers to the hilt, but if one of my older juniors told me that they were thinking of passing on a scholarship to a highly ranked university in order to train full time and hopefully make the US Ski Team, I’d ask them if they’d thought it through completely. Collegiate skiing might not necessarily be the way to skiing greatness, but it is the way to a lot of other things that are pretty worthwhile. I think the US Ski Team has come a long ways in that they are way less of an ambiguous presence that was the case when I was a junior, but it’s still pretty remote. Good steps are being taken, and in the right direction, (Team Today, for example) but I don’t think I’m being too cynical when I say that we’re never going to be like Norway and be consistently competitive on the world scene.
Rumor has it that you are good w/ famous people impersonations…..such as Jim Carey, etc…. What's your best impression/impersonation? Does it help with your coaching ? 🙂
Hmmmmm, Jim Carey, I really am not in his league, otherwise I’d be making millions and dating Jenny McCarthy. I can do some pretty good Monty Python stuff, and I hear I do a good version of Brad Pitt as the gypsy in Snatch, and anything Scottish: â€œIf it’s no’ Scottish, it’s crrrrap!â€. I can also do a pretty good impression of Ja Dorris, too, Actually, it does help with coaching, it gets the kids laughing, and is especially good on long hikes or runs. You’ve got to keep talking when running or hiking in AK, as it gives bears time to clear out before you come across them.
What's up with this new homegrown ski teams/clubs popping up around the country these days?
We need more people feeling like they belong to something and having a social group to share highs and lows with after races. I get as much of a charge with coaching seniors/masters as I do juniors, sometimes even more, because when I see a master skier making some sweet classic strides that last season they couldn’t do, I know how hard it is for a many master skiers to make those changes, as old habits die hard. Usually there are some pretty good tips in the publications about technique, but sometimes there are just too many â€œHow to ski fasterâ€ articles, and confusion frequently results. God, remember the Vordenberg/Borowski salvos in Masterskier? â€œNose-knee-toe!â€ â€œNo, shorter strides!â€ , etc. I think that Ian Harvey made the most sense in his article in which he put for the theory that there are many different ways to go fast, and there is no one perfect technique for everyone, especially comparing proper women’s technique to men’s. Anyway, a stronger senior/master field which encourages more people to get out there and be a part of something special can only help our sport.