Note: This is the third profile in a series about working out with high-performance athletes. The idea is to shed light on the daily routine of someone dedicated to training and share a regular Joe’s story of trying to keep up.
LONDONDERRY, Vt. — As I pulled my vehicle up alongside Skyler Davis’ black Subaru in a grocery store parking lot, I wasn’t sure what to expect.
I had seen him once before at this year’s U.S. Ski Team dryland-training camp in Lake Placid, N.Y., where he was so ill he had to leave. His condition wasn’t exactly conducive to interview — he was hacking so hard he could barely catch his breath while warming up on rollerskis.
There, I kept my distance. A few weeks later, I contacted the youngest member of the USST to see how he was recovering in his home state of Vermont. Davis, 19, said he was fine and agreed to let me join him on a workout.
Great, I thought. He’s on the mend; there was a chance I could stay with him.
A little unclear about what his plan was for the afternoon, I brought everything: my road bike if he rollerskied (let’s be sensible), my sneakers, my trail shoes, and a change of clothes for all conditions.
Idling in front of Clark’s IGA in Londonderry, Davis rolled down his window and smiled. With a quick exchange, we were off and a mile or two later parked at the South Londonderry Visitors’ Center.
The 6-foot-3, development-team rookie emerged from his car and immediately struck up a conversation. How are you? How was the drive? I figured Clark’s would be a good place to meet. I embraced his friendliness and figured he was feeling better.
About four weeks after leaving the September camp with what turned out to be a lingering sinus infection, Davis was back to his regular training schedule. When we met in early October, he was up for a combi workout with an hour or two classic rollerski followed by an hour trail run.
I happened to catch him for a Level-1 “easy” session and hoped he would want to chat along the way. Most days of the week while in Vermont, Davis typically trained with teammate and USST veteran Andy Newell, who lived about 20 minutes away in Weston, Vt. When he wasn’t with Newell, Davis sometimes trained with the Stratton Mountain nordic team, which included a few skiers who liked to push the pace, he said.
That wouldn’t be me; he could count on that.
We set off on Winhall Hollow Road, a rural stretch with decent pavement that winds back to the Stratton Mountain access road. We started on a flat and talked about Davis’ background — interestingly in soccer.
He lit up when he reminisced about the sport. His Far Post soccer club in Essex Junction, Vt., won its age-group state title when he was in ninth grade — a year after he started taking classes and nordic skiing at the Stratton Mountain School in the winter.
With a three-hour drive separating Davis from hometown of Jericho, it seemed a year-round commitment to either sport was inevitable. His omen came in the fall of 10th grade.
Then on the Southern Vermont select soccer team, Davis as a midfielder played deep into the season again, all the way to the state final. On rollerskis, Davis reenacted the moment in the championship that changed his soccer career — he went up to head the ball and came down on his right ankle. He tore several ligaments and that was it.
Prior to the injury, Davis had already made up his mind to get serious about skiing. He remembered visiting Stratton’s ski-and-snowboard academy in fifth grade, when Newell was an upperclassman taking the college-racing scene by storm. The Stratton nordic coach, Sverre Caldwell, advised Davis to train year-round if he wanted to reach Newell’s level, and by his sophomore year, he listened.
Davis made his grandparent’s seasonal condo at Stratton his new home and rehabbed his ankle while refocusing on his skiing goals. By the end of his junior season, Davis saw the results he had hoped for.
The top J1 skier in New England, Davis ranked second of high-school male skiers in the region. At the 2009 Junior Olympics, he earned All-American status.
As a senior, Davis continued to dominate the sprints and boosted his ranking to first in New England and second of all male high-school skiers in the nation. In 2011, he made the Junior World Team and kept in close contact with USST coaches Chris Grover and Pete Vordenberg.
When the 2011/2012 USST nominations came out in April, Davis said he wasn’t exactly surprised, but he was hoping to be named.
“I kept my fingers crossed for a couple of weeks,” he said.
According to him, head coach Grover and Vordenberg, Davis’ personal mentor, were initially unsure if they’d have a development team. If they did, he’d be on it.
The decision not only brought Davis relief, but he said it helped him gain recognition and sponsors.
“The title of the U.S. Ski Team just kind of makes everything easier to accomplish on a daily basis,” he said.
When his size-13 feet didn’t fit well in his ski boots, he contacted Rossignol. Almost the next day, a new pair arrived at his house, he said. Training around Stratton, Davis felt like his hard work had paid off in a way others suddenly understood.
“People aren’t like, ‘Oh, well, what are you doing now with your life?’ ” Davis said a year after graduating from the ski academy. “It’s like, ‘Oh, you’re skiing.’ ”
As we crested the top of a long incline, I blurted out something about the hilly terrain. Since we started, Davis hadn’t had much of a break except for the briefly level start. It seemed like we had been climbing for miles.
“Yeah, there are two monster hills on this road,” he said. “The first one’s right up here.”
He wasn’t kidding. If I thought the first was hard, it was all I could do to keep from screaming as I went down the other. I had a feeling we would eventually turn around and head back up it.
I frequently checked back to watch Davis in action, navigating even the steepest downhill without any sign of angst. I know — that’s what he did for a living — but still.
To him, the paved-and-unforgiving descent hardly compared to the one on the backside of Stratton Mountain. He and Newell sometimes trained there, notching speeds upwards of 50 miles an hour while tucking.
As we topped yet another hill, Davis looked up, took a swig of Gatorade and rolled down the other side. I stopped to snap a photo of the landscape, with a large farm in the foreground and the Stratton ski area in the back. At the turnaround, Davis commented on the view; he looked forward to it every time he rollerskied there.
For a teenager, Davis was pretty insightful. He realized the value of quality coaching, goal-setting and being in a place that furthered his training, he said. Stratton did that for him, and he was excited to build off his work with Caldwell and Vordenberg in an effort to do well this season.
Upon Davis’ nomination, the USST coaching staff decided he was on the right track. Davis continued to design his training schedule, making it similar to that of Newell and the rest of the team. Caldwell revised the plans, and Vordenberg gave the final stamp of approval.
That worked well for Davis, who preferred doing workouts he enjoyed.
“You can have the philosophy of doing a workout you hate and going through them and gunning them out,” he said. “But for me, I’m working out so much, I’d rather do workouts I like and get the job done right.”
Relatively bigger than most skiers, the 195-pound Davis used to hate running. He got over that this year with the help of his girlfriend, Middlebury College cross-country runner Summer Spillane, who pushed him to keep up.
In July, Davis lowered his 5 k road-race personal best by more than a minute to 17:35, winning his age group and placing second overall at the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in Manchester, Vt.
“Running definitely used to be my worst thing,” Davis said, recalling the pain he previously felt about 10 minutes into any jog. “Now I run probably over an hour, five days a week. So that’s a lot.”
The discomfort he felt running stemmed from injuries, which also took a toll on his ski racing. Last February in Europe, severe hamstring and hip tightness hindered his performances.
“I couldn’t even use my legs in a skate race,” he said. “I didn’t have any power in them.”
He returned to Stratton for three weeks of rehab and went on to win the freestyle sprint at Junior Nationals. Just before the end of the season in April, Davis was third in the US Super Tour classic sprint, behind Newell and Simi Hamilton.
He considered that one of his biggest races, and he had a sinus infection at the time.
Taking Care of Business
After Davis’ 17-mile rollerski, we switched gears and jogged along a flat river path, where Davis went easy on me. In his first 20-hour training week since his sickness forced him to take four days off, he said he felt great and that his speed and strength had improved over the last few months.
“I can breathe harder, go harder. Everything’s up this year,” he said. “I’m just excited to get on snow, back on snow.”
In August, Davis came down with the ailment that kept him from competing at full-tilt on snow at New Zealand Winter Games. It also shorted him out of a post-camp surfing trip with Newell and Hamilton.
When he came home, Davis met with four physicians about his condition. He went on several antibiotics but nothing worked. Upon feeling like he was literally coughing up a lung in Lake Placid, he sought one more opinion.
Last spring, Dr. David Kaminsky, a pulmonary specialist in Burlington, determined Davis had asthma. It made sense; Davis had struggled with racing in cold temperatures for years. An inhaler immediately helped.
During that visit, Kaminsky gave Davis his email and told him to write any time he needed an appointment. One of the most sought-after lung specialists in the region, Kaminsky was booked for months — so Davis used the advantage.
“I got in the next day,” Davis said.
Kaminsky found a severe sinus infection was the root of Davis’ troubles and prescribed a stronger medication that cured him within days. Fearing a virus had spread to his lungs, Davis was relieved and soon back in action — starting with a 16-hour week, followed by a 19-hour week of solid training.
“Every day, I just felt awesome,” he said over a buffet-style lunch in the Stratton Mountain School dining hall.
After initiating a lengthy conversation with the head of the cafeteria, Davis ate a heaping plate of salad with meat on top like it was his best meal in years. Upon leaving, he carefully cleared his spot and called out a loud “Thank you” to the dining-hall staff.
I asked Davis what it was like to deal with sickness and unexpected recovery periods as a newcomer to the USST. He said it was nothing new.
“In the past, I’ve been sick like five times a year,” he said. “And it’s just sinus infections. Sometimes, it’s actually good for me to get sick because I kind of shut down and then I restart and then I look forward to everything.
“So you can look at it either way, you can get bummed out. I get bummed out obviously because I can’t train, but when you get back into it, it’s like a fresh start.”
When he felt good, he always had great results, he said with a laugh. In order to maximize the amount of healthy days, Davis jotted down all of his issues at the end of last season and resolved to fix them.
“Spring came around and I had all these things on my list and I just got them all dealt with in an orderly fashion,” he said. “So now it’s just maintenance.”
He said it was also mental and realized he was maturing during the process.
“Because I’ve had all this stuff, I kind of brush it off,” he said. “You’ve got to refocus after it. It’s what you do after (that matters).”
By spending time with USST A-teamers like Newell, Davis said he has learned how to grow as an athlete. While he mimicked Newell’s technique, he didn’t attempt to stay with him on similar-intensity distance workouts. Newell needed to take it a little easier and Davis had to push a little harder for them to match up. They scheduled their workouts accordingly and often finished the day building Newell’s cabin in Weston.
“Hopefully in a couple years I can hang with him,” Davis said of training. “That’s the goal … and then hopefully be fast in distance, too.”
For now, Davis said he was focused on potential World Cup starts and top finishes at Senior Nationals and the U23 World Championships. While the USST provided him with several coaching and training opportunities, including a career coach, Davis wanted to make next year’s B-team. This year, he depended on fundraisers and grants to cover his travel and living expenses, with a few thousand dollars coming from the New England Nordic Ski Association and the Level Field Fund.
At the top of his Twitter page, just below his name (@skylerskidavis), Davis summed up his attitude: “The more practice, the luckier I get.”
For him, it wasn’t so much a matter of sheer luck — it was about eliminating excuses.
“I feel fortunate, but I definitely had outlined a goal and I made it happen,” he said. “You can only prepare for yourself. That’s big.”
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.