Phil Bowen: The first I remember of you was at a twisty, turny 800m sprint race in Silverstar, BC. You ended up in the final vs. Carl Swenson, who was winning every time he strapped on skate skis those days. Was that your first big result? When did you begin to really dedicate yourself to ski racing? Because it seems like you have a lot of other interests…
Andy Newell: Yeah… that sprint was awesome! They need to have more races like that with all the turns and the roll in off the starting gate, and that one year they had all those jumps and stuff. I guess you could say that was one of my first big results, I was pretty young at the time maybe 15 or 16. Those were some of the first continental cups I was able to compete in as a high school skier so it was good experience to be able to race against the best in the US and Canada. There weren’t that many sprints back in those days so that was the first time we got to see how our speed stacked up against guys like Carl Swenson. We had a fast crew of Stratton skiers back then and we were always hammering on each other so it was motivating to see that we could compete with dudes that had gone to the Olympics and stuff. I was pretty dedicated to skiing even at that age. You had to be to go to a school like SMS, but I still had a lot of other stuff going on. Soccer, lacrosse, surfing, skateboarding… I had a bunch of other stuff that kept my mind off skiing in the offseason. I would say that it probably wasn’t until I was a J1, on my first world junior trip, that I finally found the motivation to dedicate myself to skiing. For the first time I got to see and feel the excitement of international racing. I saw that there were actually spectators, something we don’t see much of in the states, and we were on TV and people were into it. It felt amazing to represent my country, and for the first time I saw skiing as a way up, a way to make something of my life, and as something you could actually make a living doing.
PB: Soccer, lacrosse, surfing, and skateboarding probably aren’t the sports that come to mind when people think about preparation for cross country ski racing. But there’s a lot of balance, reaction, quickness, and endurance represented there. I remember a conversation with Trond Nystad about the USA vs the rest of the world (because that never gets old) and he talked about the general lack of basic skills in US kids, like not being able to walk down a balance beam or jump from one box to another. Things seem to be going pretty well for you, what would you recommend to kids about doing more playing and more sports not related to skiing?
AN: I think it’s really important for kids to try to focus on cross country skiing at a pretty young age, but at the same time young athletes should continue to participate in a lot of different sports. I think what Trond was talking about was the general lack of athleticism in a lot of cross country skiing juniors in the US. It sounds harsh but at the same time it’s kind of true. The US is so competitive in so many different sports that more often than not the youngsters that show a lot of athletic talent in speed, agility, strength, endurance ect. tend to be identified as good soccer players or football players and get snatched up into those sports. So a lot of the time kids get involved in cross country skiing or xc running or other less mainstream ‘endurance’ sports because they didn’t have the pure athleticism to compete in their other school sports. That’s definitely not the case for all junior racers. There are areas of the country that are doing a great job of getting kids involved in xc skiing and identifying xc skiing athletes, but I think we could for sure benefit from a larger talent pool. More kids in the US need to see cross country skiing for what it is… a freaking bad ass sport. And one that they can have fun doing, make money in, score the prom queen, and become famous. It sounds silly, but that’s the kind of motivation juniors need. For too many young skiers cross country skiing is just a school activity that will provide them with a scholarship to a good college, they go to NCAA’s and the dream ends. There’s no big picture because xc skiing isn’t in the media enough for the juniors to really want it and be motivated.
PB: Well, it looks like you’re trying to get the bad ass message across in your movies. Have you always tried to promote xc skiing through your films, or did they start off as just you and the guys having fun with a video camera? You have a lot of visibility now, how do you view your role in growing the sport in the US?
AN: I don’t think we were trying to go for a bad ass image with X Ski Films, but we did want to show people that you can have a lot of fun and still be a cross country ski racer. Basically it did start out with me and the guys fooling around with a video camera, but then we realized that most people in the US have no idea what it’s like to be a cross country ski racer… so one day I just decided to make a movie. We were young and still in high school, but we knew that cross country skiing wasn’t being portrayed the way we wanted it to and that to most of the US xc skiing was some old school thing their grandparents did. So I wanted to show people what we did for fun, and that we could go big off jumps, but most of all I wanted to show people that xc ski racing was fast and exciting. Websites have improved a lot over the years, but back then their wasn’t a whole lot of racing media available. You couldn’t go onto Universal sports or Fasterskier.com and download last weekends World Cup race like you can now. So a lot has changed since then but I don’t think my role is any different now that I’m an Olympic level skier. I still want to show the US that cross country skiing is fast and gnarly and that there’s no reason to take it so seriously. I have always said, there’s a big difference between being a professional and taking things too seriously. I try to prepare for each season and each race as professionally as possible but the actual racing part is all about having a good time. All we’re doing is strapping sticks to our feet and seeing who can slide around a loop the fastest… it was never meant to be serious, it’s supposed to be fun.
PB: On to racing. How do you win a sprint race? You recently said that it’s not luck, because a lot of the same guys are up there every week. But it is a format that can allow relative unknowns to sneak on to the podium as well as allowing the fittest skier of the day to go down in quarters. What do you have to do to get a final result that matches your prelim speed?
AN: Winning a sprint race is simple… you just need to get your foot across the finish line first. haha… thats all there is to it. But I think there can be a number of ways to get that done, it’s just about having the right combination of speed, tactics, and fitness. Some sprinters rely on their quickness and pure speed and get the job done with fast accelerations at different points of the course and having a fast finishing kick. Others get by as being ‘smart skiers’, playing it safe and knowing the courses and always being in the right spot to make an attack in the right place to stay on their feet. And then there are the sprinters that rely on pure fitness. The racers that don’t necessarily qualify all the time but when they do they perform really well by pushing the pace in their heats and recovering well between the rounds. The skier that can put together the best combination of these three characteristics is going to have the best shot at winning the race. That’s why Hattestad has been so untouchable this year. He’s so strong in all three of these categories it’s almost scary. I’ve been relying on my pure speed to get me onto the podium over the past few seasons. I think that’s why I tend to do my best on fast courses with lots of turns and transitions where I can accelerate and disrupt the field. With each world cup I start I tend to improve my racing skills and tactics but that’s something I think will improve with time and more experience on the world cup. Fitness and recovery between the heats is probably what I need to improve on the most. I have this weird ability where I can destroy myself with lactic acid… like I can strap on a pair of skis and just hammer until I puke. I think that helps me a lot with having fast qualifications, but also can make it hard to recover between rounds when I push myself past that limit. So by finding the right balance of fitness will help me out a lot there. It’s a tough business. We bust our asses all summer long in training but you still have to find a balance. If you spend too much time working on one aspect of sprinting you can lose touch with the other skills you need. It’s about piecing together the puzzle and finding the right combination. That’s what keeps us thinking and what keeps me having fun and enjoying the process.
PB: I’m guessing there won’t be too many people surprised to hear you have a weird ability to hammer yourself into the ground. Do you have any other traits that set you up to be a successful xc ski racer? Does your personality fit the lifestyle? What about weaknesses? Have you ever had the loss of motivation or focus that can come with a seven or eight-month off-season?
AN: I think at the top level of skiing everyone is so close physically that there has to be something else there to separate the good from the great. Everyone puts in the training hours, everyone’s fit, and everyone wants to win but it’s the skier that has that extra mental edge that can make it to the top. Everyone gets a little nervous and everyone has ups and downs and doubts, but the athletes that are mentally tough tend to be the ones that can always bounce back and eventually put everything together on the big days whether it’s in the World Cup, World Champs, or the Olympics. A lot of it does have to do with having the personality that fits the lifestyle and having the patience to put in the long days of training knowing that it may not pay off this year or maybe even next year, but as long as you hang tough you have a chance of making it there someday. That doesn’t mean you have to be a crazy nordie weirdo that lives their life in a bubble, but I think you have to enjoy the process of training and the lifestyle of an athlete. The whole ‘patience’ thing could probably be categorized as a weakness of mine but it’s something I’m trying to work on. I tend to be OK during the off season because I mix things up with where I train and surrounding myself with other fun people on the team to work out with, but once the season comes around I definitely get the itch. A week or more between each world cup kills me… I just want to get out there and prove myself and taste what it’s like to be on top of the podium. If I’ve had a bad race or something the weekend before I get even more antsy and impatient and wonder why it couldn’t have been me on the podium at the last world cup. It’s a tough situation, but in a way that mindset has kind of helped me be successful over the years. The ‘why the hell can’t it be me’ attitude. I’ve never seen any boundaries in cross-country skiing and I hope myself and the rest of the current US Ski Team can get that message across to the young skiers in the US. You don’t need to be from Scando or Europe to win medals in our sport.
PB: Finally, talk a little about the team. Cross country skiing is pretty much an individual sport, but the US has put a lot of emphasis on team building and it seems to be paying off. It must be inspiring to be around the current success of your teammates, and see the nordic combined team killing it these days.
AN: It is all about the team. Skiing is unique because when you’re out there on the trail it can seam like an individual sport but when it comes down to it everything is about the success of the group. That’s something that the whole US Ski team has come to realize over the past few years and not just on the Nordic team but across all disciplines. We tune in and follow alpine and nordic combined and get stoked when they do well, and they do the same for us. It definitely feels like we’re all working toward the same goals. One of the most exciting things for me over the past few years has been the growth of the cross country team and the addition of more and more world cup and development team skiers. It’s just a lot more fun to have a big team on the road and now that we have Morgan, Liz, Kuzzy, Leif and everyone on some world cup stops we’re no longer one of the ‘small’ teams. It feels good to have that kind of entourage in the hotels and on the race trails. That’s something that some of the bigger teams, like Norway, can take for granted. People see these headlines like ‘4 Norwegians in the top 10’ but what they don’t realize is that those aren’t always the same 4 skiers. A few of those guys are crushing it, but the rest can be up and down. They’ve got depth and a strong team, which is exactly what we’re trying to work toward. There have been times on the world cup when I’m out there in the heats and I screw up or something and not only does it feel like I had a bad day, but now all of a sudden the entire US Cross country team had a bad day. So when guys like Cook and Torin are skiing fast it’s like we’ve got each other’s backs… it lightens it up a little bit and makes everyone feel like we really belong on the world cup, and in the end everyone competes better. I think we all got a little bit of a taste of that this year at World Championships in Liberec. My body wasn’t feeling great during the championships and I definitely wasn’t too stoked with my 12th place finish but it was still one of the highlights of my season because of the energy and the atmosphere surrounding our team while we were there. We were all staying together with the nordic combined and ski jumpers and we were all so fired up passing each other in the hallways and hanging out in each other’s rooms. It felt like every day we had something to celebrate. And by finishing so high in the medal count we really got the attention of the rest of the world. Again, it just felt like we belonged there and like we were a force to be reckoned with. I think we all know that was just the beginning though and that feeling is something that’s going to be reoccurring here on the world cup and at major races as our team continues to grow. Hopefully, as young junior skiers come up through the ranks they see that too… that they belong here and belong on top of the podium.
PB: Thanks, Andy. Good luck with the rest of your season and in your preparation for the Vancouver Olympics.
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 while living with his wife and seven month old son in Kampala, Uganda. http://philsgoodphoto.blogspot.co