The annual pilgrimage to Scandinavia has become an important part of the US development pipeline over the last decade. Twelve US athletes and three coaches make up the 2011 J1 Scando team.
“This is a trip we’ve been running for at least a dozen years now, in conjunction with the National Cross Country Ski Education Foundation,” US Ski Team Development Head Coach Matt Whitcomb said to FasterSkier.
Whitcomb points out that the J1 “Scando Cup” trip is significant for a couple of reasons. Obviously, it is an exciting and eye-opening for the individual athlete. Furthermore, the J1 Scando trip is also the first step of the elite development pipeline that includes international racing, he said.
“They get to travel with members of our national team, CXC, Green Team, APU. That is a huge step for a lot of them,” Whitcomb said.
Finally, the American presence at the Scandinavian Cup races also increases the international experience of the local racers. Just like for the American skiers, these races are a step on the Scandinavian teams’ elite development ladder and their initiation into international racing.
“It’s a neat deal if you think about it. We’ve done this trip for so many years because it is so successful. The Scandinavians have always been very welcoming to us and I think us being there adds to the depth of the competition,” said Whitcomb, noting that most of the racers come from Norway, Sweden, Finland, Latvia and Estonia.
“We’re always chasing podiums on the J1 trip, but the main thing is the international racing experience,” Whitcomb said.
Adversity is a learning opportunity
For Stella Holt, 17, of Glacier, Montana, being named to the team was a huge accomplishment. Her inclusion on the team is almost like a fairytale: hard work and persistence is rewarded.
After several seasons of injuries and illness just racing at the US Senior Nationals in early January was more than Holt had accomplished for a long time. Her first two attempts at going to nationals got derailed.
“My second year as a J2, I strained a ligament in a sledding accident,” Holt recalled. Then in the summer of 2009 she broke her ankle and spent the entire fall recovering from that. And just when she was literally getting back on her feet again, she came down with mononucleosis, right about the time she would have gone to nationals. But while irritating and disappointing, Holt considers those roadblocks a learning experience.
“The last couple of years have been challenging with all the obstacles, but the age I am now is the perfect time to go through all of that. And I pretty much feel that OK, I’ve already gotten that out of my way,” Holt said to FasterSkier.
Aimed for the J1 team
Holt has attended the western regional camps with the US Ski Team in Park City, Utah, for the past two summers, she has done well at the junior national level, even last season when she was held back by mono. The Scando Cup was the next logical step. Holt set out for the US Senior Nationals again. And she had the J1 trip in the back of her mind.
“It was my goal to make this team and I had an inkling it might happen. I had taken the steps in order to get there,” Holt explained, adding that racing at the international level has been her goal for a couple of years.
She came to Rumford and went to work.
“I knew as soon as I had finished the skate race on Thursday and the announcer read off the top ten juniors that I had done enough to secure my spot,” Holt said.
Curious and realistic
“I’m not sure what to expect. I’ve never been to Europe before. But I know the level of competition over there will be really challenging. Here I am used to a certain level of success, but I know that overseas that will be different. I would like to do well, but I don’t know what to expect. I think having that knowledge going into to the races will help,” Holt said.
However, Holt looks at the experience as more than just a week of racing overseas.
“I met a couple of the other juniors while I was in Maine and we had a quick introduction to the coaches. But I’ll meet 11 new people and get to know them really well,” she said with a grin.
A role model for her team
Robin Brooks, head coach for the Glacier Nordic Team, says Stella Holt has earned every mile of the trip.
“She is a strong individual. She is very tough,” said Brooks, her voice filled with respect and admiration for her athlete’s accomplishments.
“People here kept saying that if Stella could only stay healthy, she would have such a great season, so that has been her focus this season, just to stay healthy,” Brooks said, noting that there was never any question about Holt’s talent or potential.
But most noticeably, Holt has an attitude and a work ethic that spreads throughout the Glacier Nordic Team, Brooks said.
“Stella is just a great motivator to her teammates. And she is involved in everything: She is the class president and she was the captain of her cross country running team when they went to state this fall. It’s been fun to have her on the team,” Brooks said to FasterSkier.
And the feeling is mutual.
“I love our team! They’re all very supportive and we work together really well,” Holt said.
J1S trip roster
The J1 Scando team consists of 12 athletes, six girls and six boys. The girls are: Annie Liotta (Alaska Winter Stars), Marion Woods (Alaska Winter Stars), Cambria McDermott (Stratton Mountain School), Stella Holt (Glacier Nordic Team), Sharmila Ahmed (GO Training), and Hannah Boyer (FXC). The boys are: Logan Hannemann (FAST), Patrick Caldwell (Stratton Mountain School), Forrest Mahlen (APUNSC), Dylan McGarthwaite (Minneapolis Ski Club), Peter Mamrol (Alaska Winter Stars) and John Hegman (Mansfield Union High School). Heather Mooney (Stratton Mountain School) was originally also named to the team, but she will instead be racing in the World Juniors in Estonia, which are going on at the same time as the races in Sweden.
Additionally, there will be three coaches for the trip: Head coach Matthew Johnson of the Burke Mountain Academy, coach and service tech Peter Leonard of FXC and Kate Barton of the Jackson Hole High School Ski Team.
The $11,000 grant from NCCSEF and contributions from all the 10 USSA Junior Olympic divisions fund the coaches’ trip expenses and other running costs, while the athletes have to pay $1,450 each to cover the rest of their expenses. The US J1 team leaves for Sweden on January 26, for a pre event training period at Camp Södergren in Österssund, Sweden, before heading to Örnsköldsvik on February 1.
Inge is FasterSkier's international reporter, born and bred in Norway. A cross-country ski racer and mountain runner, she also dabbles on two wheels in the offseason. If it's steep and long, she loves it. Follow her on Twitter: @IngeScheve.