After “Giving It a Try” With Racing, Whiton Takes Over As Head Coach at Gould Academy

Chelsea LittleSeptember 30, 2011

When head coach Jeremy Nellis and his assistant Ben Kamilewicz both left Gould Academy this summer, any sensible observer would have concluded that the program was doomed.

Nellis had led the Bethel, Maine team through an era of yellow suits and pink plaid jackets, and despite their questionable sartorial choices, his skiers got faster. At the prep school championships in February, Gould took five of six podiums places in the individual races and won both the girls’ and boys’ relays. Three skiers then made the trip to Minneapolis for Junior Olympics.

What would the program do without Nellis?

Gould hired Tim Whiton, a 2005 graduate of the school who raced for Bates College and then worked as the assistant coach at Bowdoin College while continuing to compete as a senior. In June, Whiton had been hired to be an assistant coach for Nellis, but just a short time later Nellis left to take a job with the Craftsbury Nordic Ski Club. To his surprise, Whiton got the promotion.

“The first couple weeks after I found out that Jeremy wasn’t coming back, it was like, oh, boy,” Whiton told FasterSkier. “I was like, how is this going to work? I have to get help! That was pretty stressful. But things are rolling now.”

With Wade Kavanaugh, another alumnus, signing on as his assistant and longtime helper Brad Clark sticking around, Gould is hoping that they can keep a good thing going – and Whiton is confident that he can make it work.

A New Kind of Challenge

Whiton didn’t waste any time celebrating his homecoming to Gould; instead, he had to face up to several new issues that he hadn’t faced as an assistant.

The first was logistical. As an assistant, Whiton had been able to stand by while Bowdoin head coach Nathan Alsobrook dealt with budgets, paperwork, and other organizational tasks.

“The biggest change, and the one I struggle with the most, is the organizational piece,” Whiton said. “The school is great, but there’s lots of little pieces that fall under some people’s budget and some people’s work, and just trying to figure out who knows what I’m supposed to do… it’s a lot of work. It takes a lot of energy and a lot of focus.”

As a former student, Whiton knew his way around campus, which helped. And because he was hired in the summer, he had a few weeks to learn the ropes and get organized before students arrived.

And when they did, he was ready with a training plan. Whiton wasn’t worried about coaching the top athletes at Gould; he said that training high school skiers wasn’t much different than training college skiers. While he dialed back the workouts from what he was used to, all of the basic training principles were still the same. He also had a good relationship with Nellis and was aware of the direction the former coach had been taking the program. Both were “followers” of former U.S. Ski Team coach Dick Taylor, so Whiton wasn’t worried about maintaining continuity for the athletes.

What he was more nervous about was how to manage the large, diverse team.

“It’s pretty scattered,” he said. “It’s mixed, and that makes it more challenging than a college job or even a regular high school job.”

Snow sports are a focus at Gould, and the school has a competition program for students who dedicated to nordic, alpine, and freestyle skiing as well as snowboarding. But since the school requires that students participate in a sport every trimester, Whiton will also be coaching regular students who are just participating in skiing to fulfill their requirement. It’s a dizzying mix of skill levels.

“I am going to get kids who have literally never skied before,” Whiton said. “I think everyone at the school has seen snow, but I might get someone who has never seen snow. So you’re literally teaching how to put skis on: these are what they are, let’s go out and try to figure that out.”

Whiton classified the team in three groups: the first was the complete newcomers, the second the high school racers – “they like skiing, but they’re not ready to make a full-time commitment” – and the third the competition program. Whiton will be taking his top athletes to Eastern Cups, U.S. Nationals, and potentially even Spring Series, so he wants to spend as much time with them as possible. But the majority of the team is less experienced and needs more basic instruction. With so many skiers at such different skill levels, helping every athlete is a challenge.

“It should be an interesting mix,” Whiton said.

So far this fall, Whiton is easing into coaching by working with just three competition program athletes on a daily basis. The rest of the team is forgoing full-time dryland training to instead race in cross-country running or play on the soccer team.

When the whole group comes together, Whiton will have plenty of help. Kavanaugh was a coach at Gould in the early 2000’s and was actually one of the reasons that Whiton picked the school as a sophomore in high school; he said that Kavanaugh is “a really great guy, really good with kids, and really creative.”

Clark is the head of the history department and has three kids of his own on the team, and Whiton said that a number of other area skiers, like members of the Bethel Outing Club, also lend a hand with coaching. And then there’s Taylor, who lives in the area and is still advising Whiton on training and coaching.

“I’ve got a lot of folks here to help me,” Whiton said.

Prep School Primer

Teams like Gould and rival Holderness used to churn out top high school racers, acting as a pipeline to the college teams and even to the senior race circuit. But in the last few years, prep schools have slipped out of nordic skiing’s spotlight.

Whiton wasn’t exactly sure why, since he hadn’t been observing closely while he was in college and coaching at Bowdoin.

“I don’t really know what happened,” he said. “There are really good coaches – Alexei Sotskov is back at Vermont Academy, Pat Casey at Holderness. I think Gould had a couple of skiers at junior nationals last year but that was the first time since I’d been here. The level has definitely dropped quite a bit, but I can’t really speak to why that might be.”

He was able to make a few guesses – for one, schools like Gould and Holderness are expensive, and Whiton questioned whether nordic skiers could find the cash to attend such a pricey institution. Whiton thought they might opt for a ski school instead. But with Gould costing only a few thousand dollars more than a top ski academy like the Stratton Mountain School, economics didn’t seem likely as the driving factor.

Whiton’s other theory was simply that the culture of skiing had changed.

“I think there’s been a movement in the U.S. ski community that if you want to be a top skier, you don’t go to college,” he said. “Or maybe you go to more of a ski school, or you go out west. And in that case maybe you don’t look at a prep school – you look at Stratton or Burke, which will potentially let you step into that role of being a full-time skier.

“I think prep schools are definitely really good schools, but they’re bigger on academics so maybe there’s a feeling that you can’t do both. I would definitely challenge that assumption.”

Whiton pointed out that Gould has some of the best trails in the East, and holds snow when many other ski areas cannot. He also cited the flexibility of the school’s winter class schedule, which he said was designed mainly for the alpine skiers but was a huge benefit to the nordic team as well.

He hoped that the addition of a high-profile coach like Casey (who had formerly worked with the U.S. Ski Team) to the circuit would raise the profile of prep school skiing.

“Hopefully Pat’s presence there will start putting prep schools back on the radar,” Whiton said. “It will be interesting to see what happens with Holderness’s programs. Hopefully they can rebound back to where they were.”

In the meantime, he was happy to be working with skiers who are dedicated to both school and skiing.

“Gould is more focused on bringing people here not for skiing, not for sports, but for school,” he said. “And then developing good skiers.”

The Portcity Experience

Whiton (43) in the mix at Spring Series this year.

Whiton’s assertion that high school athletes should be able to focus on both academics and high-level competition doesn’t apply only to youngsters. This ability to multitask is somewhat of a personal mantra for Whiton, who tried to start a senior team in nearby Portland while he was coaching at Bowdoin.

He said that the desire to “kind of see” what he could do came from a racing trip to Sweden in the spring of 2010.

“The last FIS races over there was a 30-plus kilometer race which went over to the other side of the valley, up the alpine hill, and then down,” Whiton said. “Anders Soedergren won, Daniel Rickardsson was second, Petter Northug was third, and Martin Koukal was fourth – all medalists at the Olympics that year. And I was skiing in the pack at 7 or 8 kilometers. Soedergren went off the front and I was sitting there feeling good.

“So it was like, okay, well, maybe we should give this a try for a year and see.”

Even though Whiton ended up finishing more than twenty minutes behind Soedergren, the feeling of skiing the pack with the world’s top racers had made him wonder what he could accomplish if he focused on racing.

His first idea was to base himself out of Bethel, a model perfected by Dave Chamberlain. Whiton hoped to help out with Gould’s nordic program, be a dorm parent, and potentially even teach while he trained in Bethel.

“But it was really tough not having any real results to go off,” he said. “To try to sell that was tough.”

Whiton’s best results had been in marathons – in 2010 he finished fourth in the Craftsbury marathon behind Juergen Uhl, Tim Reynolds, and Justin Freeman. But in shorter races, he didn’t have many standout results to show off.

After the Bethel idea “fizzled”, he founded the PortCity Nordic team. Working under the umbrella of the Portland Ski Club, Whiton wanted to make high-level racing happen in southern Maine. But he couldn’t find much funding, and he also couldn’t find any other teammates. While there were other racers in the area, they all had full-time jobs and weren’t dedicated to training.

“I wanted there to be something for people who have everyday lives and are still trying to ski race at a high level,” Whiton said. “It still doesn’t really make sense to me why we don’t have more programs like that.”

He cited Holly Brooks as an example of a skier who kept training through her twenties while still working, and wondered why that wasn’t a more widely-accepted trajectory for skiers.

“In terms of U.S. skiing, if you didn’t qualify for NCAA’s, if you weren’t All-American, there’s this expectation that you’re done skiing,” Whiton said. “And I think developmentally the U.S. is, we’re a couple of years behind the Scandinavians and other Europeans. So don’t be afraid to try to keep racing at a high level, even if you have a full-time job.

“There have been other skiers [besides Brooks], too. And you have runners and bikers who keep training at a high level, and have goals for themselves. Why don’t we do that for skiing?”

While Whiton was able to train well during the summer and fall – he called his October fitness last year outstanding – and get coaching from Taylor, Pete Phillips, and Alsobrook, his season was ultimately disappointing.

“I was way too wound up,” he said. “Like, it’s gotta happen, it’s gotta happen, it’s gotta happen, and then it didn’t and I crashed. I was way too stressed.”

One of his top finishes ended up being, once again, the Craftsbury Marathon, where he repeated his fourth-place result, this time behind Pat O’Brien, Freeman, and Dylan McGuffin.

Whiton still believes that the PortCity idea could work – not only for himself, but for other skiers – and he hopes to see a diversification of the senior race scene in the future.

Taking The Lead

In the meantime, he’s switching his focus to younger racers – which, he said, was great.

“I was pretty fried after last year,” Whiton laughed. “It’s nice to take a big step back and not think about that.”

While he called being a head coach “a little weird,” he was excited to apply everything that he had learned from Alsobrook, starting with the physiological aspects of training.

“In terms of having an understanding of actual physiology and actual training principles, I think [Alsobrook] knows more than any other college coaches that I know of,” Whiton said. “I don’t want to step on any toes there, but he has great ideas.”

The proof, he said, was in the proverbial pudding: “If you look at what he’s done with the Bowdoin program, in terms of results those kids had in high school, not to put them down in any way, but they are much, much faster than anybody would have predicted that they could have been.”

Between Alsobrook’s teaching and the understanding he had gained from years of his own training, Whiton was confident in that aspect of coaching.

But the biggest thing that he thought he had learned from Alsobrook was to simply be himself.

“[Alsobrook] will definitely be okay with me saying this – he knows it – but he is pretty uptight a lot of the time, and kind of anal about stuff that maybe he shouldn’t be anal about,” Whiton explained. “But he knows that, and he works with that and he makes it effective. So that’s been a big thing for me, to kind of be myself in this whole process, to try to figure out what works well for me.”

And in the end, Whiton said, good coaching is good coaching. Which is a comforting thought to a brand-new head coach.

“In terms of training, the key with technique is still focusing on the basics,” Whiton explained. “General movement patterns, general training concepts. It’s really not that different [than coaching at Bowdoin]. Yeah, the training load dropped; the kids are not as fast, not as strong, can’t do as much in a workout, can’t go quite as hard or quite as long, that sort of thing. From a physiological perspective you have to take it back a notch. But I don’t think there’s much of a difference.”

Chelsea Little

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