The Road to Whistler and the New Zealand Olympic Team: Ben Koons

November 10, 2009
Ben Koons competes in the New Zealand Winter Games
Ben Koons competes in the New Zealand Winter Games

Ben Koons has been New Zealand’s fastest nordic skier for quite some time.  Born and raised in Dunedin, on the South Island, he grew up participating in a variety of sports but only cross country skied a handful of times.  His family moved to Maine when Ben was fourteen and he started his freshman year as a hockey player at Messalonskee High School.  Soon afterward he switched to nordic skiing, found he had an aptitude for the sport,  and as a senior he won both the skate and classic races at the state championships.

Ben signed on with the Dartmouth Ski Team and in his freshman year he skied to the top of the Region. He qualified for NCAA’s in Stowe, Vermont, and had successful enough races there to earn him entry to compete at the World Cup races.  He then took his sophomore year off from school to focus on racing at the international level in hopes of qualifying for the Olympics in Torino.  He was only 19 years old, and with just a couple solid years of ski training behind him Ben was much less experienced than his international competitors, but he was full of desire to compete for his country at the top level.  Although he didn’t score low enough points to earn a trip to Torino that season, Ben set his sights through the next four years with the goal of competing in the Vancouver Olympics.

In Rwanda, Ben helped build this hydropower generator
In Rwanda, Ben helped build this hydropower generator (photo courtesy of Dartmouth HELP)

Ben returned to school and worked on his major in environmental engineering.  Several times during these years he used his degree for community service in Rwanda, working first in a rural health clinic and afterward heading  a United Nations funded mission to design sustainable energy sources in rural villages.  Several summers he returned to New Zealand to work, train, and race at the Snow Farm, a nordic center which is well-known to many international teams who are looking to get on snow during the summer months.

After graduating from Dartmouth, Ben took some time out from the ski world to complete a cycling trek across Tibet with his brother Nils, who is also a racer for the Dartmouth Ski Team.  The Koons brothers biked 4,000 kilometers in 54 days, in which time they also consumed 285 packets of ramen noodles, got arrested twice, and hitch-hiked 2,000 kilometers.  They finished their adventure in July and Ben returned to New Zealand to resume ski training on snow.

To qualify for the New Zealand National Team, and thus qualify for the NZ Olympic Team,  Ben needed to lower his total FIS points to 100.  He first met that standard with two top-ten finishes in the Australian Continental Cups in early August.  A week later at the New Zealand National Championships he took two 18th places, which made his average FIS points drop to 100.47. This solidified his spot on the New Zealand National Team.   Ben and his NZ National teammates now await official confirmation of the Olympic team selection on January 28.

Last summer you kayaked the upper section of Uganda’s Nile River.  This summer you completed a 4,000 kilometer cycling trip across Tibet with your brother, Nils, which you documented on your blog  What made you want to accomplish these specific trips (in other words, how do you come up with these crazy schemes)?

Thrill Seeker
Thrill Seeker

Both seemed like pretty obvious choices at the time. In Rwanda I had a friend, a motorbike and a couple weeks off work; the White Nile was only three days away and about to be flooded. We were able to paddle some of the worlds best big water and see first hand the complex dynamics of international development, conservation, and tourism associated with large hydro dams.

The China idea was also easy. I was done with Dartmouth, Nils was taking the term off. We were looking to have a wild adventure, not get shot, and eat cheap food. This narrowed it down pretty quickly to cycling across Tibet or hooking-bobbing the Trans-Siberian railroad. Siberia is cold in April.

About half way through Tibet Nils and I decided the trip would make us like Glenn Randall: huge endurance, no speed, skinny arms, great at altitude, socially awkward, patchy beard… (I ran this by Glenn, so it’s fit for print). When I showed up in NZ I was still pretty slow and weak, but then again in the middle of summer volume so were the Canadians (relatively).
Biking through Western Tibet

I think it hurt my bum more than my training. It’s great for toughness, not only grinding over 17,000 ft passes without much food, but seeing old ladies and impoverished kids working in the fields everyday that are way tougher than any athlete I know. A couple of months over 13,000 ft isn’t bad for the lungs either. I bet all the Euros will be doing it next year.

What are a couple of your favorite stories or moments from your kayak and bike trips?

Coming back from Uganda we went to see a Congolese friend on Idjwi Island (DRC), after several days we were arrested on bogus charges. To escape the island we bribed soldiers with a crate of beer.

Early on in China, before Nils and I worked out what was up, we mistook a truck-stop brothel for a restaurant. It got awkward fairly quickly.

Koons (right) sprints to the finish of an eastern cup final (photo by Steve Fuller of Flying Point Road Photography)

Do you think being a skier helped you complete these trips in any way and/or did you take anything from these trips that will help you as a ski racer?

Yes and Yes. I think the second best thing about being a skier is that you have the endurance, strength, coordination, toughness, discipline, whatever, to easily pick things up and excel. Conventional ski training can get pretty monotonous if you are not careful. More and more I’m realizing the importance of adventures as part of training.

You graduated from Dartmouth in ’08, your family still lives and operates a cheesery in Maine, you are training with the Maine Winter Sports Team in Fort Kent, ME, and you often train and work in New Zealand.  Where do you call home?

I usually say I’m from New Zealand and live in Maine. I spent 15 years in NZ and I’m going on 8 years in the States.

Ben with family at the Kennebec Cheesery in Maine
Ben (left) helps construct the family Kennebec Cheesery in Maine

Maine is great but I still feel like NZ is home. However more and more words like ‘ketchup’, ‘hood” (of a car), and ‘restroom’ are sneaking into my vocabulary.

You also travel quite a bit: During the winters you travel to ski races and in the summers you have worked in Rwanda for a UN program, worked at the Snow Farm in NZ,  and have taken these epic adventures in Uganda and Tibet.   It seems like you are a pretty adaptable traveler, but does the travel ever wear on you?  And: How have you managed to train with such an irregular schedule?

Travel sometimes wears on me, but usually less than being stuck in one place.

The irregular schedule has definitely hurt my training at times. In my last years at Dartmouth I had too much going on and was under-performing. I am getting better now at working out the balance. It’s much easier when you’re not at school getting  sick, drunk, tired, over worked and injured (often all at the same time). That being said I don’t think I could train long term without mixing it up. I like feeling that skiing is creating options for me not limiting them.

I have read from your local paper, the Otago Daily Times, that the group of five skiers recently named to the NZ Olympic Team is the highest caliber of nordic athletes that New Zealand has ever had.  Have you noticed an increase in the popularity of nordic racing over the past years that you have returned to NZ to train, race, and coach – and – what is your projection for its evolution in your home country?

Ben’s note: 5 skiers named to the NZ National Team, Olympic selection is not official until Jan 28th.

I have worked as a ski instructor and junior coach at the Snow Farm over the years. It is a relatively new sport for most people and its popularity is growing. I believe New Zealand has huge potential to develop XC skiing, from the recreation and racing level. NZ has a long history of producing world class endurance athletes, and has been especially dominant in middle distance running, triathlon, multisport, adventure racing, rowing and kayaking. Recently there have been significant efforts made to develop winter sports, most notably the addition of the NZ Winter Games, the largest winter sporting event outside of the Olympics. Unfortunately, as in the States, XC gets a bit of a backseat to freestyle and alpine skiing but it is definitely headed in the right direction. It is an exciting time to be involved in the development of the sport.

Ben (right) takes silver in the NZ Winter Games triathlon
Ben (right) takes silver in the NZ Winter Games triathlon

Has New Zealand ever had a structured team or coach before at the national level?

Yes and no. They have had various athletes, and support for those athletes over the years but nothing reassembling a structured team. Although we have trained at the Snow Farm together, currently all the athletes are essentially racing as individuals for NZ. This is changing, now that we have a solid group of senior and junior athletes, there is work on developing long-term development pipelines and team structures. As always funding is a major hurdle.

Ben admires teh NZ landscape on a beautiful day at the Snow Farm.
Admiring the NZ landscape on a beautiful day at the Snow Farm

What is your schedule like until Vancouver –  How long will you train and race with MWSC  and will you go back to New Zealand for awhile before Vancouver so that you can train with the NZ team?

I am in Finland now for a couple weeks of early season training and racing. After that I will head back to the States to train and race with MWSC. I’ll spend the rest of the time before the Games in North America. Specifics depend on how qualification goes so I have a couple different scenarios planned out. I would like to nail the qualification standard early so I can focus on being fast in February. The rest of the NZ team are scattered across Europe, Canada, and the US, I will hook up with them from time to time but for the most part we have separate schedules.

What are your goals for Vancouver?

The same as everyone’s: to represent my country to the best of my ability.

Chang Tang Sand DUnes of Western Tibet
Soaking up the sun while biking through the Chang Tang Sand Dunes of Western Tibet

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