If Nicaragua is not the last place you would look for a story about cross country skiing, it’s pretty darn close. But for former Junior National Champ and Alaskan Espen Haugen, the small Central American country has become an obsession.
Growing up, Haugen was an avid skier and member of the Alaska Pacific University (APU) team with such greats as former U.S. Ski Team member Nina Kempall and 2009 World Championship medalist Kikkan Randall, as well as James Southam and Lars Flora. Haugen was no slouch; he won a national championship as a J2, and placed as high as fourth at the Junior Olympics.
For post-secondary education, Haugen decided to abandon Alaska in favor of the West. The University of Denver caught his eye, and he graduated in 2008 with two degrees: one in International Studies, and one in Geography. He skied competitively for Denver for three years, and fondly remembers his time spent on the team.
It was while Haugen was at Denver that his horizons expanded beyond skiing. Working for a geography professor, Haugen visited Nicaragua to study the effects of tourism on the rural landscape, focusing specifically on the region of Tola, which sees tourism traffic for surfing. One trip was enough to suck him into the country: he returned five times as an assistant to professors, each time learning more about the Nicaragua, which was suffering from massive unemployment, a lack of education school infrastructure, and rampant poverty.
From Haugen’s home in Alaska, he brainstormed ways to help. “I had been working as a substitute teacher and ski coach in Alaska after I graduated, and I am pretty familiar with the education system” said Haugen in an interview, “so I thought it would be a fun way to start, helping the local schools.”
In 2008, after coming up with a few small projects, like sending school supplies, Haugen decided to do the equivalent of skiing the American Birkebiner on a week’s worth of training. “We realized we can’t just help by sending them paper and pencils — we really need to help rebuild the infrastructure of schools themselves,” he said. So he jumped right in, fundraising in Alaska and the Midwest to build 11 new schools in the region.
In 2009, Haugen founded a charitable organization, Proyecto Remedios Educativos (PRE) –Projective Educative Remedies in English — to further develop his program of helping children in Nicaragua. The organization is non-profit in the largest sense of the word: Haugen draws no salary, the entire organization is run by volunteers, and as a result of the lack of overhead costs, every dollar goes into Nicaragua, either for the construction of schools or for school materials.
The undertaking itself was massive, as the scope went well beyond Haugen’s original ideas. The projects he headed were community based, meaning he would bring in all the materials, turn them over to parents or teachers, then provide oversight. He found himself immersed in the construction of fences, installing locks, and “keeping the wheels greased.”
Haugen’s work has paid off, as PRE has rebuilt 12 schools, and constructed an additional two from scratch for just $25,000, and all 14 sites are now fully stocked with textbooks. However, despite the enormous gains made, there is still much to be done in the region.
With the organization going stronger than ever, Haugen spends as little time at home as your average World Cup racer – he estimated that he is in Nicaragua for 80 percent of the year. Last year he spent most of his winter, from January until July, in Nicaragua, making skiing a little bit more difficult, although he still manages to ski, at least at Christmas,“I love cross country skiing,” he said. “I want to continue help coaching, and do the community races…but Christmas-time is the most I can get .”
But that doesn’t mean he is sitting around getting out of shape. Most of the school sites are in extremely remote locations inaccessible by car. Haugen’s most recent school involved a different kind of workout: He built a brick oven on site, while all the other building materials (rebar, cement, etc.), were moved in by ox cart. Just trying to get to schools, he often gets to run, walk or even mountain bike through the jungle, with only monkeys for company — which Haugen describes as “super gnarly, but good.”
As for skiing in Nicaragua, there is not much, but Haugen is able to bring his love for sport into the schools, which PRE encourages by donating soccer balls, baseballs, and other athletic supplies. “The kids are always super stoked to get anything,” he said, “but whenever we bring soccer balls or baseballs, the amount of excitement we get from that is much larger [than for textbooks].”
As a former endurance elite athlete, Haugen says he has reaped the benefits of that lifestyle beyond the skiing world. “Being goal oriented… having that personal confidence transfers to the other side of life,” he said. “I can thank cross-country skiing a lot for that.”
PRE is a certified charitable organization, and donations are tax deductable. For more information, or if you wish to donate to PRE please visit www.prehelps.org.