During the 2012 Tour de Ski, FasterSkier sat down with the head coach of the Swiss National Team, Guri Hetland.
A native Norwegian, Hetland had 45 World Cup starts of her own between 1995 and 2001. She earned four top-10 results, all in sprints, but also scored World Cup points in seven distance races.
Hetland was named head coach of the Swiss team in the fall of 2010, and is the only female head coach on the World Cup.
In her first year on the job, Switzerland finished seventh in the Nations Cup rankings, and Dario Cologna won the overall World Cup and the 2011 Tour de Ski. Curdin Perl placed fourth in that Tour, and the Swiss men won the 4×10 kilometer relay in La Clusaz, France.
While the team struggled at the 2011 World Championships, the 2012 season has brought continued success.
Cologna repeated in the Tour and is favored to win the overall title again, while Laurien Van der Graaff has broken through on the women’s side and is ranked 10th in the world in sprinting.
Hetland is married to Tor Arne Hetland, an Olympic gold medalist, and the coach of the Swiss sprint team. The pair make their home in Davos.
While Hetland is fully committed to coaching she proved she can still mix it up on the race trails, placing 6th in the 10km pursuit at the 2011 Swiss National Championships.
FasterSkier: Can you tell us how you got started coaching? You were an athlete for a while right?
Guri Hetland: Yes. It was a while ago. I was an athlete until 2000, and then I did some other things—finished my studies and worked. The business life for some years. After some years I thought it would be nice to go back to the sports world.
Then I was the chief of competition at a World Cup in Norway, in Trondheim in 2009. After FIS asked if I was interested in doing TD [technical delegate] work—semi-professional TD work.
In autumn of ’09 I moved to Switzerland to be with my husband and I was engaged by FIS. In the 09-10 season I did TD work at eight World Cups.
I came into contact with the Swiss team. Living in Davos it is not possible not to get in touch with the Swiss team. Last autumn in October, the former Canadian coach, Inge Braten, got fired in Switzerland and they asked me if I was interested in doing this job.
I couldn’t say no to such a chance. I started coaching in Switzerland in October 2010.
And before I made the highest level of trainer education in Norway, so I have been pretty close to sport all the time, but only full time coaching the last seasons.
FS: Where did you go to school?
GH: In Trondheim. They have an Olympic system. Together with the University there in Trondheim they have made a program for coaches education.
FS: So that is what your degree was in?
FS: On the Norwegian team, Vidar [Norwegian team leader Vidar Lofthus] says his job is a lot of logistics. Are you doing some training with the athletes and some logistics? Or a lot of training or a lot of logistics?
GH: A lot of both. But that is the big difference between the big nations like Norway. Norway is bigger than all the others.
We are such a small team so I am the head coach and coaching the distance team—five athletes. There are four men—Cologna, Remo Fischer, Curdin Perl, and Toni Livers, and one lady, Seraina Boner.
My responsibility is coaching them and being the head coach, organizing everything around the World Cup. So I am doing Vidar’s job and Trond Nystad’s [Norwegian men’s head coach] job as well [laughs].
But you can’t compare it.
FS: Are you working with the athletes on a daily basis through the summer?
GH: Yes, we are doing much common training in Davos. I make training plans, and we mostly train together 4-5 times per week.
And then there are training camps. Usually two-and-a-half weeks to three weeks without camp and then a week to ten days with camp.
FS: So you live full time in Davos?
FS: Does Tor Arne work for you?
GH: Sort of. He is responsible for the sprinters. Also five athletes. Three male athletes and two female athletes.
And these five sprinters and the five distance racers are the World Cup team.
So he is having one part of the World Cup team and I am having the other part. And I have the responsibility for all the organization.
FS: So you could fire him if you had to?
GH: [laughs] Of course that is the challenge and we have discussed it quite a lot because it is not so easy to work so close together. We try to separate. He has his tasks and I have mine, and try not to always talk about cross-country.
FS: We don’t see many other female coaches on the World Cup? Do you know of any?
GH: I don’t think there are any women with the Norwegians. There are women on the staff, therapists, physiotherapy and things like that. I think I am the only female coach on the World Cup.
I don’t think very much about it.
FS: Are there times when that is challenging for you?
GH: Actually I don’t make it anything. For me, these tasks have to be done, and if you are man or woman you can do it.
It is possible for a man do it or possible for a woman to do it. For me it is no case.
FS: Why do you think there are not more women coaching on the World Cup?
GH: It is quite a special lifestyle. Travelling maybe 200-250 days a year. Many women do not want to do it because of family or they want to be more at home.
I am not thinking much about it, but I have discussed it with others. They are saying if there were more women maybe then there would be even more.
I think everyone should do what he or she wants to do. I think we have so many different personalities. All of us have strong sides and weaker side. If you are man or woman, that doesn’t make the big difference.
I can be pretty much like one man and really unlike another man, and I can be pretty much like another woman and unlike another woman.
Having the qualifications to do these tasks is the important thing.
FS: Are there advantages and disadvantages being a female coach? For instance working with female athletes versus male athletes?
GH: I am mostly coaching men. I think it is about having the right contact and the right relationship with the athletes. As I said before the personality is important.
FS: Would you like to see more women on the World Cup? And how do you think there could be more?
GH: Of course it would be nice with more women, but like I said they should really have the interest.
The men should really have the interest, and the women as well. In most cases it is good to have both men and women.
FS: Do you think there are more women who want to be coaches but haven’t figured out how to make it happen? Or are fewer women interested in coaching at that level.
GH: I think in general there are fewer women interested. In Norway the system has the same possibilities and opportunities as a woman.
In Switzerland we hardly have any female coaches—in other sports as well.
I think Switzerland is a little bit more conservative than Scandinavia.
FS: Do you see more female coaches at the lower levels where there might be less travel involved?
GH: In Norway there are many more female coaches on the local and regional levels.
FS: The sprinters have taken a big jump this year. Can you tell us about what you are doing?
GH: They have a really good coach [laughing]. The sprinters have been doing really well this season. They have made a jump forward and that is cool. This year we have put the distance and the sprint teams together more, like at training camps.
Before they were separate. Now we think to be a good sprinter you have to have the endurance, because it is not only about managing the prologue. You have to ski through [the heats].
And for the distance athletes there are more mass starts. It’s more shorter distances—the Tours with the sprints. They need the sprint qualities.
Therefore we put them all together so they can all benefit.
FS: Tor Arne did well with the Germans also. Is there anything special about his style?
GH: He is really really really dedicated. He was pretty successful himself and he knows there is only one way to success and that is hard work. He is really planning and doing good and hard trainings with the team.
That brings results.
FS: Can you tell us a little bit more about Dario? What is he like in training and in the off-season and outside of skiing?
GH: He is a common nice guy. He is really focused. He is one of the smartest athletes I have met. He knows what to do and he knows what he wants. He is really good at listening to his body.
FS: Can you give us an example?
GH: In training, he is the one, if we say we are doing not really high intensity, but middle intensity [level 3], many skiers are starting too hard and they destroy the training in the beginning.
But he is always good at training exactly as he wants to train. If he wants to go slow he is going slow and he is also really developing technique. He is trying new things, thinking about how to improve, how to make things better.
FS: What is the area where he could stand to improve the most?
GH: Like the last seasons, he is already getting better and better. Not big steps anymore because he is already at such a high level. But he is always getting better—all qualities are getting a little better each year.
It is hard to say one special thing he has to improve.
His top speed has increased a little bit. He is a bit faster. If I had to pick one thing it would be double poling.
FS: What about Curdin Perl? Last year he had a great Tour de Ski, and then had the injury. Is he better now?
GH: He had to have an operation in March. He had a hernia, but he recovered. At the end of April he was skiing again and training normal again.
So he is really recovered from that. He is has not been that fit at the beginning of the season. No, he is coming, but not on the level of last year, but I think it is a question of time. I think he is on the way to his shape again.
Top-10 to 15 should be possible here at the Tour de Ski. Of course it will be hard to be as good as last year, but there are many interesting World Cups coming as well.
FS: You guys climbed the Matterhorn together? How did that happen?
GH: He likes mountaineering, and me as well. We had a marketing day in Zermot and he did a mountaineering week. And then I came, and I wanted to more than just the marketing day.
We organized a guide. It was a really great experience.
FS: Do you think you will do it again, or something like it?
GH: Oh yes, for sure.
FS: The men have been much stronger than the women historically. Are you involved with the development?
GH: We are working on it, but it is difficult because there are not that many girls skiing in Switzerland.
I think we have to try to motivate the really young girls, when they are 10, 12, 13-years old, to do races and to train cross-country.
Now what is really cool that Laurien Van der Graaff made the first podium for a Swiss lady since 1987.
So there are some good athletes—Laurien, Bettina Grueber, Doris Trachsel, Seraina Boner. I wish there were more, but still are there are some good, and there are some good juniors coming up. But it is not like Norway or Sweden where there are 20 junior athletes who have the chance to win the World Junior Championships. We have probably one with the possibility to be top-10. It is a difference.
FS: What are some of the other big challenges for skiing in Switzerland?
GH: One challenge is the school system. If you want to do high level skiing you have to go to a sport school. If you go to normal school, you have too much school work. So it is difficult.
For sure cross-country in Switzerland is not sport number one. In Norway it is sport number one, together with soccer maybe.
In Switzerland you have alpine skiing. All the kids in Switzerland are learning alpine skiing. That is the normal way to learn to ski in Switzerland.
You have some trying cross-country, but we have to motivate more small children to cross-country, and I think the way to do it is organizing more competitions. Like local competitions. We also see that the success of Dario has created a cross-country boom.
And more and more adult people 35-50 years old. They often have children and if they bring children skiing…
FS: So in terms of the school, kids have to decide pretty young to attend a sports school?
GH: Yes exactly. Compared to Norway where you can be in the normal school until you are 19 and still have the time to train enough to be at a high level.
FS: The Ski Federation in Switzerland is much smaller than Norway, but Dario still has to compete against Petter Northug. Can you tell us what you do as a smaller team to be able to compete?
GH: We try to do our best with our resources. That is what it is all about, to do your best with what you have.
Yes, here [at the Tour] we have a smaller service team, but we only have three athletes. Norway has the best female athletes, the best male athletes and they have to serve quite a lot of athletes.
We only have to take care of three. We can be more focused and offer these athletes really good service because of the size of the team.
I think you can compare us to the US team and the Canadian team. I think we are working pretty much the same way. Me as well, I am also testing skis. All the people in the team have to have different tasks.
That is also important to me because I think the team functions well when people are really busy and know what to do.
In some teams it can be difficult to find good tasks for everyone.
FS: It must also make it more satisfying when you do well.
GH: Yeah of course. And we are really close together in this small group. We eat together and are really working close.
FS: So Dario is not separate from everyone else?
GH: He is not at all separate.
FS: Thank you!
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.