In the voice mail he leaves me with directions to his cabin in the woods, Andy Newell gives me the street address—number 380—but tells me to just give him a call when I get close, since it’s not marked. But when I drive through the nearest town, he doesn’t answer, and then, predictably, when I find 376 and 382 a mile down the dirt road, I don’t have cell service.
After driving past two surly-looking construction workers (note to self: pickups, not Volkswagon Passat station wagons, are preferable in rural Vermont), I
pull into the nearest driveway. There are two people getting into a beat-up black Jeep, and I knock on a window. The woman in the driver’s seat looks at me quizzically.
“Hi. My, uh…my friend is, like, building his house somewhere around here. Number 380,” I say.
“Oh, you mean Andy? Yeah, just drive up that road right there and around the corner,” the says, gesturing up a short, steep hill behind her.
I get back into my Volkswagon and put it in gear. Good thing it’s not winter—the car would never make it up this steep a pitch if there was snow on the ground. I have to lean up and over the dashboard just to see what’s in front of me as I creep up the hill.
Finally, I peek over the top to see a big black pickup on the left, a dingy dirt-brown cabin in front of me, and a large bonfire on the right. Andy Newell waves. I’ve come to the right place.
Newell purchased the cabin last winter, just after the Olympics, but he didn’t buy it for the structure—he bought it for the land.
“There’s not too much of it left out there,” he says.
After a year of going back and forth with the landowner, Newell closed on a seven-acre tract in Weston, in southwest corner of Vermont. It’s in the heart of ski country—there are probably a half-dozen resorts within a 15-mile radius—and it’s also close to the Stratton Mountain School, where Newell trains when he’s out east.
The property came with an old hunting cabin, and rather than tear it down, Newell decided to renovate it. He started in the spring by gutting the place, and now, midway through the summer, he has reframed walls, put up interior siding and insulation, and wired it.
As a kid, Newell spent summers working with tools, doing construction for the father of former Stratton teammates Ryan and Ethan Foster. Dressed in jeans and a t-shirt with a worn leather toolbelt, it becomes clear over the course of the day that he’s as smooth with a hammer and saw as he is with his V2.
When I arrive, just after noon on a hot July day, Newell is outside, doing some demolition and cleanup with Austin Caldwell and Bridger Tyler, two juniors from the Stratton program. I’m here for the story, but I’m not about to stand around and watch all afternoon, so I have Newell put me to work. He has a friend coming with an excavator, and there’s a big pile of old logs that will be in its path, and I get to work moving them. I haven’t trained yet, but the likelihood that I’ll be getting out for a rollerski diminishes notably after 15 minutes of hauling and stacking. (To be fair, the wheelbarrow I’m using has a flat tire, which makes things a little more difficult.)
Newell is weedwhacking. I drop off the last log and move on to demolition with Caldwell and Tyler, taking down an old wooden outhouse. We pull it apart in a couple of hours, salvaging what we can and piling the scrap wood on the bonfire.
It’s a hot day, but this crew doesn’t let you forget that you’re working with athletes. Rather than pounding soda and Cheetos, everyone is gulping water
religiously, and Newell munches from a bag of multigrain pita chips. Other hints include a Rossignol sticker on the radio blaring the Offspring, and a pair of U.S. Ski Team-branded Auclair gloves moonlighting as work mitts. Newell had done intervals that morning, and while he’s cautious with the power tools, it’s the standing and lifting that he’s more concerned about.
“You have to be careful, because working is definitely not resting,” he said. “You can’t be doing that as a replacement…I just try to stay on top of that and not get carried away.”
Outhouse demolished, we move inside for some work on the interior. The cabin looks much better on the inside—new planking on the walls, old beams—but even to my untrained eye, the builders of the structure left Newell a lot of work to do. There are nails at strange angles, and some boards that don’t square up. After we put up some plastic to cover the insulation on the front wall, Newell goes back outside to cut pieces of two-by-four with a circular saw. That necessitates firing up his generator—a blue, space-age looking contraption that he gushes about.
Having to cover up other people’s mistakes like this would frustrate me, but Newell seems to relish this work every bit as much as he does his “day” job. His approach to construction is no less meticulous or deliberate than his approach to training.
“Building and cross-country skiing have a lot of similarities, I think. There’s no easy way to do it. If you want to build a house right, you have to take the time, use your hands, and build up the hours. It’s the same with cross-country skiing—if you try to take shortcuts, it’s not going to work,” he says. “You won’t see any vinyl siding on my house.”
After another hour inside, most of the heavy lifting is done, and Caldwell, Tyler and I all depart. A couple weeks later, I reach Newell on the phone. The cabin is still coming along. He’s done a lot of work on the exterior, which has vastly improved the appearance, and he hopes to have it livable by the fall. When it’s done, it will make a good weekend getaway—not to mention a sweet party pad for his southern Vermont crew. But for now, there are many more hours to put in—Newell says he’s taking it “a little bit at a time.”
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.