In the early fall, World Cup hopefuls fan out across the globe, fine-tuning their approaches on glaciers in places like Ramsau, Austria, or Tignes, France. This year, you can add an American spot to the list: Fairbanks, Alaska.
Fairbanks may not have the same cachet as those European locales, but for Vahur Teppan, it’s got a lot going for it. Teppan, a native of Estonia and an alumnus of the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), has been training in the city for nearly two months, taking advantage of early snow and a low-key training environment. In one week, he’ll head back home, then to qualifying races in Finland that he hopes will propel him onto the World Cup circuit with his country’s ski team.
Teppan first came to the U.S. from Estonia in the fall of 2006, drawn by the offer of a full-ride scholarship from UAF Head Coach Scott Jerome. He raced for the school for two years and pulled down a fifth place finish at NCAA Championships, all while taking classes in psychology, business, and Russian.
After finishing at UAF in the spring of 2008, Teppan earned a spot on the Estonian National B-Team, and he made seven World Cup starts in the 2008-2009 season—including a 23rd place in a city sprint in Stockholm.
But his results, Teppan said, have not been improving, and he lost his spot on the national team. So this fall, he decided to return to Fairbanks for September and October, where he knows there is “early snow, good athletes, [and] good coaching.”
“I was like, ‘I have to come back to the place where I was doing well, and regain the confidence,’” he said.
Supported by his Estonian club, Teppan flew to Fairbanks in early September, where he lives in an A-frame with UAF Assistant Coach Matt Dunlap and a local club coach, Nick Crawford. Teppan said he does about half of his training with the university and pitches in with some volunteer coaching on the side—as well as venturing out on the occasional hunting excursion with Jerome.
“I’m trying to get as much as possible out of the team, and also give back,” he said.
In the past, Teppan has primarily trained for sprinting, with lots of strength and weight training. But he said that he changed his focus this year to improving at 10- and 15-kilometer races—becoming a better all-around skier.
“I felt there was balance missing in my training,” he said.
Teppan will fly back to Estonia on November 2, and he leaves a few days later for early-season races in Muonio, Finland. Those competitions serve as qualifiers for the Estonian squad that will travel to the World Cup opening mini-tour in Kuusamo, Finland—which means that the rest of Teppan’s season will be determined, in large part, by his results in Muonio.
“There’s not many openings for the Kuusamo World Cup, and most of the guys are going to be picked from the national team,” he said. “I have to be faster than…any other Estonian, outside the national team, to be qualified.”
For most of the year, Teppan lives in the winter sports hot-spot of Otepaa, which hosts a World Cup annually. And this year, the Junior and U-23 World Championships will also be held in Otepaa, as well.
“There’s definitely been money involved, and interest,” Teppan said. “It’s interesting to…see how the Estonian guys are going to do. They’ve been focused.”
Cross-country skiing has grown popular in Estonia after the Olympic medals won by stars Kristina Smigun-Vahi, Jaak Mae, and Andrus Veerpalu. Teppan said that he’d had the opportunity to train with both Veerpalu and Mae this summer, which was “really inspiring.”
But Teppan still has one week left in Fairbanks before he heads home, and he said that he has been enjoying the relaxed setting—away from athletes in Estonia who would get “tense” and “serious” as the competition season approached.
“The environment here is really, really supportive, and I’m really having fun,” he said. “Lots and lots of outside training, cool activities—that has kept my mind pretty optimistic.”
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.