In 2009, it seemed like the Vermont native was headed for the stars. Morgan Smyth qualified for the 2009 World Championships in Liberec (CZE), she was the national distance champion in the 5K, she won the team sprint at nationals with Liz Stephen, she was on the US Ski Team.
But the summer of 2009 marked the start of trouble and derailed her Olympic dreams.
First, Smyth had surgery to relieve compartment syndrome in August. That didn’t concern her too much, as most recover fairly quickly from that. Then, once the season got started and she entered the West Yellowstone races in November, she realized that her cold was something else. She found out she had come down with mononucleosis. For the second time.
“They say you can only get mono once in your life. That’s not true,” Smyth said, explaining that she was sick for quite a while before she realized it was mono – again. Despite this bout being a milder case than her first encounter with the disease, Smyth knew that mono is not something that goes away overnight.
“I was pretty bummed out, it being an Olympic year and all,” Smyth admitted.
“Many skiers had their eyes set on the Olympics. It was definitely a goal for me,” she said. “It’s not the same to watch it from a couch when you want to be out there racing it.”
Back at it, one step at a time
Having learned from previous mistakes, Smyth knew that recovering from mono takes time and patience.
“Last time, I tried to race all the way through. I took a few weeks off, tried to race and realized that just wasn’t the reality,” she recalled. “It’s not like you wake up one morning, open your eyes and just feel amazing. It’s a slow process.”
At the end of last season, Smyth got back on her skis and then gradually started to enter some races just for fun and to reconnect with her friends.
“It wasn’t until late in the winter, mid-February, that I was on skis and teaching lessons with the elementary school kids. It was fun to be a part of the ski community again, even at a different level. I can definitely remember being one of those kids. I just love to play on skis,” she said. Then she moved into racing.
“I raced a little at the end of the season, just for fun. I just love ski racing and most of my friends are in ski racing, so racing was an opportunity to see everyone,” Smyth explained, adding that she also went to nationals in Maine to connect with APU head coach Erik Flora.
“I wanted to talk with Erik Flora about possibly joining APU, and I liked it a lot. So Memorial Day weekend I packed up my car and headed for Alaska,” Smyth said.
As it turned out, APU was the perfect match for Smyth.
“I absolutely love APU. Erik Flora is a great coach, and the atmosphere in the team is really good. We train together almost every day of the week,” Smyth said.
Looking for tough teams
Smyth’s strategy for improvement is to challenge herself.
“I’ve always tried to be on teams whose skiers are kicking my butt. I figured if you are in a race with them, you should train with them. That’s how you get as good as them,” Smyth explained.
“When I was younger, Stratton Mountain School was that team, then for college NMU seemed to be it. And turns out it has been super fun as well,” said Smyth, who proceeded to go all the way and was named to the US Ski Team for the last two years of her college career at NMU and the following two seasons.
Winning: a team experience
To Smyth, being a part of a team is an important part of the winning equation, and the team environment plays a major role in overall success.
“When you’ve been training together in rain and wind and been super tired, it brings everyone together,” she said, explaining that while cross-country skiing is an individual sport, the team experiences connect.
“You see your teammates succeed and it makes you happy, you’ve been through the same training, you know what they’ve done. If you have a crappy race, you can still have a good day when they do well.”
Nationals is just gravy
When Smyth got sick last season and couldn’t race, being away from the sport and the community she was so involved in definitely took a toll on her. On the other hand, Smyth also took away some valuable lessons from the season that didn’t happen. She learned to never take anything for granted in health or racing.
“Just being here and feeling good and being fit is awesome. I just came to nationals to ski my best and enjoy it,” Smyth said, noting that this is her first time going into the championships on cruise control and that it feels refreshing in some ways.
“I honestly didn’t have super-specific goals for nationals compared to the past. I’m far down on the USSA points list, and the only team to qualify for here is the World Championships. So with that reality, I just want to ski as hard as I can,” she said.
As for the rest of the season, Smyth is equally laid back.
“I don’t have a plan. I take it one race section at a time,” she said, adding that she knows she’ll join the APU team for the SuperTour in Lake Placid, and hopes to go to Sun Valley for the spring series. “I’m just going to try to race fast. What happens happens.”
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.