The Maine Winter Sports Center (MWSC) officially grew by two on Thursday, adding U.S. Ski Team veteran Kris Freeman and US Biathlete Annelies Cook to its roster. They join another national team member, biathlete Russell Currier, and three others on the Caribou-based club’s Olympic development team.
While the MWSC’s competitive program took off in earnest 11 years ago and produced several Olympic biathletes and cross-country Olympian Ben Koons, the recent signings mean more good news for the center. In April, L.L. Bean pledged to donate $1 million dollars to the club’s Healthy Hometowns community program.
The extra cash didn’t exactly translate to more money for the elite athletes; competitive programs director Will Sweetser said he convinced Freeman and Cook to commit because of pre-existing relationships. Born in Saranac Lake, N.Y., the 27-year-old Cook trained with MWSC for two years following high school.
A true New Englander, Freeman, 31, has known Sweetser for years. The Maine Winter Sports coach previously worked with Freeman’s older brother, Justin, at Bates College, and Sweetser said he knew Freeman since about the mid ’90s when Kris was a teenager. Once in a while, they found time to chat.
“Occasionally, I’m his punching bag during cool downs,” Sweetser said in a phone conversation from Maine. “I’m a big believer in coaches learning from athletes at least as much as athletes learning from coaches. Any time that the national team athletes are home and I’m at an event where I can go for a ski with one of them, I like to pepper them with questions.”
Sweetser eventually made Freeman an offer too good to turn down. After casually reaching out to him in late March at Spring Series in Craftsbury, Vt., the three-time Olympian agreed to commit to his first actual club last week.
Freeman listed Waterville Valley as his club since he started skiing there at age 5, but explained he was the only member of an essentially non-existent nordic program. At the SuperTour Finals in Craftsbury, he skied for Ski & Snowboard Club Vail (SSCV). Since then, Freeman had said he was deliberating between teams.
“I think it’s been three seasons now where the U.S. Ski Team has stopped sending us support staff to U.S. Nationals and to SuperTours and being in a club is the best way to get that support,” Freeman said in early May. “Also going to domestic races by yourself isn’t much fun. Being in a club last year, skiing with the Vail guys was just a fun time so I think it was time to join a club.”
The affiliation was mostly based on Freeman’s relationship to three of SSCV’s members: Noah Hoffman, Tad Elliott and Sylvan Ellefson, all of which joined him on the World Cup last season. While the club was appealing, it was also out of Colorado, and Freeman wanted to be in New England.
Sweetser said it took about two months to get him to sign with MWSC.
“All I said was, if he found himself in a position where he needed support, that we were more than happy to provide that support,” Sweetser said. “Following the [U.S.] Ski Team nominations, he decided that, one, he needed to be affiliated with a stronger club and, two, he needed some financial support in the lead up to this year’s World Cup season.”
Freeman would not comment on what level of support he was receiving as an A-team member next season, and USST head coach Chris Grover said that was a private matter that only Freeman could answer.
After a training session in Bend, Ore., Freeman told FasterSkier he joined MWSC.
“A lot of their themes and stuff is healthy living and using sport as a means to an end,” he said. “That goes along well with what I’ve tried to get across with diabetes.”
Considering the club was a six-hour drive from his hometown in New Hampshire, he also liked its local appeal. Between returning from Europe and racing in Craftsbury, Freeman spent time there at the northeastern tip of Maine. Sweetser said he worked with 12- to 14-year-old juniors, demonstrating technique while they chased him.
At the end of June, Sweetser said Freeman will join the rest of his new teammates in Maine for a five-day camp. Freeman will also work toward some 100 hours of community service by spending a day at a diabetes camp. Meanwhile, Cook will do some public-relations work for MWSC.
Later this season, Freeman planned to travel overseas to train with the Norwegian National Team and his coach Zach Caldwell (and teammate Noah Hoffman) in Norway. Sweetser said MWSC was supporting Freeman on that trip, along with all of his domestic race support, the time he spends in Maine and attends their training camps, much of his dryland training and at least his first World Cup period and Tour de Ski expenses.
“In return, he’ll spend more than a month at training camps with us and close to a month doing PR in Maine, youth outreach and diabetes camps and training sessions with the athletes here,” Sweetser said.
“It’s certainly exciting to have somebody that’s not only an Olympian, but has the potential to medal at the next Olympics,” he added. “We have a couple of really strong upcoming Maine athletes, like Hilary McNamee and Welly Ramsey, and we don’t do them a good service if we don’t have somebody that can mentor them. For Welly to be able to able to ski with Kris or Russ Currier, who went through the same path that Welly’s trying to do right now, is really valuable. For Katrina Howe or Hilary to be able to learn from Annelies is very valuable.”
On Wednesday, Freeman teamed up with 21-year-old Ramsey to win a friendly relay at their training camp in Bend, Ore.
“It was a good first workout for us to ski together,” Freeman said. “We’ll see how these camps go. Hopefully I can help raise the level there and in turn their support should help me out in domestic races.”
— Chelsea Little contributed reporting.
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.