InterviewsNewsThe Road to Whistler: Caitlin Compton

Avatar Nathaniel HerzJune 19, 20092

This week, FasterSkier caught up with Caitlin Compton, fresh off her third consecutive trip to World Championships. At Liberec, Compton placed 48th in the 30 kilometer pursuit, and also anchored the U.S. team to a 14th-place finish in the 4×5 kilometer relay. She was national champion in the 5k freestyle in Anchorage, and she also competed in the Whistler World Cup in January, placing 32nd in the 15k pursuit, and 17th with Morgan Smyth in the team sprint. Now Compton is back at home in the Twin Cities and is well into her training for the upcoming year.

Compton sprinting at US Nationals in 2008 in Houghton, Michigan
Compton sprinting at US Nationals in 2008 in Houghton, Michigan

FS: You’re out in Minnesota, which, as I understand, is pretty flat and without some of the scenery that exists in other skiing hotbeds. What do you do to vary the terrain and keep things interesting?

Caitlin Compton: The one thing that would make it absolutely perfect here would be some mountains, because I did grow up in Vermont, and I just loved running in the mountains. When I moved here I was little apprehensive…I’d heard stories. Sure enough, though, there’s just enough vertical here that it takes being a little creative. There’s definitely some skiing up and getting a ride down, that kind of thing. My overdistance run the other day had a lot of vertical, but I was definitely going up and down the same ridge. It’s doable—you just have to take a little bit of a different approach.

FS: I hear the rollerskiing is pretty sweet in that area, though…

CC: The rollerskiing here is just unbelievable, I have such a blast rollerskiing here, and the terrain is just great for mimicking cross-country ski trails. I’ve gotten out rollerskiing here way more than anywhere else I’ve lived, and I think it’s been a big part of why I’ve been so successful these past few years.

In Minnesota, there’s an extensive bike path system, and you can make it what you want. It can be urban, but they also go out towards one of the suburbs, and beyond that we have an area called Afton that’s about 40 minutes away that reminds me of rollerskiing in Vermont. It’s got quite good paved roads—you can easily ski out there for four hours plus and not ski on the same roads twice. And in the cities themselves, I think there’s hundreds of k’s of skiing.

FS: And there are a lot of masters and junior skiers to bang heads with, too…

CC: The ski community here is booming. There’s so much interest from the high school level, it’s just huge, a big deal. The masters group here is just unreal, too. I have so many high-level women here to train with on a regular basis, and that’s just so supportive. You see a rollerskier out almost every time you go, and that’s pretty awesome.

FS: You were with CXC two years out of the last three, with a season of biathlon in between. Who are you training with now?

CC: This year I’m going to actually stay with some more local groups, primarily to try to encourage the whole club kind of idea, where I can stay within the Twin Cities. There are a ton of great resources here.

It was a difficult decision because CXC is just a great program. Oftentimes, though, it would kind of pull us local athletes over toward Wisconsin, and it was kind of a disconnect for the local kids. We would do little clinics here and there, but I think it’s really important for that ongoing connection. Now, for example, on a more regular basis I can jump in with groups on my distance days and have them see what it takes, and to show them that it’s attainable.

I’m going to be working with the Sisu Nordic Ski Foundation. It just started this spring, and it’s sort of a new division of what has already been established through the Finn Sisu organization, and what Ahvo [Taipale, owner of Finn Sisu ski shop and coach of Sisu Skiers Training Group] has had here in the city for many years. He worked with Chad Giese to help him get to a high level, and they have a huge community of skiers that have been involved for years and years and years.

I’ll be working with a couple of different coaches: Ben Popp, Mike Nightingale, and of course, Ahvo Taipale. Ben is the main coach, Mike can help with the execution of the workouts and the organization of travel, and then Ahvo has been primarily a technique coach.

FS: Has that transition from CXC to the Sisu group gone well?

CC: Well, I’ve come to the realization that the optimum situation is to just as get as much one-on-one time with a coach as possible. I realized that [with CXC], I was spending a huge amount of time here in Minnesota away from the camps where I was testing, so I was not connected to any sort of group. It became pretty obvious that the Sisu group is going to offer that, for this year in particular, which I think is pretty crucial. The bulk of the training—everything is there, and now it’s just refining that last upper end that needs to be addressed.

FS: Has leaving CXC made you feel isolated, though, since you don’t have an elite group to train with?

CC: I totally miss the CXC team. It’s a crazy mix of people and it’s a great mix of people— when you’re at a training camp, it’s fun. At the same time, I actually have more people here in the city to train with: Carolyn Bramante, JoJo Winters, Hillary Patzer, and a handful of elite women who might not be contending for World Cup starts, but are serious about training. They are gung-ho before work just to go hammer, hard.

That was one of my biggest concerns, but there’s just so much energy and so many skiers here. We did a workout with the masters last Thursday, and it seemed like there were more than a hundred people there, psyched to do a little time trial.

Compton on her way to victory in the 5k freestyle at the 2009 US Nationals in Anchorage
Compton on her way to victory in the 5k freestyle at the 2009 US Nationals in Anchorage

FS: You had a brief foray into the Biathlon side of things back in 2007-2008, and you were back to XC last year. Is there anything you learned from doing biathlon that you’ve found helpful coming back to the XC side of things?

CC: I definitely spend a lot of time trying to figure out what’s been successful with my training. In biathlon, there’s definitely some different training theory in play. It’s pretty cool seeing…what it was about those particular models [biathlon and CXC/cross-country] that worked.

This year I sort of decided to take a little bit of a hybrid approach, and use what I know has worked in the past in a systematic way. I’m actually doing a plan that’s very similar to what I did w/ CXC, with some elements of what I did in biathlon mixed in there. I think I learned a lot in biathlon that definitely helped my skiing. And, I definitely learned a lot about skiing and training in general within the CXC model.

FS: You’ve been looked over by the U.S. Ski Team (USST) a number of times, and it seems like you’ve still managed to have a lot of success despite not having the same level of support of a lot of your peers. Do you use that to motivate yourself?

CC: I was a little bit disappointed that first year [I was left off the team], but now, I totally understand where the USST is coming from, and what their approach is right now. Obviously it’s tough because I feel like I’m in this funny void. My situation isn’t even in the verbiage of how they would choose someone at this point, and I kind of feel like I missed that opportunity a little bit.

At the same time, what they said to me is that in no way, shape, or form will I not be able to contend for a spot on the Olympic team. They’ve picked me three times now for a World Championship start, if you include the year in biathlon. The door is wide open—they say that and they mean that. The World Cup starts, getting those opportunities—I feel like it’s totally possible now. The one thing that does become tricky is that without the national team title, you do miss the opportunities sometimes, like going to the training camps. I did get to go to Bend, which was awesome, and which I hope they will continue, having these open camps. They tried to help out as much as possible to integrate these other groups.

It’s those little things like that, where I can’t go to New Zealand, and I can only fund so much. I’m already on the credit card, so I’m a little nervous about that. Those trips to Europe where you do get a chance to get on the World Championship team—if you did want to go to the other races after that with the USST, you’re on your own. You get these opportunities, but you only get one shot, or you get a very small window. If you want to be on the international circuit on an ongoing basis, you have to nail those big races.

Otherwise you don’t get to be taken along,

I think it’s good though, because if everybody is in contention, if it isn’t just a national team that can qualify, then it keeps everyone on their toes. The national team doesn’t kick back and say “I’ve made it.” It helps push those girls on the national team, and they’re obviously kicking butt.

FS: So are you going to keep racing after this season is over? Are the 2014 Olympics in play?

CC: I still want to keep racing. That’s maybe been the hardest part, with the whole age thing and the whole college thing. Still, I feel like I wouldn’t change anything that I’ve done. I definitely learned some incredibly important lessons and training things from my time at Northern Michigan University (NMU), and from Sten [Fjeldheim, the NMU coach]. I think it was the perfect option for my skiing career, and I always knew that I would ski after college and that was the plan.

In defense of it all, I definitely think that NMU was an awesome place to be in school and to train. Marquette is ideal for training; Sten knows so much from so many athletes. I remember being there, and it was a serious training group. We were there to train and do school, and I wouldn’t change that at all.

My full time skiing career—this is only my fourth year going into it. If you take my age and subtract college, I feel like that’s where my age is, and my passion and my drive. I’ve got a bunch of the great people in the community always encouraging me. This is what I love doing—it’s definitely always challenging, but if it wasn’t fulfilling and if it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing, I guess the joke is that I could be much more financially stable working another job. There’s definitely enough passion behind it to keep going,

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Nathaniel Herz

Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.

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