XCFeedsThe Johnny5: Pete Vordenberg

Avatar Johnny KlisterJune 20, 2009

History shows that the truly revered leader, from Moses to Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, from Virgil to Luke Skywalker, faced down challenges they didn’t plan for and struggles that, in truth, could just as easily have beaten them.  Overcoming is as large a quality of leadership as is experience and persistence.  (Historians may look back on the successful Obama campaign and point out that it was less “change” and “hope” that propelled the unlikely leader to the highest office in the land and more the completion of his truly remarkable story by an American public that can feel how these things should end.)  Pete Vordenberg isn’t in the company of Obama or Luke Skywalker, yet, but he has pieced together the ingredients of overcoming: dogged persistence tempered with flexibility, confidence sure enough to know mistakes, and the occasional flash of fire.  br/ There is no end to Vordy stories (some would make FakeFasterSkier blush) but the one that perhaps best defines the indomitable experience of working with Pete comes from the Lake Placid coaches conference held in 2005. (Organized by Nathan Schultz.)  After a day of laying out the expectations for American coaches, dialing in the needed improvements for US skiers, a single coach asked a question that involved equivocation,br/br/“So we need strength, technique and distance / fitness training?  If you were going to cut out one, which one would you cut out?”br/br/The question was directed at, then-head coach Trond Nystad, who began to answer it, when Pete stood up and lightly touched his arm saying quietly, “I’d like to take this…br/br/What do you cut out?  What do you cut out?  You cut out the six hours of TV a day, or the time on the internet, YOU CUT OUT THE EXCUSES BECAUSE YOU AREN’T GOING TO GET ANY BETTER CUTTING ANYTHING ELSE OUT.”br/br/The place grew quiet.  That was the first time Pete Vordenberg addressed the skiing community as a whole but he’s stayed on message since then. br/br/It should be a surprise that Pete is dogged as a coach- it was his most defining quality as an athlete as well.  As a teenager living abroad in Sweden, Pete skied with the leaders of the Vasoloppet for nearly 70 kilometers before fading slightly and finishing in the top ten.  (Television announcers in the press helicopter frantically tried to figure out who the guy was, then finally deciding that someone else must be skiing in his bib because it was impossible that a teenager from the U.S. would be doing so well.)br/br/In his book Momentum, Vordy outlines the culture that he chooses to live in, “The trick is to leap out of bed as soon as you are aware of consciousness….to go from the gun.”br/br/In an interview with fellow former factory team skier, Phil Bowen, Pete described his transition to coach as such, br/br/“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.”br/br/br/These days, what Pete is trying to make us feel is clear:  He’s responsible for 60% of the best Nordic ski photos in circulation (Bowen gets 30% and various hangers on get the other 10%.) He contributes to the dialogue whenever approached by any coach, from any walk of the ski world.  He doesn’t maintain any of the self-important machinations that other head coach predecessors did.   He’s able to leave behind the bidness of skiing when he has to- say for an evening on the town.  He’s the guy that has taken the reins and stopped making excuses.  Certainly, Pete owes success to others: to Luke Bodensteiner for pushing for funding, for a wide collection of supporters for standing behind him.  But he’s put together a solid staff: many of whom were also pointed to as gamechangers in skiing.  Certainly the work isn’t done.  That day will come when godfather-turned-gadfly, John Caldwell has nothing left to comment on and when the USST can be seen as nothing else but a powerful team, more than a collection of individuals working at a goal.  He’s putting his head down and killing the work.  If Pete fails at making cross country skiing an American institution, it won’t be from a lack of effort.br/br/In a nomination for the Johnny5 in support of Pete, this was written, br/br/“Pete has changed Nordic skiing in the US more than anybody since Kochie. When he took over as head coach the atmosphere was divisive and poisonous. Pete saw the power of bringing people under one flag, putting everybody on one team. He did this the only way possible – by making phone calls and inviting people to be part of programs. He put together a staff built on inclusiveness, and he did it all without compromising the highest goals or giving anybody a break on the level of expectation. His work has been ongoing, and he has never once been satisfied with small successes. He sees the potential that remains untapped and he continues to push the community to think in terms of getting better. He’s not a miracle maker – there will always be people who disagree with any direction that is taken, and there will always be programs that work outside the system. But the current conversation being generated about US Skiing is evidence that the community is now taking its lead from the USST. This wasn’t the case until recently.”

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