Editor’s Note: The original version of this article listed Laura Valaas as a member of Team Endurance Professionals. According to Valaas, she was never a part of the team, despite being listed in Team Endurance Professionals marketing material. The article has been corrected, and we apologize for the error.
In April of this year, Kristina Owen and Josh Korn began sharing a grand idea with some of their friends in the ski world: they wanted to create a factory-style pro team focused on athletes and community ski projects. They recruited five more elite skiers and told them there would be equipment sponsorships, race support, and stipends. They created promotional materials, pitched their idea to potential sponsors, and even e-mailed out a detailed win schedule.
It’s now the beginning of the race season. So where’s the team?
The answer is that Team Endurance Professionals, as Korn and Owen called their enterprise, is nowhere to be found. As early as June, their plans were getting away from them, and they were having trouble securing sponsorships. Now Korn, who was supposed to be the team manager, has a coaching job at Michigan Tech, and everyone else involved has moved on.
“A Conduit To The Grassroots”
Sometime during the winter or early spring, Owen, who was one of CXC Team Vertical Limit’s top female athletes last year, and Korn, who was a representative for Swix, had an idea.
“There needs to be another option for marathon skiing in the U.S.,” Owen told FasterSkier. “Especially having skied for CXC, and knowing that their marathon support is next to non-existent.”
Their vision was to establish a team of elite skiers working to build ski communities throughout the country. Each athlete would live in his or her own hometown and establish a training group, run clinics, and demo equipment. Korn would be the team manager, and coordinate many of these activities.
In return for their work, the athletes would be paid, with incentives for recruiting more people as well as for winning popular races – the proposed win schedule offered $500 for a victory at an “A-Level Consumer Event”, but only $100 for a SuperTour win. The specifics were outlined in a five-page information packet for the athletes.
By the time Korn was marketing the team to sponsors, there were five athletes on board:
- Owen, who last year finished seventh at the American Birkebeiner and had one SuperTour podium to her name;
- Andre Watt, also formerly of CXC Team Vertical Limit, who finished the Birkie in the top 20 last year;
- Audrey Weber, who had won the classic Birkie in a CXC uniform and was also in the top 10 in the sprint at SuperTour Finals;
- Johanna Winters, who finished fifth in the Birkie skiing for CXC’s marathon team;
- and Ian Case, who skied to a handful of SuperTour top 10’s representing Far West Nordic.
The promotional materials for Team Endurance Professionals were introduced by the following mantra: “We provide a framework which makes professional cross-country skiing in the United States feasible, both logistically and economically. Recognizing the importance of community support, our athletes will work as a conduit to the grassroots, sharing their knowledge, expertise, and experiences. By doing this, we create excitement for the sport, support for the athletes, and generate unique marketing opportunities for our sponsors.”
According to Case, this last phrase was key to the way that the team would function. The concept had been described to him by Korn and Kevin Johnson, a Salomon representative, as early as the previous winter.
“They wanted to create a team that would focus on huge citizen events, as well as giving some clinics, and also having each athlete start a training group in their region, free of charge and open to anyone: masters, juniors, whatever. [They wanted] to position team members as role models, mentors, and ambassadors for the sport,” Case said.
Korn and Johnson had told Case that with the rise of elite clubs like CXC, Alaska Pacific University, and the Sun Valley Olympic Development Team, they felt that the SuperTour was no longer the best place for exposure.
“They were very competitive races, and not always a proportionally high level of visibility compared to something like [the] Boulder Mountain Tour, the Great Race, the Birkie, or the Craftsbury Marathon,” Case said.
And indeed, since the demise of the Saab-Salomon Factory Team, Salomon hadn’t had anyone fronting its name. CXC was Salomon’s biggest team, but their title sponsor was Vertical Limit.
With an all-star group of athletes, Team Endurance Professionals began the process of attracting more sponsorship. Although Salomon and Swix had signed on, they still needed other sources of funding.
The group launched a website, which included a blog with entries by Weber, Case, Owen, and Watt. There was also a nine-page info packet for potential
sponsors, touting the affluence of the ski community and breaking down demographics.
Team Endurance Professionals had all the trappings of an official endeavor – but where was the money?
Bad Economy, and Bad Timing
Despite their best efforts, Korn and Owen were struggling to find outside support for Team Endurance Professionals, which Owen blamed on circumstances outside their control.
“A combination of factors made it not work this year,” Owen told FasterSkier. “[There was] a bad economy overall, and bad timing with it being the end of an Olympic cycle – the industry tends to scale back with marketing dollars.”
The team had two major sponsors in Salomon and Swix. For Johnson, the Salomon representative, supporting the team seemed like a no-brainer.
“Most of the athletes were currently Salomon athletes,” he said. “So for them, our sponsorship would have meant a similar level of support with equipment. The biggest thing was to centralize this group of individual athletes, which would have made things easier for me.”
But according to Johnson, Salomon wasn’t about to float the whole team by itself. And because of the economic climate and other factors, additional sponsors never materialized.
“Josh and Kristina were challenged to come up with a plan that was attractive to many sponsors, not just Salomon,” Johnson said. “If we were the only sponsor, it wouldn’t have been able to function.”
By mid-June, Korn had changed the team’s direction away from community programs, focusing instead on assisting companies with product demos and learn to ski clinics across the country. And while Korn said that there would be some money involved, his plans to pay the team’s athletes were scaled back.
“We are unfortunately more than likely not going to be able to offer a win schedule… sorry guys!” he wrote in an e-mail to the team on June 19.
But while Korn’s new plan was less ambitious, his e-mail still seemed to promise support, and the team’s athletes were undeterred.
In fact, when FasterSkier contacted Case in October, he still believed that the team existed, although he didn’t know all the details. He said he had since decided to pursue his music career more fully, and was no longer training full-time.
“Thanks for getting me off my butt to resolve things with Josh!” Case told FasterSkier.
But what he didn’t know was that Korn had already moved on to Plan B—a plan that didn’t involve Case or any of the other athletes. On August 25, Michigan Tech University announced that it had hired Korn as an assistant coach for cross-country running, nordic skiing, and track and field.
Case had never been informed of the team’s demise or of Korn’s new position, and neither had Weber or Winters. In fact, they hadn’t heard from Korn since the June 19th e-mail.
Winters didn’t seem to feel strongly about the situation – like Case, she has other priorities, including applying for graduate-level art programs. And Case was vehement in his support of Korn and Johnson, and his gratitude for their work.
“In my experience Josh is a good guy, if a bit optimistic at times, and I’m not angry with him or anything,” Case said. Starting a professional team, he added, “is one of the hardest, most nearly-impossible things one can take on in the ski world, especially in the current economic – and meteorological – climate.”
Weber, on the other hand, said that Korn and Owen could have done more to keep her in the loop. When she ran into Korn at the Trans Rockies Run in August, he didn’t mention anything about the team.
The whole episode, Weber said, “reflects very poorly on their character, and it shows where their priorities lay for this whole team, and that it wasn’t really an effort that was for the athletes… it was something they were doing because they wanted those things for themselves.”
When contacted about the team, Korn gave only a short statement.
“That team was put on hold. I got offered a job at Michigan Tech University and wasn’t going to have time to manage the team, so there’s no news to be had,” he said in a brief phone conversation.
Owen did not respond to additional requests for information from FasterSkier. Instead, she posted a message on the Team Endurance Professionals blog.
“Suddenly, FasterSkier keeps calling us, trying to dig up a story about who and what we are. Well…for right now at least, we are nothing… FasterSkier, stop calling. Ain’t no dirt, no story here. Just a dream that hasn’t happened yet.”
“The More the Better?”
Korn and Owen were facing other pressures beyond their struggles to find additional sponsorship. In the June e-mail to the athletes, Korn mentioned politics.
“In the recent weeks there has been some controversy regarding having another ‘Team’ with a focus on the marathon racing scene,” he wrote. “Because of this we have had to adjust the approach of the Endurance Professionals. To comply with some sponsors requests and needs, we are going to have to move away from the ‘Team’ [sic] concept.”
When contacted by FasterSkier, few of the athletes knew any of the details about the political pressures. But Winters had spoken with Korn and Owen about the situation.
“I spoke with Josh and Kristina on the phone, and they indicated that the directors of CXC were displeased with the formation of another similarly-structured team,” she said. “I’m not sure how any decisions were made, or who influenced these decisions – CXC, Salomon, etc. – but it sounded like Josh
and Kristina had to alter the layout of Endurance Professionals to make it less similar to CXC.”
Johnson, the Salomon rep, would neither confirm or deny Winters’ account, and instead referred FasterSkier to his superior, Paul Guimond, who strongly refuted it.
“No,” Guimond said. “No, no. Be clear. There was no pressure from anybody. [CXC Executive Director] Yuriy [Gusev] and I didn’t put any pressure on Josh. I would know if that had happened.”
When asked whether he was familiar with Team Endurance Professionals, Gusev told FasterSkier that he wasn’t – but that as far as CXC was concerned, “The more [ski teams], the better.”
However, after FasterSkier presented him with the basics of the story, Gusev said that he remembered discussing the team with Salomon.
“I think they were trying to get some funding from Salomon, which to us was totally fine,” Gusev said. “It seemed that after our discussion with Salomon, the team would be focused at a national level.”
Endurance Professionals won’t be on the race circuit this year. But according to Johnson, the team—and its concept—will still have an impact on the ski community.
“I think that some of the ideas that came out of the development process will get implemented by Salomon and other companies in the future,” he said.
And of the four athletes interviewed by FasterSkier, all were happy with the directions their careers had headed. Owen is volunteer coaching and training with Michigan Tech; Case has scaled down his racing schedule for other reasons; and Winters and Weber are currently training with Piot Bednarsky of Go! Training in Minneapolis. Johnson has picked up the slack, and Salomon will still be supporting most of the athletes with equipment.
Case was still vehement in his support of Korn.
“I still support Salomon and Swix as companies, and the individuals (including Josh and Kevin) I worked with, even if things didn’t go the way we hoped,” Case said.
And, as he pointed out earlier, founding a new team is a huge challenge. Most existing pro teams rely on a single large source of funding, like Steinbock Racing or the Craftsbury Green Racing Project. If a new team manager doesn’t find that one big sponsor, they are facing an uphill battle. But Guimond, from Salomon, still seemed to hope that there would be more efforts like Team Endurance Professionals in the future.
“It’s a tight-knit community and people try to do things a lot – and there’s nothing wrong with that,” he said.
–Nat Herz contributed reporting.