Where Are They Now: Carl Swenson

Alex KochonNovember 10, 2011

This article is the second installment of the ‘Where Are They Now’ series, made possible through the generous support of Fischer Sports.  Learn more about their products at www.fischersports.com.

Three-time Olympian Carl Carl Swenson made the trip from southern New Hampshire to the 2010 Boulder Mountain Tour in Sun Valley, Idaho, where he finished eighth competing for Steinbock Racing. Swenson hopes to return to the race this winter. Photo courtesy of Toko.

More than 100 miles from New Hampshire’s White Mountains, Carl Swenson sat in his office in Dover, N.H., pouring over sexual-assault statutes on a recent November afternoon.

It wasn’t the most glamorous task — figuring out how to defend his clients as a criminal-defense lawyer for the New Hampshire Public Defender agency — but he knew it was important to represent those who could not afford an attorney.

After decades of high-level racing, with trips to three Olympics as a cross-country skier and several Mountain Bike World Championships, Swenson chose the new career for several reasons. For one, he needed another challenge.

The studying, preparation and performance side of being a public defender fulfilled that need. He also wanted to shift his focus, and after 15 years of essentially living out of a duffle bag, he wanted to belong to a community.

Upon graduating the S.J. Quinney School of Law at the University of Utah three years ago, Swenson landed a job in Strafford County in his home state of New Hampshire.

Carl Swenson, Kismet Cliff Run
Swenson after winning the first Kismet Cliff Run, a five-mile trail race in North Conway, N.H., in September 2009. Photo courtesy of Kismet Rock Foundation.

Driving home from work to his apartment in downtown Portsmouth, the 41-year-old Swenson spoke on the phone about how he ended up on the seacoast. Born in Corvallis, Ore., he grew up in North Conway, N.H., in the heart of the White Mountain National Forest.

There in the Whitaker Woods area behind his house, he won the state nordic skiing title as a ninth grader at Kennett High School. He spent his junior and senior years a little farther south at the Holderness School in Plymouth, where shared a dorm with Tour de France star and recently self-proclaimed doper, Tyler Hamilton. (Swenson said they weren’t close).

Swenson attended Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., where he was a two-time ski team captain and political philosophy major. Upon graduating in 1992, he headed west to Colorado and also lived in Utah before retiring from the sport in 2007.

Coming back east wasn’t exactly the plan, Swenson said, but he had no complaints.

“The whole goal here is to serve my clients,” he said of his life as a lawyer. “I’m part of a system that has all kinds of problems and issues, but it’s very engaged in real life and the community. I do find that rewarding, that I’m able to be effective in something and it’s not about how fast I can ski and ride my bike.”

Like many athletes who find a new career after sports, Swenson said he wanted to work in a field that was both exciting and self-driven — not necessarily self-centered, like racing was.

At the same time, performance remained key. Swenson said he appeared in the courtroom almost daily, which required tons of preparation and a constant, all-out effort.

“It’s almost like preparing for a big race, but much more nerve-wracking,” he said. “You have to get up, or in a sense, compete against someone in the courtroom. … It’s a good sign when you care enough to get anxious about something, and at the end of it, it definitely feels better to have gone through all that.”

Swenson usually starts his days with an appearance, which can last anywhere from a half hour to all afternoon. When he gets out around 4:30 p.m., it’s usually all he can do to take his mind off work.

While he tried to run or road bike daily and lift weights a few times a week, Swenson said his job sometimes infiltrated his home life and consumed his weekends with research. Fortunately, his girlfriend Katie Gould, a Tecnica Outdoor product and marketing manager, helped him get out.

Trips are harder to plan now, Swenson said, yet he managed to swing a recent mountain bike trip in Burke, Vt.  There, he had to borrow a bike and explained that he never replaced his old ride after it broke when he was in law school.

For many, that might seem logical — good mountain bikes are expensive — but for a former pro who now likely made at least three times what he did during his summer-mountain-bike/winter-skier career?

“I never got around to buying a mountain bike out here,” Swenson said. To him, Portsmouth was better for road riding.

 Better in Time

When Swenson made up his mind to retire after the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, he had an idea what his future would hold. He applied to law school before the start of the season, and at 36, knew he would be older than most students.

That bothered him about as much as it did when he raced: hardly.

The oldest member of the U.S. Ski Team, Swenson was a pedigree all his own. In 1996, he made the bold decision to pursue a professional mountain-bike career and continue to ski race internationally in the winter.

Former USST teammate Patrick Weaver said Swenson’s love of training and the lifestyle made that possible. He was a hard worker who wanted the year-round rigors, whereas most elite athletes wouldn’t consider putting themselves through 300 days on the road a year.

“You’re never really sleeping in the same place for more than a week or so, and after a while, you start to question why you do it,” said Weaver, now the head nordic coach at the University of Vermont.

While Swenson’s schedule was about twice as packed as most skiers, he thrived off it, keeping some belongings in a storage closet near the USST headquarters in Park City, Utah.

“For a while there Carl was a minimalist,” Weaver said, with a laugh. “(He) didn’t want a computer or a cellphone or an address … whatever most normal people had.”

When Weaver decided to buy a house in Bend, Ore., Swenson couldn’t understand why. About 30 at the time, Weaver felt it was natural to think about life after skiing, as did other teammates who were about the same age.

Not Swenson.

Two years after he became a professional mountain-bike racer — at the ripe age of 28 — Swenson placed 31st at Worlds. The next year, he won silver at the 1999 Pan Am Games and was the 2000 national champion.

While the transition between sports wasn’t initially easy (he noted several weeks of muscular awkwardness at the beginning of each season), Swenson said competing in both absolutely helped him.

“It always kept me fresher for both sports,” the 11-time national nordic champion said. “I like the variation and the change. I think if anything, it kept me more rested and eager.”

In 2002, Swenson anchored the Americans’ fifth-place relay at the Salt Lake City Olympics. A year later at age 32, he finished a career-best fifth at the FIS World Championships in the 50 k freestyle — without a pole for at least a kilometer.

There in Val di Fiemme, Italy, Swenson went down with the pack in a downhill crash and emerged from the pile with a broken pole. According to a story on Ski Racing.com, a Spanish coach eventually handed him a usable replacement. In second place before the crash, he ended up fifth and considered it his best race regardless.

Moments like those stood out, Swenson said, but he also remembered the bad races. In many cases, he used those to propel himself toward better results in the next.

His former teammate and roommate Pete Vordenberg, now a national team coach, said that was one of Swenson’s greatest strengths.

“He could bounce back from setback almost instantly,” Vordenberg wrote in an email. “Terrible race one day, top 10 the next. Well, that and smarts. And a hell of a sense of humor. Humor mostly.”

Swenson leads the men’s pack at the 2009 Boulder Mountain Tour in Sun Valley, Idaho. He finished eighth and plans to ski the 32-k marathon again this year. Photo courtesy of Saab Salomon Factory Team.

His Own Drummer

While many of his teammates kept in touch with significant others while travelling, Swenson avoided such interactions, which he saw as unnecessary distractions. In a 2006 interview with the Summit Daily News, his older brother, Pete, a randonee national champion and three-time ski mountaineering world competitor, teased Carl about not having a cellphone.

“I do have a computer now,” he responded.

“That’s big for Carl. Really big,” said Pete, now 43. “He’s hard to reach.”

Swenson was the guy on the team that enjoyed sitting down with a good book, magazine or copy of The New York Times. Weaver said that wasn’t particularly surprising because he was an “Ivy Leaguer,” but he never flaunted his intelligence.

“He was pretty unique that way,” Weaver said. “He had his opinions and he wasn’t afraid to express his opinions, (but) you had to bring it up for him to talk about things.”

His training was similar. He usually went about it his own way, Weaver said. Without being cocky, he also wasn’t seeking too much outside advice.

Back when Weaver was in ninth grade, he recalled first noticing Swenson as an eighth grader.

“He was small for his age,” he said. “I remember this little tiny kid going really, really fast.”

While his results turned heads, they were also hot and cold through the years, especially in his early 20s.

“He’d win a race and he was just Carl or he’d have the worst race of his life and he was still Carl,” Weaver said. “There wasn’t much difference in his demeanor. I gave a lot of respect for guys like that.”

Perhaps that’s why Swenson — nicknamed “Plucky” in college for his dogged determination — lasted so long in the sport.

A skier first, Swenson picked up mountain biking after college while living with his brother, then a pro cyclist. Fortunately for Swenson, Pete was also a bike mechanic.

“The guys at the shop called me ‘The Mangler,’ ” Carl told the Summit Daily News. “I would destroy every bike that I’d take. I didn’t even have my own bike.”

Great Expectations

Swenson’s decision to spend about eight years of his ski career chasing mountain-bike aspirations wasn’t exactly a coaches’ dream, but he said it was financially necessary.

According to a 2006 Wall Street Journal article on Swenson, he made about $2,500 a month in the summer while racing for Ralph Lauren’s RLX Polo Team. If not for his mountain bike career and ability to expense most everything, he wasn’t sure how he could have afforded skiing for some 15 years after college.

“I knew it would not last forever so I enjoyed every minute,” he wrote in an email.

In 2005, Swenson drove across northern Europe alone — about 500 miles — after choosing to do two early-season World Cup races. When he reunited with his team in North America, he was sick and his 11th and 12th finishes in Norway turned out to be his best results of the season.

Looking back, Swenson recognized that wasn’t the best move, but it was how he did things. Usually, he just ignored illness.

Asked if the USST had higher expectations and more support today, he said he wasn’t sure. Caliber-wise, he was impressed with the results of its top athletes.

“I think it’s healthy to have expectations and those pressures on athletes,” he said of the national desire for medals and podium appearances. “I keep waiting for those breakthrough moments. I also think we’re always going to have those opportunities … hopefully it’s sooner than later.”

In an effort to maximize his chances for podiums, Swenson tried to qualify for the 2004 Summer Olympics in mountain biking. When he wasn’t able to crack the top-2 national slots, he put down the bike and committed himself entirely to skiing.

By the time he wrapped up in the spring of 2006 — after helping the men’s 4 x 10 k relay finish 12th at the Winter Olympics — Swenson was ready to move on. Law school seemed like fun since he liked studying, and he knew it would keep him busy.

“I didn’t realize it at the time, but practicing was a lot harder than law school,” he said.

An athlete representative for North America, Swenson served on the International Ski Federation board from 2004-2006. The following year, he was the cross-country ski rep for the United States Ski and Snowboard Association.

Accolades aside, Swenson said his work with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency was a particularly good fit. He was elected to the Board of Directors in the fall of 2007, when he was completely retired and free of conflicting interests. His experience in two sports made his perspective even more valuable.

With about two terms left, Swenson said anti-doping efforts worldwide had made significant headway since many of the competition scandals broke out around 2000.

“People get caught and then it comes out, and people get disgusted by it,” he said.

As an athlete, Swenson knew about the prevalence of cheaters in skiing and especially in bike racing, but he used it as motivation to beat them.

“It’s still just kind of sad to think of all that was going on,” he said, pointing out the case of Beckie Scott, Canada’s first Olympic medalist in cross-country skiing.

Third in the 5 k pursuit at the 2002 Games, Scott finished behind two women who were later found guilty of using performance-enhancing drugs. She received her gold medal almost 2 ½ years later.

“That’s heartbreaking; she was robbed of that moment,” Swenson said.

Life After Skiing

With a short walk to the ocean, Swenson said he sometimes longed to get to the mountains. On weekends he occasionally tries to, whether that means racing a hill climb or a ski race of some sort or visiting his parents, Sally and Steve, in North Conway.

In the meantime, he enjoys the coast — running along the beach and taking short dips in the summertime. Next year, he intends to try paddle boarding.

His work schedule has limited Swenson before, but this winter, he plans to travel. After placing 14th at the Bretton Woods 40 k last year, he wants to keep racing ski marathons and hopes to revisit the Boulder Mountain Tour this season.

At the same time, his profession is demanding with an especially steep learning curve, which makes coming up for air difficult.

“That’s the thing I probably miss the most (about racing),” Swenson said. “I didn’t realize how experienced I was at what I did. … There’s days where I just feel like an idiot, but that’s natural.”

Alex Kochon

Alex Kochon (alex@fasterskier.com) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.

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