VTXC team member and former University of Vermont (UVM) standout Juergen Uhl, a 2009 NCAA champion in the men’s 10 k classic, recently competed at the World University Games in Erzurum, Turkey. Unfortunately, Uhl came down with the stomach flu upon arriving in Turkey, which stymied his efforts on the trails. Nevertheless he finished 25th in the 10 k classic and 42nd in the 15 k continuous pursuit while representing his home country, Germany.
Uhl wanted to be sure to thank the UVM coaches and athletes for their support, as well as the group around VTXC, especially Sam von Trapp and Ryan Kerrigan, who made the trip possible.
FasterSkier caught up with Uhl to talk about his experience at the University Games, and what skiers can expect to find when the site hosts World Junior and U23 Championships next year.
FasterSkier: Why did you decide you wanted to do the University Games, and what did you have to do to qualify?
Juergen Uhl: I am pursuing a Masters degree at the University of Vermont and I love ski racing, but my NCAA eligibility is done. So I decided that it would be fun to set myself a goal for the season that I can reach, and that is a little out of the ordinary. I had heard about the University Games through friends and it seemed like it was just the event that I was looking for. I checked out the conditions for me to take part in it. The great support by my advisor, Professor Douglas Fletcher, and the fact that Germany requires one race below 100 FIS points made me believe that I could do it!
FS: It looks like you were the only German skier over there – did you have support?
JU: The German team is fairly small in numbers compared to the teams of other large sports nations, however we still have about 25 athletes and a full delegation of officials, coaches, athletic trainers and a doctor. I am the only cross country skier, but we have a couple of nordic combined guys and a couple of biathletes who need support on the race course. The five of us shared a coach and a wax tech, which worked out to be perfect.
FS: The 10 k classic would obviously have been your best race… but you were sick. How would you say your race compared to what it would have been like if you were healthy?
JU: I just felt flat for the races due to the stomach flu earlier in the week and the marathon of events that we had when we arrived in Turkey. My striding was not as powerful, and I ended up getting tired early in the race. I was racing, but I noticed during the race that I really was not able to give as much as I usually would. It is very hard to place myself for the case that I would have been healthy- I think for a good race I would have just cracked the top ten.
FS: Could you describe the level of competition? I saw some names I recognized in the women’s field at least – it looks like there are some really fast people but also a pretty big spread in talent. Is that accurate?
JU: The spread was large – yes. The winner in the 10 k classic race for the men was about 55 seconds ahead of the second competitor and the last person finished 15 minutes back.
I checked out the FIS profile for the winner, from Russia – he was 13th in the 15 k classic World Cup race a couple of weeks ago in Otepaa and he won the 15 k classic at the U23 Worlds in 2010. The last finisher is from Venezuela. He made the trip to Turkey to get good FIS points (300) so he would be able to race in the next Olympic Games.
To sum it up, the field was made up by a hand full of top racers, a dozen semi-professional skiers who are maybe taking one class and race on the Europa Cup circuit, and a large amount of true collegiate racers and some students who enjoy ski racing but may or may not be following a training plan.
FS: You said it was like a small Olympics and there was tons of stuff to do. What are some of the activities and programs?
JU: The event has a funny touch in that sense – most competitors are second level racers, meaning that they are good but they would not be racing on the World Cup circuit, except maybe the first three or four for each event. However the event was organized close to what I think the Olympics would be! There were more than 3,000 competitors from a total of 56 nations.
The schedule we followed in the beginning was crazy, especially because going for a ski itself already takes a long time. We stayed in an athletes’ village with security screening every time you enter and free meals. This also meant that we didn’t have our own vehicles, but everyone used the organized transportation system. The system sort of worked – the occasional very late departure and wrong turn on the way to the courses didn’t really help in saving time considering that the ride itself takes about 40 minutes when things go well. So a one hour ski already took at least four hours of time.
But finally to the program. In the beginning of our stay we had a fair amount of official appearances to make. We arrived late on Tuesday, a short ski on Wednesday – then we were asked to take team pictures directly followed by a flag ceremony and directly followed by an appearance at the embassy to meet with the German ambassador. And since my bags had not arrived the first day, I went on a trip to the airport to get them, which gave the day another late night finish.
Thursday ended with the opening ceremony, which would conclude at midnight- nice race prep! I decided to go anyway. I mean, I was tired from getting over the stomach flew and all the events but I was told that it would be a great event. It was. Germany was the first country to enter the stadium – it was sick. 21,000 people including the president of the country were cheering while we walked around the track, and there was an amazing show after. Oh yeah – there was the lighting of the torch! It was a scene that reflected the horse and fighting culture of the Ottoman Empire – the final part was that an Ottoman on a horse threw his burning javelin from about 30 yards over an oversized torch in the stadium to light it up.
FS: Have you gone to watch any of the other sports?
JU: Yes. I stayed with the nordic combined guys, so I ended up watching most of their events. I also watched pretty much every ski jumping event because the jumps are right in town next to the village and there is no bus ride necessary. I watched a curling game, skier cross and some figure skating. It was easy to catch most of the events at least on the screen because they were all fully televised on eurosport2 and all the events would be shown live on a big screen within the village and on several screens in the dining hall. Another crazy add-on to this is that they use the newest camera techniques. A flying camera on the ski jumping complex and in the stadium for the opening ceremony and even a driving camera on the finishing 100 meter stretch in the Cross Country stadium.
FS: What’s been your favorite part of the experience so far?
JU: I don’t think there is a single favorite thing. There will be so many memories (except maybe the races…) that I will be taking home from this place. The opening ceremony is definitely right up there though! Then there is funny/frustrating ones:
- They groomed the classic course about five minutes before the start.
- Every nation brings along pins and apparently everybody wants them. A normal conversation with one of the volunteers: “Where are you from?” “Germany.” “Ah, I like Germany. Pin?”
- The amount of pictures that I am in doubled in the last two weeks.
- Turkish men walk arm in arm as a sign of friendship. I went on a City tour and the guide seemed to like me.
- I was able to get up on the jumps during the last competition – it was fun to see how the guys prepare.
There are many more – in general I would say that my main experience is that Turkish people are very nice and welcoming people, especially once you know a couple of words in their language. They eat good food, they are always on the phone and they love sports. The nordic events were too far away but all other events were blessed with full bleachers. However they are not a winter sports nation, which caused sometimes trouble with the race preparations.
FS: Finally, World Juniors is there next year so everyone is wondering what it’s like to ski in Turkey. What is the venue like? How are the trails?
JU: I think that the people will enjoy the venues! The jumps are definitely the highlight of the place and will be for the events next year – but the race trails for the nordic complex are not far behind.
The nordic events will be in Kandili, which is about 40 minutes out of Erzurum and close to 2000 meters high. The climate, landscape and the snow very much reminded me of Utah, so a ski that works in the dry western snow will be good to race on here. Our wax tech, Fabian Mauz, went to school for climate research. He was a wax tech for the Swiss team and one of the people who did climate studies in Soldier Hollow for the Olympics. He confirmed that snow and the way it transforms was similar. An example would be that our thermometer (in the sun) would show 20C but we ended up racing on hard wax.
The race courses are hard! It reminded me of the race course at the jumps in Lake Placid. The uphill is a bit longer and steeper but that may have felt that way because I was not 100% fit, and it is at altitude. They have two 2.5 k and two 3.75 k loops; there may be a 5 k loop if there is snow. The courses are all on the same little hill – both 2.5 k loops go up the hill and back down. The 3.75 k loops are similar in a way that they are the same for almost all of the 2.5 k loop but you end up going back down almost all the way once or twice to make your way back up to the top.
I am sure they got enough feedback on the grooming so things should go smoothly. They have enough snowmaking and new equipment. It will be a perfect venue.
A final remark would be that you need to go out for cai kebab – it is a special kind of kebab and Erzurum is famous for it. It is lamb meat, so fairly greasy. I did not have any trouble with it but I heard that some people did. So I would not recommend it as a pre-race dinner.