Earlier this month, Philip Furrer wasn’t sure what his summer held. Sure, the Swiss cross-country ski racer knew he’d be training and spending three weeks with military recruits for Switzerland’s army requirement. At least he was a sports instructor for the mandatory period.
Otherwise, work was winding down. Throughout spring, the 28-year-old from Andermatt, Switzerland, taught primary students in grades 1-6. When he wasn’t racing or traveling across the globe, Furrer, who started in four World Cups in 2010/2011, was also a gym teacher.
Come June, he was ready to start training in earnest. Just over three weeks ago, he heard from the Swedish race organizers, Nordic Ways. They wanted to pay his way to the FIS Cross-Country Summer Ski Sprint in northern China on June 20. Furrer jumped at the opportunity, and two weeks later, he took two flights and a three-hour bus ride to the autonomous region of Yakeshi in Inner Mongolia.
Last Wednesday, the Swiss teacher won the freestyle sprint ahead of nearly 40 others, including Chinese runner-up Sun Qinghai and Sweden’s Johan Eriksson in third. Furrer spent the rest of the week in Beijing, returning home three days ago, and he talked to FasterSkier on Wednesday about his experiences.
FasterSkier: How did you get to northern China, and where else did you travel?
Philip Furrer: I traveled from Zürich to Beijing and from Beijing to Inner Mongolia to Yakeshi. We had the first day off, and then we had this sprint race last Wednesday. The day after we traveled to Beijing and there we had some days just for being tourists. It was a quite nice experience.
FS: Had you been to China before? How was Yakeshi?
PF: I had been to China before. I hadn’t been to Yakeshi. I had to been to this Summer Ski Sprint tour [in other places] a few times.
Inner Mongolia was quite special. It wasn’t like I expected. … It was really nice, small hills and very green, forests, and they had reindeer, moose. It was more like Europe or Scandinavia than other places I’ve been [in China]. It was a very small place [and] the hotel was like a 20-minute drive to the racing arena. I think in wintertime they have an alpine place there.
FS: How was the course and race organization?
PF: They had the snow [stockpiled] from last winter and the track was around 400 meters up and then you had to come back, so about 1600 meters total, and you had to do two laps. It was really nice because there were around 20, 30 skiers from Europe and then those from China. They had plans to do this sprint for quite [a while], but then they weren’t sure if they could arrange it. Then, like, two weeks before the sprint they decided, yes, we can do it. They had to [invite] people quite fast. Usually you know a long time before, but it was two weeks before. I didn’t have anything else that was so important at the moment (laughs). I had worked as a teacher until one week before so I was free. I decided to go and it was a good decision.
I went by myself, but they organized everything. Everything was paid and organized by a Swedish company called [Nordic Ways]. They are pioneers in Chinese cross-country skiing. They started the Chinese Vasaloppet and they have many different sport arrangements. In summer, they have a 30 k running race in Changchun just a week before the sprint race so some of the skiers were also there, but I couldn’t go because I was still working.
FS: Why do you think the race came together so late?
PF: It wasn’t because of the snow. I mean, with the government and everything, it has to be cleared and OK and they knew in quite a short time. But now, they’re already planning to do this kind of sprint in summer and I think they are trying to have at least two sprint races at different places in China. One will be in Yakeshi and one with be in another place where I haven’t been before. They are always looking for people from other countries so I’m sure if there are some good skiers from North America that would like to go, they could get there next year.
FS: What did you think about the event itself?
PF: It was a really good experience. Everything that is organized in China, they are always trying to show them from the best side. I think the sprint was shown [on television] for 30 million people. For us in Europe, it’s difficult to understand. It’s so many people because in Switzerland we have [population of] seven million or something.
FS: Wow, that’s a lot of people watching cross-country skiing.
PF: It was on CTV-5, one of the biggest Chinese television [networks]. When we were back in Beijing, they had written [about it in the] Hong Kong [newspaper], in China Daily, Shanghai Daily, everywhere. It was not a big thing, but a small thing about the sprint. That was quite fun when two days later we were back in Beijing and we saw in the lobby on the television, ‘Oh, look! There’s the sprint race.’ It was great. Of course, it was nice to see this different part of China. I mean Inner Mongolia isn’t the place you normally go as tourists.
FS: How did you feel about your performance?
PF: I was really surprised how well it went because my sprint has not been the best. I have not had such an easy time. My father is at home with cancer and … I’ve had quite a hard time focusing on skiing. That’s why I was really surprised with how well it went and how good the feeling was. Here at home when I’ve been training, the feeling hasn’t been that good.
I was happy that the skiers that were second and third were quite good. Like [Sun Qinghai] has been at the Vancouver Olympics, [where he placed 21st in the classic sprint]. And [Johan Eriksson], who was third, was the Swedish champion this year in the sprint relay, and he has won different Swedish Cup races. It’s good to see that you can match with good people and the feeling was good that it was.
FS: How’s you dad doing?
PF: It looks better than it has been. Now I think this will work out, and I have a good feeling with him. But that’s life. I say skiing is really nice as long as everything goes well. In top sports, you feel immediately if something is going wrong or you have those kind of problems, you can’t be at your top. So I appreciate it even more when it works well. I think often people who are in the top sports forget about how lucky they are that they can do it. Most are healthy people and having a good life.
FS: How did you get involved in teaching?
PF: I was educated in Switzerland before I went to Norway to study sports science. It’s quite a good job to have if you’re a skier and in spring you have time for working. It’s fun to have something else also, and I think it’s very important to have something else than just the skiing. I mean, I have to make some money somehow and this teaching job is a really good thing.
Usually I don’t work in wintertime. Mostly I try to work in spring. … Sometimes they call me and say, ‘Hey do you have time? If somebody [doesn’t] come to work, can you take two or three weeks?’ If I don’t have any training camps or races at the time I can say yes, but in wintertime it’s difficult.
FS: What’s your schedule like this summer?
PF: Now I will really focus on training. Autumn on, I will again spend my time in Norway [and] also study something on the side, but not 100 percent, so I can still focus on my skiing.
I finished my work for now, but I have to go to army. In Switzerland, the way it works is every year you have to go three weeks as a refreshment of your military service. I’m a sports instructor in the military so it’s no problem for training. [At] the training camp, I have to do some lessons with the recruits. Otherwise I can focus on my training. From August on, I will be back in Norway and I will train mostly there.
FS: Are you training with a specific club?
PF: The club I ski for in Norway is Henning Skilag. I mostly train with this club; we have many training camps and quite good people so I have most to do with [them]. But when I’m in Europe and middle Europe, I start for my Swiss club, Gotthard Andermatt, because it’s the place where I come from. It’s the main club I ski for.
FS: At the American Birkebeiner in February, you were the lone Swiss skier with a crew of Norwegians and Jari Joutsen of Finland. It seems like you have friends everywhere!
PF: [In Yakeshi], I stayed with an Italian guy in the hotel room. It was nice because at those races, there are always people from different countries, and you get to know people quite well when you travel together. Like when we were in America, there were eight, nine skiers from Europe, and we had a really great time there also.
This time [in China] it was, I’m not sure, but I guess around 30 Europeans. This is one part that’s always fun. You get in touch with different people and if you speak their language, it’s even easier. In Switzerland, we have to learn all those: French, Italian, English, German, and then I speak Swedish and Norwegian. My mother is from Finland, the Swedish-speaking part, so you get even to know people better when you speak their language.
For more FIS Summer Ski Sprint photos, visit the race organizer’s website.
Alex Kochon (email@example.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.