There are very few athletes in the U.S. brimming with potential like Simi Hamilton. With a national championship in the skate sprint, a win in the qualifying round of the same event at the U-23 World Championships (punctuated by an unfortunate episode with a pole grip), and a hard-earned spot on the U.S. Olympic team, it has been a decent year thus far for the Aspen, Colorado native—and it’s still only February.
After four years at Middlebury College, Hamilton opted for full-time skiing this year with the Sun Valley Olympic Development Team. After racing the early-season SuperTours and National Championships, he made the trip to Europe for the U-23 races, where he found out about his spot on the Olympic team. After getting a start in the 15k freestyle and taking 64th, he had the best male American performance in the sprint—his main event—then anchored the American relay team to a 13th place finish. FasterSkier caught up with Hamilton just before the start of the racing in Whistler to talk about his winter.
FasterSkier: Your season has had a lot of ups and downs. You were sick at the beginning of the season but came back for national championship. Then you missed the initial Olympic team but won that sprint qualifier at U-23’s. Then you essentially lost your quarterfinal heat. But right afterwards—was it the same day?—you found out that you were indeed going to Vancouver.
Simi Hamilton: I won the qualifier on Tuesday the 26th, and then I raced the 15k classic on the 28th, and I found out I think on that night. So I think it was a couple days after.
FS: But still, kind of a roller coaster of a year?
SH: Yeah, that’s a pretty good way to put it. I don’t really think I’ve had too many negative turns—I would like to think that pretty much everything has been positive either in the sense that I’ve done really well results-wise, or I’ve learned something from what wasn’t the best result. But yeah, I was kind of struggling with a little bit of illness at the beginning of the season. My body was trying to just kind of fight off a virus for a couple months there. The early SuperTours were definitely pretty cold, and I don’t think that really helped my lungs recover too much.
FS: I talked to you after that sprint heat at U-23’s where you lost your pole grip, and while you were definitely not psyched at the finish, you seemed to be able to move past that pretty quickly. Is that the kind of thing that you can recover from pretty quickly?
SH: I think one of my strengths as a skier is that I’m kind of able to look more towards the future and potential scenarios rather than dwelling on things that are happening in the present. So I really enjoy when good things happen, but when bad things happen or when things don’t quite go my
way, I think that my strength is being able to put that aside for the moment—to learn something from that situation, and have the confidence to apply it to the next time something like that comes around.
FS: As far as your skiing—it seems like you’ve always been strong in the sprint, but your results definitely took a big step up this year. Do you feel like the transition to training full-time is something that really worked for you?
SH: Absolutely. This summer and early fall we definitely focused a lot on sprint-specific workouts, and a lot of our interval sessions were more geared towards quickness and speed, which definitely helped. And I don’t think you can overlook the fact that as a college skier, you get maybe a couple opportunities to sprint every year, and more of your training is geared towards the longer ten and 20 k events. You really don’t place that much emphasis on quickness. But I’d like to think that naturally I have a fair amount of fast-twitch athleticism, you know–I think every sprinter does. This year I was able just to tap into that, utilize that more, just as a product of the training I did in the summer.
FS: We’ve written a ton on the whole college issue. Travis [Jones—Hamilton’s coach at Sun Valley] told me that he felt like college really worked for you, because you weren’t training so much when you started school that you had to sacrifice a lot of training when you were there. But do you feel like the success this year is a validation of college? Or do you just feel like it validates your own, individual choices? Or maybe a little bit of both?
SH: I think a little bit of both, but more on that individual side of things. I think that going to college for me was a really important thing, and like Travis said, I wasn’t training a huge amount of hours going in, and therefore I didn’t really have to make that decision to sacrifice hours getting the academics done. So I was able to still progress my training as I went through college on kind of an even scale.
I think I’m the kind of person that—I kind of like to do things in order. And for me, graduating from high school, going to college, getting the education thing done, and then choosing to ski professionally for ten, 15 or 20 years, however long I’m going to do this—I think that made more sense, and that was kind of the natural progression.
FS: And especially for a sprinter—getting those hours in is still important, but maybe a little less important. You know, you see someone like Torin Koos—he went to college, and he’s had World Cup podiums, and so it shows it can be done.
SH: I definitely agree with that. You look at some of the best distance skiers in the world right now, and they’re training around 1000 hours a year, and they’re able to handle that load because for the last decade they’ve been, every year, stepping it up a little bit more, hours-wise. So they can handle that load. I think sprinting is definitely a difference case, in the sense that you’re kind of focusing on other things. Hours are definitely important as a sprinter, but I think that there are other things that are just as important as the number of hours you’re training. It’s a fairly general statement to make, but I would say that for sprinters—the college thing more or less works better for them, because as a sprinter, I think you naturally have that quick athleticism and fast-twitch.
FS: From what you said, it sounds like you’re thinking about skiing for a while. Do you think that getting more of the hours is going to be important for being able to push through to the end of the day, and that’s what you’re going to have to focus on?
SH: Absolutely. I think right now as a skier, I have the talent and the training behind me to be able to ski a pretty fast qualifier. I think that most likely in a skate World Cup, I could definitely qualify, and hopefully qualify pretty high. But it comes down to being able to ski that fast throughout the rest of the day, and especially this year I’ve recognized that you’re only able to do that if you put in those hours. You look at the best sprinters in the world right now, and they’re training like they’re distance skiers, because they have to be able to tap that endurance that comes from training 800, 900, 1,000 hours a year. But they also have that kind of natural quickness that allows them to be a good sprinter.
So I’m definitely looking forward to skiing for at least the next four or five years—definitely through Sochi—and ramping up my hours every year. I’m hoping that if I do that, and if I do that smartly, without overtraining, then I’ll be able to win qualifiers, and then go on to win the A-finals at the end of the day at the Olympics and World Champs and World Cups, and those big events. And I never really want to call myself a sprint specialist—I’d
like to be able to ski with the best distance skiers, too. So I think that’s definitely a big goal of mine.
FS: I was hoping to talk about your national championship. Did you expect, coming in, to be able to fight for the win this year?
SH: You know, I definitely knew that I had the quickness to lay down a really fast qualifier. And the only thing that was kind of setting me back mentally was the fact that I had been struggling so much with the illness, and fighting off that virus that had been giving me issues for the last two months or so. But I knew that I was a good enough endurance athlete…if I was healthy and if I did feel good, to be able to ski throughout the rounds that day. And I think the only skate sprint that we had previously had before Nationals was the skate sprint in Silver Star, and I laid down a really good qualifier, but my lungs just felt terrible that day, and I was coughing up some pretty big chunks of mucus. So I wanted to ski through the rounds [in Silver Star], and I wanted to win the A-final, but going into the quarter I knew it was going to be a flip of the coin whether that lung issue was going to hold me back or whether I was just going to ski through it. And it turned out that day that I wasn’t able to ski through it.
But I rested a lot during Christmas break—I was home for a couple of weeks, which was really nice, just made sure I was really hydrated, ate good food, slept in my own bed, which was super-helpful. Going into that skate sprint at Nationals, I felt better than I had felt any previous day, and so I had the confidence to know that I was going to be able to ski through that whole day.
FS: Not having Andy Newell and Torin Koos there seems like kind of a double-edged sword, because you want to be able to bang it out with them, but then again, it’s 1,200 bucks for the win. Could you kind of weigh those two things? Not to say that you couldn’t ski with those guys, necessarily, but it certainly makes the competition a little harder.
SH: I would like to think that I’m competitive enough to know that if had come down to it, and those guys had been there, then I would have been able to out-kick them at the line. That being said, they’re two of the fastest skiers in the world, and it’s a tall order to say that you can do that, you know, at the line, when it comes down to a three-way sprint. But you know, right now I feel confident that when I’m healthy, and when things are going my way, I can definitely rub elbows with both of those guys, and beat them at the line—especially in a skate sprint. My classic sprinting is still progressing, but I think, when it comes down to it, having those guys there would have been awesome, because even if they had been there and I hadn’t have won—if both of them would have beaten me, I think I would have learned a lot of things from just being able to race with them. But again, I think that I definitely could have stood my ground against them too, you know? I felt good that day, and I respect those guys a lot, but I think that they respect me a lot, too, as a sprinter.
FS: Canmore was your first World Cup. Getting in there and rubbing elbows with some of those guys–how was that?
SH: It was cool. As a kid, looking at that situation—if I had known that that was going to happen when I was 15 or 16 years old, I think that I would have expected to have just been totally shell-shocked, you know, deer-in-the-headlights kind of thing. But I remember stepping up to the line with those guys in the quarter, and I looked to my left and I could see everyone stacking up—people like Josef Wenzl and John Kristian Dahl, and just basically some of the fastest skiers in the world. And I didn’t feel any slower than them—I felt confident that I could definitely stand my ground against them. I really wanted to beat them, and I wasn’t really in awe of them at all, which I thought was a pretty cool feeling. So I kind of look at that as a good sign for a future, because I have that kind of amount of competitiveness to be able to stand on the line with them again, and kind of leave my emotions behind and duke it out for the win.
FS: Actually to want to beat them, and to not just ski next to them.
FS: So, as for the Olympics. I saw a picture of you taking the call in Germany from [U.S. Ski Team Coach] Pete Vordenberg, and I also read an account from one of the other coaches who was there when that happened. Getting that call—did you still have hope at that point for a spot on the team? Or had did you feel like it was out the window?
SH: From mid-January, I for some reason just had a really good feeling about it, and I can’t really explain where that feeling came from or why I started feeling it. I talked to Pete right when I got over to Germany, and he had just called to talk to me and tell me where I stood in the line up, and how he felt the quota system was going to work out. Because they had been going through it for days to figure out every possible scenario with the teams, and he basically said “all right Simi—you’re one spot behind Kuzzy, we’ll take Kuzzy over you.”
Which is what I expected—he’s been skiing super-strong not only this year but over previous years, so I thought that I was fair. We kind of talked about the quota situation a little bit—this was at the point at where it was still just eight—and he said that to get nine is likely…to get ten will be really lucky, and if we get 11, we’ll be super-lucky.
And I said, “you know, Pete, that’s all great—I’ll be psyched if we get that eleven. But I want you to know right now I’m focused on U-23’s and the rest of the season. Even if this Olympic thing doesn’t work out, I’m looking at the positives of everything else that’s going to happen in the season.” So, I think I did a pretty good job of preparing myself either way. In terms of the final quota stuff, I thought that everything was going to happen the day of [January] 29th, so I was thinking the call of whether this happens or not will come late the night of the 29th. And so when that call came on the 28th, it kind of knocked me off my seat a little bit, and it was something I did not expect, but I was super-happy to get that call. I think I asked Pete if he was being serious on the phone, and he said “no, this is the worst f—-ng joke I’ve ever said.” He turned it right back. It was a fun call to get.
FS: Did you fall asleep that night?
SH: I fell asleep eventually (laughs). Not for a while though. And not out of nerves or anything, but just with the feeling that I was going to be an Olympian. And it wasn’t just going to stop at me being an Olympian, but it was more the start of what I hope to be a really good kind of international career. The starting point of something bigger.
FS: And that’s such a motivating way to start. I mean, you obviously want to do well in Whistler, but you don’t have tons of pressure, and it just motivates you so much for the next few years.
SH: I’ve had a lot of time to think about all this in the last couple weeks, and it comes down to—I’m so lucky to have this specific situation facing me, because I know that I’ll ski well [in Whistler], so that’s not a question. But at the same time I don’t feel any pressure, you know? And I have friends and family, and it’s basically our backyard, so it’s been awesome. So far the athletes’ village is super-comfortable, the food’s great, the atmosphere is just unbelievable. I’m feeling healthy, so there’s really nothing right now that I’m complaining about or worried about.
FS: On that topic of motivation, I think Andrew Gardner [Hamilton’s coach at Middlebury] or Bill McKibben [Middlebury ski team faculty advisor] told me at one point that you were thinking about not skiing any more, during college. What was kind of the difference there?
SH: The first year that I was in college, my world kind of opened up in terms of what possibilities I had, and what I could potentially do with my life. I was way into climbing and backcountry skiing that year, and not to say that I had grown tired of racing, but I think that after doing that for eight years, pretty solidly, I was definitely ready for a little bit of a break. And so I kind of chose that year to just take a different path, and I think it comes down to my body and my mind just needing a break from it all. And I didn’t come right out and say that, but I definitely figured out that that was exactly what I needed, after the fact.
I think I really missed it that year—I missed being away from the scene and the people. And I’m a pretty darn competitive person, and I missed being able to step up to the line or step up to the starting gate—you know, kind of take care of that competitive urge. And I had a bunch of really good talks with Andrew about kind of, what I was capable of doing and where I wanted to take everything. And it just came down to figuring out that I had, kind of naturally—I don’t want to say a gift—but, I don’t think that every person in the world is given something that they’re able to make something out of. And I think I kind of realized that I was lucky to be able to have parents with really good athletic genes, and kind of a natural niche for being competitive and being athletic. So after that year off, I figured out that I wanted to kind of tap into that, and make the most of that.
FS: So, I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about the scene here. I’ve been reading a little bit about the Athletes’ Village—lots of cool stuff going on there. Have you met anybody cool from other teams, or seen anything surprising and cool? Can you just give a kind of sense of what it’s like?
SH: I’m definitely kind of a shy guy, and I haven’t really found the confidence to go sit with anyone from any other countries yet, but I’ve seen a lot of really great athletes around. I think the cool thing about being up in the Whistler Village is the fact that you’re with downhill skiing and the sliding sports and biathlon and jumpers and cross country skiers. And I don’t want to take anything away from the curlers and those sports down in Vancouver, but [in the Whistler Village] I can assimilate with the athletes. It’s so cool just to be able to walk around and see—just to know—I went to the gym this morning and there were probably 25 people around, and it hit me that those people were the best people in their sport from there country. And it’s literally, like, the cream of the crop you’re looking at, all the time. You definitely have to remind yourself of that sometimes—it’s so cool to be able to be in the same place as all the super-talented people that have worked so, so hard for where they are. And to know that they have that much passion for what they do is pretty cool.
FS: It’s easy to forget that someone like Bode Miller, or Petter Northug, or someone like that—that those guys, even if they’re big stars, they still have to go lift weights, they go to sleep, whatever.
SH: They’re human beings. It’s definitely cool to be reminded of that. And it’s also a great feeling to know that you’re doing the same work that they’re doing. And maybe they’re changing a little bit or doing a little bit more of it, but basically, you’re on the same playing field as those guys, and you’re all pretty much the same competitors and the same trainers.
FS: Has it been pretty intense with the media, and dealing with all that?
SH: I think it’s been really good. I definitely haven’t had any negative experiences with the media or the press. Morgan Arritola and I went out for a run the first day that we got to the Village. We stepped outside of our building, and I guess it was just a two-hour window that they were letting media in the Athletes’ Village, but there were four different camera crews just waiting outside the U.S. building. And since we were the first people to walk out wearing U.S.A. apparel, they just kind of mobbed us, and we ended up spending the next 20 minutes just being interviewed and answering questions.
Which was awesome, because it offers us a platform to get recognized and to get our sport out in the spotlight, and to say what we want to say, which—I hope that we have a lot of good things to say; I’d like to think we do. And it’s fun to be able to have that kind of outlet provided to you, and to make the most of that. And it’s cool to see so many people interested in not just the individual figures of the Olympics, not just specific names, but just kind of U.S. in general, or a sport in general. And I highly doubt that many of those TV interviewers knew who Morgan and I were, but they knew that we were from the U.S.A., and they knew that we were cross country skiers, and they were genuinely interested in that. And that was cool to know.
FS: Can you tell me a little bit about the Opening Ceremonies?
SH: Being able to walk out there, with all the rest of the U.S. athletes—it was unreal. And the buildup into that—because we stood in this hallway for probably two hours, just waiting, and every five minutes we’d shuffle forward a little bit as they went through the different nations. We got there at four, so we basically waited from four until we walked out at seven. So we were there for three hours, and kind of standing up and waiting for the most of that, but as soon as we were able to walk out onto the center there, it was just like, ‘all right, this is the real deal—this is actually happening.’ It was so amazing to be able to just look up and see so many flashes, you know, people just yelling. It was very special.
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.