Under two years apart in age, Sadie and Erik Bjornsen have always been competitive siblings. But as two of the newest members of the U.S. Ski Team (USST), they don’t seem too worried about upstaging each other. On the contrary, Erik made the decision to join his older sister at Alaska Pacific University (APU) this May at his sister’s encouragement.
The Winthrop, WA natives have cut strikingly similar career paths so far. Both dominated the US junior racing circuit, qualifying for seven World Junior Championship teams between the two of them. As post-graduates, the Bjornsens each tried college racing at the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) and full-time skiing with their former coach, Scott Johnston, for the Methow Olympic Development Project. Though they haven’t always been with the same program at the same time, they are now teammates again at APU and on the USST.
All the while, they’ve racked up an intimidating set of accomplishments. Erik was 14th in the classic sprint at World Juniors in Otepaa this winter, and later the runner-up in the NCAA 20 k classic as a freshman for UAA. Not to be outdone, Sadie notched two top-20s at U23s — in the classic sprint and the 15 k pursuit. She earned a spot on the American World Championships squad and continued her breakout season with two individual top-30s in Oslo.
When we caught them both home at the same time in Anchorage, the Bjornsens had recently returned from the USST camp in Park City, UT, where they got to join top skiers from all over the country for competitive training away from dreary weather of Alaskan autumn. After a rehash of the camp, they discussed why they’re excited to be on the USST, what their goals are for the season, and what it’s like to have two national-team athletes in the family.
FasterSkier: Since being named to the USST, what have been the biggest changes in your training, and in your lives in general?
Sadie Bjornsen: It’s been great, because with the system now, they don’t pull you away from the training you have going on. I’ll periodically update Matt [Whitcomb], but I’m mostly working with Eric Flora. It’s like having a second team. Then you get to go to camps and work with the USST coaches, but it balances. We’re required to go to more camps, but that’s the benefit of it; you get out of Alaska and train with the group.
Erik Bjornsen: It provides more opportunities for us. Not just in terms of training with the best skiers in the US, but they have all these programs and resources. When I was in Park City I worked with the PT there on an injury I had. Lots of resources like that — people to help you out with raising money, nutritionists. There are so many things to take advantage of.
FS: Was it always a goal of yours to be on the USST?
SB: It’s definitely a step in getting there, but the goal is racing well. My end goal is still racing at the top of the World Cup, and this is the stepping-stone.
EB: Yeah, it’s more like, I want to race in the World Cups. It was unexpected for to be named to the team this year, but I’m really excited for the opportunity.
FS: Can you describe how you found out?
EB: I got contacted by Pete Vordenberg — first he was wondering if I’d be able to race in Europe much next year. That was the same time I was deciding weather to transfer [from UAA to APU]. So part of it was, would I join APU, and if so then I’d be able to race in Europe more, and would I be interested in being part of the team.
SB: [Being nominated] is a lot about having the training facilities and a team, as well as being committed to going to Europe and spending time on the circuit. Results too, obviously.
FS: Before your current facilities and team at APU, you were both in the Methow Valley for a bit after high school. What did you learn from that?
SB: All I was doing there was eat-sleep-train. I needed something else to keep my mind off skiing. I think as I grow older, and become a better skier, I’ll grow more focused and need less distraction, but at this stage I need something else going on.
EB: I did a lot of training with Sam Naney, and we’re about the same pace so he was a good training partner. But at APU there’s guys going hard every day. This morning we did level five bounding, and there’s a few really good runners on the team, so there’s guys ahead of me every workout. It just makes you push harder.
Eric is all about training groups; he’s trying to create a replica of what they have in Norway. They have lots of training groups and guys just go out there training hard with each other every day, consistently. I believe in that too.
FS: Was your decision to come to Alaska swayed by the fact that your sister was already there?
EB: Yeah, I wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for Sadie.
SB: It’s funny, we did the exact same thing: one year at UAA, then to APU.
It was hard transferring, I really had a great time [at UAA], and I think Trond [Flagstad] is a great guy. So it was hard to say to Erik, “Hey, come to APU!” Reese [Hanneman] and the other guys were all encouraging to him too. I know it’s hard when Trond invests time in you and then we’re across the road the next yr. But Trond leaving UAA made the choice easier.
FS: Were you guys really competitive growing up as kids?
EB: I think Sadie beat me until I was a J2.
SB: I remember the first time Erik beat me, I was like, “That’s never happening again!” And of course it happened every time after that.
We also have an older sister too, Kaley, who’s two years older than me. We grew up competitive with her. We did these ski races when we were young on the pass over to Seattle. Erik and I were be the blockers for Kaley. It was always a mass start, it’s called the Up, Down and Around. It’s funny, Erik and I didn’t seem to care about our race, we’d just block for my sister; make sure no one hit her. We were totally doing these team tactics as little kids.
We just grew up with a competitive atmosphere in our family. With three kids within four years of each other, everything’s a competition.
It’s nice to have a sibling in the family doing the same thing, especially with the funding. If there was only one of us on the USST, saying, “OK, we want to race in Europe, but we have to come up with $30,000,” my mom would be like, “That’s crazy!”
But because there are two of us going for it, it’s almost more of a reason to support it. With both of us, it’s easier for our family to understand what we’re doing.
FS: Have you marketed yourselves to sponsors as, like, a package deal?
SB: That’s what we’re aiming for. It is unique, out of the people on the USST, two are from the same family. It’s fun going back home, where there aren’t a lot of world-class athletes. All the little girls love Erik. People look up to us as siblings.
FS: What are your goals for the season?
EB: My goal is to be competitive with the top guys at NorAms. I’ve been in the teens, so it’d be fun to get into the top five. I’ve been working a lot on my distance this year, logging a ton more hours. I think I had 425 hours last year; this year I’m sure I’ll be over 525, 550. I almost like distance racing more than sprinting.
Then in the OPA Cups, I’d like to get some top-10s. It’s a really competitive circuit. And at U23s I want to qualify for rounds in the sprint. The past three years my goal has been to make it to the semis [at World Juniors]. So that’s the same goal, even though it’s my first U23 year.
SB: I think I’ve been to World Juniors or U23s six times now. Every year I’ve felt like I haven’t raced to my potential; it’s always iffy timing. It’s right after Nationals, or it gets postponed so you’re peaking for the wrong time. This year it’s at the end of February, so I think I’ll be able to aim for a higher result — there’s a good chunk of time between Nationals and U23s.
I definitely want to be in A-finals for the sprint. There’s also a 15 k classic this year, and I love distance classic.
FS: And on the World Cup?
SB: Last year, my first World Cup was right before World Champs. I think it would be awesome to break into the rounds at some of the World Cups.
EB: Well, you did at World Championships, so…
SB: Yeah, well, that’s pretty much the goal.
FS: When you first got to races at the international level and you didn’t know your competitors personally, was it hard to mentally prepare for a race?
EB: Yeah, when I was in the Methow, I did OPA Cups for almost a month. I started knowing a lot of the guys, knowing their tactics. I think that’s very important. Especially at U23s — you recognize them and realize that they’re no different than us, and that you can beat them.
SB: That’s where you’re confidence comes from. Like Erik said, at OPA and World Champs, you get to know them, and it somehow boosts your confidence. Otherwise you think of them as superheroes, you know, untouchable. Then you run into them jumping around before the start and you think, “Oh, you’re totally normal.”
The more experience you have, the more confidence you have, always.
SB: Kikkan knows her competitors from the World Cup, and she trains with them in the summers now. You can just see how that’s increased her confidence. It’s worn off on us — at camps she’ll be talking to those Swedish girls, and all of a sudden we’re talking to them too. It’s awesome getting to know these athletes through her, and her confidence rubs off on us. It’s pretty sweet.
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Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.