In honor of a Dec. 6 celebration of Soviet skiing legend and Midwest coach Nikolai Anikin, Christa Case Bryant collected anecdotes from a broad swath of former colleagues and athletes including Vladimir Smirnov, John Bauer, former USST staff, and a museum worker in Nikolai’s birthplace of Ishim, Siberia. A profile and shortened version of the anecdotes was published by the Duluth News Tribune.
When the Iron Curtain still hung supreme, the US and Soviet ski teams formed an unprecedented coaching exchange program, initiated in 1985 when a US freestyle coach went to the USSR.
Despite the tense political situation at the time, the two teams were increasingly reaching out to support each other in additional ways as well. At the 1988 spring conference of the International Ski Federation in Istanbul, Turkey, the Soviets were the only country to back a US push to legalize cash prizes, says Howard Peterson, who was president and CEO of the US Ski Team at the time.
During that conference, while the delegates were on an excursion in the Bosporus, the Russian vice minister of sport, Olympic gold medalist Victor Mamatov, approached Mr. Peterson on board the 1,100-passenger boat.
“I have an idea for you,” he said. “I have a very, very talented national team coach — junior team, national team coach, and a very successful skier himself. You’ve done a lot of things for us in bringing our freestyle team from nowhere to medal contention. How about we send him to America?”
And what an idea Nikolai Anikin was.
He came to the US in 1989 on a development grant for coaches education, and became well-known for his blurry black and white videos of Russian skiers bounding through forests and lifting rocks for strength training. With his broken English and gold teeth, he was an unforgettable fixture of American skiing. Back home in Russia, he remained a legend for his contributions as a long-time national team coach and for his three Olympic medals – including the Soviet team’s first gold, which he helped them win as anchor in the 1956 Olympic relay.
Nikolai passed away at his home in Duluth on Nov. 14 after a long illness, but his humility, gentleness, patience, and humor live on in the hearts of those who knew him. In honor of the celebration of his life held in Duluth on Sunday, Dec. 6, here is a collection of stories from more than two dozen former athletes and colleagues, including Vladimir Smirnov, John Bauer, former USST staff, and a museum worker in his birthplace of Ishim, Siberia.
And edited version of these anecdotes, as well as a full-length profile of Nikolai, was published by the Duluth News Tribune:
‘I never saw Nikolai angry, upset, or even disturbed. He was forever kind, gentle, supporting, and full of good humor. Heavens, how we will miss him.
Nikolai Anikin, gold medalist, prince of coaches, prince of men.’
The first time I drove with him I was pretty nervous because we took some air a couple of times on that road between Park City and Salt Lake, but Nikolai, who was busy talking, was quite relaxed. A few months later, when I was eating dinner with some of the Russian delegation at an FIS Congress, they asked me how Nikolai was doing. I told them he was enjoying driving his Team car around Utah and the Russians looked aghast. I asked what the problem was and they said that our driving tests in the States must be a lot easier than those in Russia because they tried to keep Nikolai from driving over there.
When Nikolai visited me there was always wood to cut and split and I’ve never seen this technique used by anyone else. He would stand the piece of wood on its end and instead of taking a big swing with the maul, starting over his head as most people do, he would take a very short, easy swing and as soon as the maul came in contact with the wood to be split, he would will it through – that’s the best way I can describe it – will it through with leverage from his shoulder and back muscles. He loved to work with wood and every morning would tell me, “Chon, we go to the forest today.”
– John Caldwell
Nikolai’s first American friend
In 1954-55, Anikin showed good results and joined the national team of the USSR. The competition was very high. In the 1956 Winter Olympic Games, the first for the USSR, Anikin competed in the 4 x10 km relay. He did well and didn’t let his team down. They were the first Winter Olympic Games champions in Soviet history. It was his brightest victory.
– Victor Aleksandrovich Ivanov
Coached the Soviet and Russian national teams for 35 years,
serving as head coach from 1986-92
Nikolai was not one to tell of some great feat he did, in fact it took coaxing to get him to tell of his famous anchor leg of the 4 x 10 relay in the 1956 Olympics in Italy. He helped to win the gold medal – exactly what his heart was made of. We will miss the smile with the gold tooth.
– Jayme (Schricker) Simon,
‘I want to bow deeply to Anikin’s memory.’
Nikolai Petrovich, great sportsman, the honored master of sports of the USSR*, Olympic champion, was never content with himself. At the end of his career he went to America to work as a trainer. There he started to coach national USA team, and also to work in a local club.
In 1999, I met him and his family for the last time when I was invited to America, in Duluth where he lived. There I also met some of his pupils. All of them, without any exception, were glad that there was a Soviet professional expert-trainer in America who had deep experience and an ability to inspire people to love sport and achieve good results.
Nikolai Petrovich, rest in peace and we will always remember YOU well.
– Skier Vladimir Smirnov
Four-time Olympian (1988-1998)
Seven-time Olympic medalist
* Honored master of sport is the highest classification of an athlete under former USSR classifications, defined as an international champion who has made valuable contributions to his sport.
One of Nikolai’s big dreams was to take his Jeep Cherokee back to Russia. He and his wife Antonina had had one for about a year without driving it. It was just immaculate – they thought it would be so valuable that it would be their retirement.
Finally they decided it was OK to take it out and they drove it to my house. I had a young skier staying with me at the time, working at my ski shop in Seeley, Wisc. That morning, he was late for work and I happened to look out the window just as he hurriedly slammed into Nikolai’s Jeep.
He looked like he was facing death. He came in and said, “Nikolai will kill me.” So I said, “We gotta go tell him.”
We went up to the guest bedroom and Antonina was in front of the mirror, practicing her speech for a clinic that day. (She was always worried about her English, but I told her if she lost her accent, she’d lose her credibility.) I said, Nikolai, Joel and I need to talk to you.
So Nikolai came out and I told him, Joel just accidentally ran into your car.
“Oh, no problem,” was his response.
I said, “No, Nikolai, it is a problem, you gotta come see this.”
He insisted, “No, Dennis, no problem.”
So we took him outside to look at the damage – it was so bad that it took a steel bar to bend the hatch and get the back door to open. And he was just like, “No, no problem. This happens.”
– Dennis Kruse,
‘I have spent a lot of time around elite level athletes and coaches, and I can’t say that I know anyone in my experience as honest, caring, and passionate, with as much raw integrity as a person, as Nikolai.’
– Chad Salmela,
‘All my merits are his merits…. I am grateful to destiny for my acquaintance with such fine person. Intelligent, soft, sociable, he – without raising his voice – could convince anybody with his arguments. Everyone who knew him can tell only good things about him.’
– Vladimir Voronkov,
1972 Olympic gold medalist
Nikolai and Gitchi Gummi introduced me to the world of competitive ski racing in the summer of 1996, when I came to Duluth at age 17. Every morning at 7 am I would be on a grassy field in Duluth’s east side with the rest of the team and I would hear, half jokingly, “Abby, Abby, it is too expensive, you pay too much, maybe skiing not the sport for you.” Despite my inefficient technique and overall lack of aptitude and promise, Nikolai worked with me as he did every other member of the elite team. He gave me the opportunity to channel my intensity into a passion that eventually led me to the 2006 Olympics.’
Nikolai has always had legend status in my mind and will always be remembered fondly by the ski community who knew him. It is with great sadness that I say goodbye to a man that was so likable and sincere. Duluth stores emotion-evoking memories for me and great nostalgia always overwhelms me whenever I return.
Thank you Nikolai.
– Abby Larson
Salt Lake City, UT
On the back of a picture he had taken of me, he had written “Future Olympic Skier.”
Nikolai, always on the lookout for bargain parts for his camp on McQuade road, decided to salvage the bricks they were tearing out of the cobblestone road in downtown Duluth and hauled them out to the property in his little Toyota. Of course, it doesn’t take many bricks to make a heavy load, and in the course of ferrying the bricks to their new home, he burned out the car’s transmission.
Nikolai was undaunted, maybe not realizing that nobody in their right mind would attempt to rebuild a car’s engine or replace a transmission without a lot of tools, equipment, or experience. He just bought a new transmission and proceeded with its installation by himself.
– Sara Zimmer
Former Gitchi Gummi athlete
My coach and friend Nikolai Anikin has had an enormous impact on my life. From the day I first met him with his big smile and broken English to this day, he is a part of me.
Nikolai loved wandering around in the woods during our long runs. Sometimes you would see him at the top of hill saying, “Yes, yes, yes, is good,” while other times you would see him under a thick canopy of trees looking at some bark. I am sure he was plotting about what to do with his land. One hot summer day he came out of the woods with a plastic shopping bag full of mushrooms. I asked him if he knew which ones were edible. His reply was, “Yes, is very tasty with potato, and onion.” I smiled and thought he was a true woodsman. I have since looked at wild mushrooms with Nikolai in my mind.
– Andy Wood
When I was living in Duluth, my teammate and roommate Andy Wood didn’t like to get up early for morning training and would routinely miss or be late. When I’d show up, Nik would look at me incredulously. “But where is your tall brother?” he would ask. Eventually, I started asking Woody to get up – then started coming with him. I didn’t think anything about it then but it was Nik’s subtle way of asking and getting me to respond. It was a deft coaching move that – try as I might now – I can never replicate with the same authenticity.
– Andrew Gardner
Head Ski Coach
‘I think it wasn’t just about strength training. I think it was also about technique and discipline in even the simplest things, like jumping on one leg.’
How could I mess up jumping on one leg? But I did, and he would pull me aside and in his humble broken English he’d work with me to get me to concentrate. I think it wasn’t just about strength training. I think it was also about technique and discipline in even the simplest things, like jumping on one leg.
Once when we went out to roller ski, I remember looking over to see Nikolai standing behind some bushes with his video camera as if to hide, but I think he was also trying to setup a nice composition with foliage. Again he was a perfectionist.
– Tom Rassuchine
‘With Nikolai I felt that the pure love of skiing and putting in your best effort were the real marks of accomplishment.’
– Todd Eastman
‘While I was not one of Nikolai and Antonina’s athletes, I worked with them in Marquette and I have certainly taken from all of them to form my own style of coaching now While Nikolai had much to teach about skiing, I think his biggest impact on me was more inspirational. I remember vividly Nikolai’s method of video review, which was humorous, focused, and always blunt.’
– Pete Vordenburg
US Ski Team Head Coach
Park City, UT
‘I learned more from Nikolai and Antonina in my short period of time in working with them probably than anybody else that I’ve ever worked with – both technique and how to respect athletes.’
I’d known the Russian Nordic combined skiers for a long time before meeting Nikolai. It was the Soviet Union then, and I think people have this image that they were this tightly disciplined group that did everything they were told to do. The truth of it was, the coaches understood that they weren’t commanders of a squad – they were cooperators by helping athletes being great. They never told an athlete what to do – they would make recommendations.
– Steve Gaskill
Former Head Coach of the US Ski Team
‘He was a very human person, but a rigid, exigent coach.’
– Videnin Vyatcheslav
I remember the 30km in Bend, Oregon, at US Nationals in 1997. I had a really good race going, probably going a little bit faster than I needed to, but you could tell he was super excited about that. You could always tell when he was impressed – it was rare, but it was always fun to experience.
– John Bauer
‘Although skiing was the focus, he always had a comment about what a wonderful day it was, how great the weather was, how wonderful it was to be outdoors and just be alive.’
Their messages [at a clinic in Madison, Wisc.,] were actually TOO simple for some, who couldn’t comprehend how a focus on basic body positioning could help advanced skiers like them. They even dragged Nikolai aside during the lunch break to have him observe their technique. They were stuck on the American method of “fix me” – they were looking for the “silver bullet” that would magically make them perfect. They didn’t realize Nikolai had already given it to them.
Nikolai is one of the few truly great men I know.
– Don Fariss
Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin
I didn’t know Nikolai personally until he came here but I knew about him for a long time before – the guy’s a legend. Nikolai saw himself as a scientist but skiing was a personal thing for him – it wasn’t just science. It wasn’t just you do x, y, and z and then you get good. He’d be one of these guys being out there in the cold and he’d be loving it. He’d put down the video camera and he’d just kind of watch.
– Ruff Patterson
Dartmouth College Head Coach
Former US Ski Team coach
In the woods off the main trail at Negaunee Township, Nikolai and I were breaking a fresh trail on classic skis and came upon some tracks in the snow.
“Only a deer goes in this place!” he exclaimed. Beyond all the training and ski technique, here is this world-class ski coach excited just to be skiing in the solitude of the forest. It is this love of skiing that we share that I will always remember and appreciate.
– Ken Wikgren
In June 1989, I was one of 50 coaches who attended a national coaches’ clinic in Marquette, Mich. I arrived at Meyland Hall at Northern Michigan University to get my room. I was told that my roommate was Nikolai Anikin. Who? I had never heard of him.
This was the beginning of one of the greatest experiences I have ever had. Picture a typical college dorm room – two beds with a 3-foot aisle between them. Picture an American coach who finally realized his roommate was the former Head Soviet Team Coach. Picture an American coach who knows the Soviet system is falling, who has no idea about which side of the political fence the Soviet coach is on, who has no idea of what questions to ask. Then picture the coach saying to himself, “I can’t stand this!”
As I began to ask questions, Nikolai gave me an education about the world he came from. He was very candid. He knew the political system. He knew its strengths and its problems. As the camp went on, the aisle between our beds went from being a barrier to common ground. ”Wake up Jack” came out [in Nikolai’s English] as “Jump up Jack.” After Marquette he always considered me his first new American friend.
– Jack Jeffrey
Head Nordic Coach Mesabi East HS
FIS and USSA TD
On Nikolai’s broken English:
‘It was a wonderful problem, it made us all pay attention.’
– Galen Sayward
Former US Ski Team Nordic Coaches’ Education Coordinator
With Fondest Memories of My Friend, Nikolai Anikin
I first met Nikolai in autumn of 1988, when I stayed with him while interviewing for a future job with U.S. Ski Association. That weekend and friendship will always be a very happy memory. We watched numerous other comical situations, whether he was washing the Subaru in the front yard in his very brief briefs! Or Flying to Europe to serve as a technical delegate at World Cups without a visa, passport, or any clearance, and talking his way back into USA!
– Hugh Cooke
Former US Ski Team Nordic director
‘What were his initial impressions of America? He emerged from his first foray into Albertson’s wide-eyed. “Do you know they have a whole ‘street’ for dog food?”’
– John Bower,
Former US Ski Team Nordic Program Director
‘I had arrived from Ural Mountains, and knew nobody in ski circles. And from the very beginning he talked to me as an equal and without any [condescension].’
Once we watched the biathlon World Championships on TV together. He switched off the TV sound and just for fun represented the commentator. It was the best impression of my life. So easily and freely did he speak, joke, and as a high-level professional showed so much knowledge and a wide experience as a skier. I have never ever heard anything better in all my life. He was a kind, sympathetic, cheerful person, clever interlocutor, and the highest professional.
I’ll remember him for as long as I live.
– Alexander Ryazanov
Posted on www.skisport.ru
Tell the American people that we remember him here in his birthplace of Ishim, Siberia, as one of the most outstanding people we ever had. We had an exhibition in our museum about our most famous people and particularly about Anikin. He was born in a family of a worker. He studied at school here; it was railway school No. 13 (now it is No. 4). His first coach was Vasily Alexeevich Porfiryev, an excellent specialist who gave him a start in life. In 1942 we got a sport school here and Porfiryev became its director. Anikin went in for several kinds of sport, track and field athletics, swimming, and skating. It was Porfiryev who advised him to concentrate on skiing.
It is interesting that there was another person who was born in the very same year and in the same month, who studied in the same class and in the same school as Anikin. His name was Shakhlin and he became Olympic Champion in gymnastics in the 1956 Summer Games. Later they both came to Ishim, for a short visit.”
– Masterskikh Galina Dmitrievna
Local museum worker in Ishim, Siberia
[Boris Shakhlin won 13 Olympic medals in total, seven of them gold; he passed on in May 2008.]
“In later years, I loved seeing you at Grandma’s Marathon and you never lost your zest for life. Thank you for the gift of your beauty, kindness and friendship that you shared with all of us. Godspeed my friend.”
– Peter Q. Graves
(Posted on SkiRacing.com)
Although Nikolai was used to traveling in elite teams, he always wanted to be with the little guy, the people in trenches, athletes who were coming up in the ranks. He took so much passion to the sport of cross-country skiing, and it was perfectly channeled when he was working with the local community. Duluth would have been a perfect community for him.
– Lee Todd,
Former Nordic director of US Skiing
‘Nikolai Anikin is part of World and Russian sports history and he will be remembered while there are skis on the earth.’
Anikin, Nikolai Petrovich. Born 25.01.1932 in Ishim, Tyumen region (Siberia). An honored master of sports, honored trainer of the USSR, and awarded with Sign of Honor.
Winter Olympic Games of 1956
15 km – 7th place
4х10 km – 1st place: Terentyev, Kolchin, Anikin, Kuzin
Winter Olympic Games – 1960
30 km – 3rd place
4х10 km – 3rd place: Shelyukhin, Vaganov, Smiths, Anikin
World Championships – 1958
4х10 km – 2 place: Terentyev, Anikin, Shelyukhin, Kolchin
USSR Championships 1957
30 km – 3rd place (out of 100 participants)
4х10 km – 1st place: Кондаков С, Rams В, Anikin Н (3), Kolchin
USSR Championships 1958
15 km – 3rd place (out of 83 participants)
30 km – 2nd place (out of 80 participants)
50 km – 4th place (out of 40 participants)
4х10 km – 3rd place: Емелин Л, Rams В, Rudkovsky Е, Anikin Н (3).
USSR Championships 1960
15 km – 2nd place
30 km – 3rd place
USSR Championships 1961
15 km – 3rd place (out of 255 participants)
30 km – 2nd place (out of 253 participants)
4х10 km – On the last leg Anikin was leading but fell and was forced to withdraw.
– Statistics posted on www.skisport.ru by “Severny fan” (“northern” fan)
Russian anecdotes collected and translated by Olga Podolskaya in Moscow.