In his first two years as Canadian national team head coach, Justin Wadsworth has set high goals for his skiers. Last season, he expected at least one of them to finish the World Cup in the top three overall – it could’ve been Devon Kershaw or Alex Harvey, he wasn’t sure, Wadsworth recently told FIS News.
Kershaw exceeded the goal and placed second overall. Harvey placed sixth and another team member, Len Valjas, notched his first World Cup podium. Even after Canada’s best cross-country season on record, Wadsworth wants more. For one, he would like to see the women reach a similar level, which is why he split the team into men’s and women’s training squads.
Separate teams require additional coaches so Wadsworth signed on Louis Bouchard of the Pierre-Harvey National Training Centre as an assistant men’s coach and Torbjørn Karlsen to help out on the women’s side. Still the head coach, Wadsworth decided he would lead the men this summer and made Eric de Nys the women’s coach.
To understand the role of Karlsen, who was hired as a special consultant, it’s useful to rewind back to the 1990s, when Karlsen coached the U.S. Ski Team (USST) and started a long-lasting relationship with Wadsworth and his eventual wife, Beckie Scott.
After all, Wadsworth knows what his Canadian World Cup team has going now is a good thing. You wouldn’t want to mess with that with just anybody.
From One Coach to Another
Right around the turn of the century, Wadsworth knew something had to give. He had spent most of the ’90s injured; in seven years leading up to the 1998 Nagano Games, the former U.S. Ski Team member was healthy for two of them.
Still, Wadsworth made two Olympics that decade and with another on the horizon in 2002, he was eager for his third. He needed some help, and that’s where his coach came in.
A Norwegian Sports College graduate who majored in cross-country skiing, Karlsen mentored USST athletes over three decades, starting in the 1980s. He accompanied racers like Wadsworth to the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics and Nagano Games. Afterward, Karlsen coached individuals out of Park City, Utah, keeping ties with Wadsworth who trained in Bend, Ore.
That was about the time Karlsen helped salvage Wadsworth’s career, the Canadian national team coach said.
“The last two or three years of my career, he just said, ‘Hey, what you’ve been doing isn’t really working. Let’s try something new because something has to change,’ ” Wadsworth said in a recent phone interview.
In 2001, Wadsworth notched the best American result in 20 years, placing eighth in the pre-Olympics World Cup 30 k at Soldier Hollow, Utah. He skied so hard he suffered intestinal bleeding, but shrugged off the ailment and reveled in his accomplishment. At the Olympics a year later, Wadsworth made U.S. history in finishing fifth with the men’s relay.
Meanwhile his soon-to-be wife, Scott, became the first Canadian and North American woman to medal at the Olympics, claiming gold in the 5×5 k pursuit. Her personal coach at the time, Karlsen continued to work with Scott after Wadsworth retired in 2003. They collaborated until nearly the end of her career, and at the 2006 Torino Games, she won silver in the team sprint.
That kind of history with a coach – more than 10 years for Wadsworth and eight for Scott – doesn’t fade easily. The career paths of Karlsen and Wadsworth eventually shifted: Karlsen founded FasterSkier.com, sold ski equipment and delved into real estate in Park City, while Wadsworth took up adventure racing and accepted positions with the USST and later Cross Country Canada.
While working for the U.S. team in Utah, Wadsworth made a point to visit his old coach. Last fall, he thought about Karlsen during a Canadian camp in Park City, and invited him to training session. Karlsen showed up and took it all in.
“I liked how Eric and Justin ran the workout, and the focus and effort of the skiers was great,” Karlsen wrote in an email. “They are technically good, showed up prepared and did the planned workout. … It was hard not to be impressed. It reminded me about some great workouts I did with Beckie Scott in 2005-06 that culminated with 4 World Cup victories in distance races that season.”
Wadsworth noted Karlsen’s reaction and sensed something else from the recently retired coach. After working with U.S. and Canadian skiers for more than 35 years and helping them achieve a total of about 60 national titles, Karlsen had a little left in the tank. Wadsworth wanted to tap into it.
“I could tell that the interest in skiing was really strong still with him,” Wadsworth said. “I think he really missed being out of the ski scene and he really has a lot to offer as a cross-country ski coach.”
Wadsworth knew Karlsen possessed qualities that would be invaluable to his program. If Canada wanted to keep evolving as a world contender, they needed an extra edge.
“He’s not just happy with the status quo or happy with how the Norwegians do things … it’s always just looking for new ways to do things,” Wadsworth said. “That’s why I wanted him around, to be that forward-thinking extra set of eyes just throwing out ideas and saying, ‘Maybe try this or try that.’ ”
Still in Park City with no plans to move, Karlsen was intrigued by the job offer and its flexibility.
“For Cross Country Canada, my consulting role again shows that the coaches are willing to think outside the box to get results,” Karlsen wrote. “There are no quick recipes to become World class. Look at Canada’s successful athletes. They’ve trained hard and well for many years and it’s really starting to pay off.”
Sealing the Deal
Despite Wadsworth’s persuasiveness, he wasn’t the first to recruit Karlsen. The 56-year-old said he turned down opportunities over the last decade in North America and abroad, but was never entirely out of the game. He coached Alaska Pacific University skier James Southam until the mid-2000s, and Southam went on to rack up four national titles. Karlsen also mentored masters and offered personal coaching for citizen racers.
Five years after stepping away from international coaching, Karlsen said the opportunity to work with the Canadian team came at the right time. As a private coach, he spent decades working around a lack of money for camps, races and exploring new ideas, so the idea of belonging to a team again intrigued him. Cross-country skiing at the highest level today is also different than when he left it.
“I’m really excited about the fact that we have a much cleaner sport,” Karlsen said. “I think it’s [different] to be an athlete and coach now than it was five or ten years ago. You are rewarded for your hard work in a different way, in a better way because the sport has been cleaned up.
“It was very frustrating to look at the result list back then, suspecting that a high number of athletes ahead of your skiers were doping,” he added. “I’m not saying there’s no cheating going on, but the percent is a lot lower than it was.”
While Karlsen took a break from coaching, he remained connected to skiing, creating the first nordic racing website in the U.S. and writing several articles a day to keep up. He and Cory Smith sold FasterSkier in 2008, and Karlsen also turned over the import rights to his wax and ski-product businesses, Solda and Pro-Ski.
Of all of his endeavors, Karlsen said he enjoyed each, but felt it was time to move on. He moved with his family to California to give his daughters, Annika and Solveig, a unique opportunity at the former Global Tennis Academy.
“We lived in Las Vegas for six months and southern California for a year and a half, in and around L.A., to be a part of the tennis community,” Karlsen said on the phone. “It’s kind of been an interesting learning experience for a cross-country coach to see the world of tennis and how that is being developed in the U.S.”
Karlsen said he met Andre Agassi’s father, Pete Sampras’s coach and tennis stars that made it to the Australian Open finals. What he took from each was what it takes to be successful in any sport and the training that brought them there.
“Any sport can usually learn something from how other sports are working out,” he said. “A lot of the weight-room exercises used by today’s national team skiers are similar to what you might see tennis players use. The need for power and explosiveness is similar. The specific sprint drills are different, but the principles are the same. Who knows, maybe I can convince some of the Canadian skier to try some tennis-specific speed work, at least for grins.”
First Days on the Job
At the Canadian team’s first summer training camp in Bend a few weeks ago, Karlsen met several athletes, and Wadsworth said the initiation was positive.
“We’re a pretty tight group,” Wadsworth said. “So the introduction of a new person into that is always interesting, but that went really well. I think the time [in] Bend was more about … him getting to know the team and how we work and stuff, but I would say it was a real success.”
With de Nys unable to make the first three days of camp, Wadsworth had Karlsen work on technique with Perianne Jones and Chandra Crawford. While he would mostly be used as an observer, talking to Wadsworth and de Nys before consulting athletes, Karlsen could also provide some valuable insight. Wadsworth believed he could mentor him and make sure the coaching staff wasn’t missing anything.
“It’s always good to have an outside perspective,” Wadsworth said.
Last week, Karlsen traveled north for five days of training sessions at the national-team headquarters in Canmore, Alberta. Wadsworth said he wouldn’t join the women’s upcoming camp in Alaska (June 16-July 3), but he would stay on top of their workouts throughout the summer and during the racing season.
“Right now, we’re going to see how the summer goes and the fall and evaluate after that,” Wadsworth said. “But he’ll still be communicating with Eric and I, and also just reading the athletes’ training [logs] and monitoring their training from afar.”
That’s why his consulting role was so important.
“We’re on the ground with the athletes for a lot of the workouts, but we don’t necessarily read the training logs every day,” Wadsworth said. “We’re going to let him go through the training logs and hopefully get some feedback during times like that as well.”
Next winter, Wadsworth will lead the team in Europe with the help of de Nys and Bouchard, potentially bringing Karlsen over to help run workouts.
“There are periods where we still need a bit of support on the coaching side to give ourselves a break so we will probably use Torbjørn in that respect,” he said. “[We might] have him lead some periods of training in Europe, probably not any World Cups right away, but that is also not out of the question.”
Regardless of how the arrangement plays out, Karlsen, a realtor in Park City for the last three years, is excited. He’s felt this way since he watched the Canadians’ stunning performances in live World Cup races, and since he and Wadsworth discussed a new kind of coaching relationship last year.
“I like [Justin’s] coaching style,” Karlsen wrote in an email. “It reflects ‘a life as a racer’ and someone who learned a lot from his successes and failures. He wants to make sure that his skiers are not making mistakes he made or he knows can be made. … Justin knows me well and believes in input. That’s another sign that as a coach, he will continue to develop.”
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.