Tea for Two – Or Two Hundred
Ski and Tea started, three years ago, as a women’s training and social group that had a non-competitive focus. This year more than two dozen members are signed up for the Birkie races, some of whom never had any intention of completing a ski race in their life – let alone a marathon.
Amy Rowley is an example of one of those women. As an alpine skier who married into a nordic family, Amy’s reply to her family’s repeated attempts to get her into the Birkie was, “There’s no way I would ever ski that far!” Amy had been dabbling in nordic for a couple of years, but it wasn’t until her mother-in-law, Judy Rowley (who lives in Hayward and was already a part of the group), talked her into joining Tea and Ski, that Amy found she enjoyed skiing enough to want to race. After learning to skate just last year, Amy is now entered in the Birkie 50k.
“This year, after taking the clinics and learning how to skate and getting a little more excited about it because of the Ski and Tea women – especially the encouragement that I received from them – I kind of worked in baby steps to see if I could actually do it, and I’ve been working on just getting in better shape in general this past year – the training really helps.”
Ski and Tea was founded by Juli Lynch and Linda Cook three years ago. Juli had just moved to Hayward from Milwaukee and, as an avid runner and skier, was looking for some training partners in the area. Linda had began competing in the Birkie even before she moved to Hayward 10 years ago, and knew many of the local skiers and runners.
Together they formed the group on a vision: to get women excited about staying in shape and cross country skiing. But they didn’t want the focus to be on racing or competition. They wanted the goal to be fitness, with the ability to simply enjoy being on skis. Most importantly, they wanted the women to feel they were an integral part of a social network, an active member in a community of women athletes who were all equal despite their age or ability. Thus, their motto was born: No woman left behind.
Every time they meet, the women introduce themselves and say something or share a story. If there is a new person joining the group, that person gets partnered with a veteran member so that she does not feel like an outsider. As their motto suggests, the group always makes sure that the last woman on a distance ski or interval workout is never alone: the leaders of the workout circle back after they are finished and pick up the last person, so that everyone finishes together.
Juli explains, “We pointedly wanted our mission to be about creating a community of women skiers and actually downplaying the idea of competition because as we spoke with women we found so many who were living here, in Hayward, the home of the Birkie, that didn’t ski because they were intimidated by the whole idea of cross country skiing and the Birkie trail. . .”
“What’s come from that, that’s really neat, is that over the past three years more and more of our women are coming to our fall kick-off and they’re saying “I want to do the Birkie this year.”
This will be the first long ski race for Michelle Dale, and though she says she has been dealing with numerous injuries this winter, the encouragement she has received from her fellow Ski and Tea friends has allowed her “despite the challenges, to keep going and do my best.”
“The Ski & Tea women have been very helpful and supportive,” says Dale. “What I like best about them is the philosophy which is “No women Left Behind”. They really mean it – it’s not just a saying on the cute hats we wear. All of us are treated equal and given training advice and tips whether we start in the first wave or the last wave of the race.”
Ski and Tea meets every Friday at “OO”, the midway point on the Birkie course; in the winter on skis and summer on foot. With the addition of dryland training, the group has not only taught women to love skiing in the winter, it has also made runners out of women who never thought they would want to run.
Enjoyment of skiing via improvement of technique is an emphasis in Ski and Tea. The group currently has several members who have a strong enough background in skiing that training sessions often includes a coaching session.
They also have a unique relationship with some of the women who race for CXC: Maria Stuber, Kristina Owen, Jojo Winters, Audrey Weber, and Kelly Chaudoin. The young elite athletes put on several clinics a year for the Ski and Tea women, but Linda explains that these are more than just clinics because there is a special bond between the women.
“It is just glorious to have that friendship develop,” said Linda, ” It’s just amazing to get all generations, ages, and all abilities together. These young women are just absolutely beautiful.”
Some of the women in Ski and Tea who have been in the group and raced more than one year have seen their times and finish places improve by a huge margin. But more than the end result, the women are delighting in the process.
Her pride in these women is evident as Linda says, “They’re loving skiing so much more because they’ve had the support, the encouragement, the inspiration of the ski and team women, and our coaches, and our clinics, so they’re enjoying skiing. Whereas before it was a chore, it was not something that was fun, it was getting out there and slogging it out, now they’ve improved their technique and that makes for more comfortable skiing, more enjoyable skiing.”
Linda guesses that there are about 10 women who are racing the Birkie for the first time this year, several of whom will be entering their first-ever race. The main thing Linda tells these women is not to get too nervous at the start.
“Keep warm and keep their clothes on ‘til the last minute.. . Be calm, cool relax. That’s the key, to relax. Not to go out too fast, not get caught up in the crowd, because there a lot of skiers out there.”
About to enter her second full Birkie, Colleen Graham would also advise first-time racers “to not get so nervous about your performance that you miss out on the fun. Since it’s your first Birkie, no matter when you cross the finish line it’s going to be a personal best!”
Graham can speak to motivation. She had done a number of Korteloppets before last year, but the catalyst for entering her first Birkie came about when her friend Barb, who had just come back from a serious injury, wanted to re-enter the race.
“The primary goal was to get Barb across the finish line so it nearly eliminated any performance anxiety I might have felt,” said Graham. “I honestly don’t know if I would’ve tried it if I hadn’t been so impressed with Barb’s courage.”
When Ski and Tea first met, on a Friday three years ago, seven women showed up. Training day now regularly sees 10-35 women, but the number of women who receive the weekly newsletter is over 220.
“There must be a need, or else we wouldn’t have had this kind of response,” says Juli.
According to Juli, there are three kinds of women that actively participate in Ski and Tea, with about a third of each type making up the whole group:
1) Women who compete in a number of ski races every year, whether competitive or not.
2) Women who had never raced before and would never have raced if not for Tea and Ski.
3) Women who are not ready to race yet, but love being active and involved.
Linda writes the newsletter, which includes training tips, women’s stories, and dates of upcoming clinics. Some women who receive the letter, sent by email, are not living in the area and do not train with Tea and Ski, but like to receive the newsletter because it is informative, inspirational, and allows them to be a part of a special community.
On Saturday, more than two dozen hats declaring “No Woman Left Behind” will be racing on the Birkie trails. Fast or slow, they’ve found the motivation to be part of an even larger nordic community as they take on a challenge for themselves – and their fellow Tea-mates.