Matt Liebsch couldn’t believe the nerves he was fighting before the 2012 American Birkebeiner. A Minnesota ski hero at the ultimate of U.S. cross-country marathons, Liebsch had won the 50-kilometer skate race in 2009. In early February, he took back-to-back victories at the 2012 Boulder Mountain Tour and City of Lakes Loppet.
But the last time Team Birkie’s lone elite skier raced the Birkie in 2011, he was ninth. And he hadn’t competed in three weeks leading up to the 2012 race. His wife had been in a car accident two weeks earlier.
“The 2012 Birkie was one of the deepest and strongest fields in the history of the race,” he wrote in a Gear West blog post. “There were elite skiers from France, Switzerland, Finland, Russia, Latvia, Canada and Norway (I think something like 11 Norwegian elites); plus a multitude of strong American skiers. … It was hard not to get worked up with all the competition and also the fact I had not raced for 3 weeks. The Mora Vasaloppet was canceled this year due to no snow. I watched live results from the weekend before as the European competition skied very strongly in the Madison SuperTour races.”
His wife, Marybeth, suffered a concussion and neck injuries after being rear-ended in her vehicle. She was put on seven medications to reduce the swelling in her brain and instructed not to read, watch TV or think too much.
On Feb. 25, she stood among thousands of spectators at the Birkie finish on Main Street in Hayward, Wis., and cheered on her husband as he finished second behind U.S. Ski Team member and former Central Cross Country (CXC) teammate Tad Elliott. Liebsch had broken a pole and searched desperately for a replacement, first taking one that was too clunky and unusable and then accepting a second offer from former CXC skier Santi Ocariz to use his. He had about five kilometers to go.
At the finish, Marybeth came to Liebsch’s side and told him another one of his good friends and CXC racers, Brian Gregg, placed third. Liebsch was enthralled; Americans had swept the podium.
Gear West’s director of race services and the only elite team member on the newly renamed XC United (formerly Team Birkie), Liebsch has a lot on his plate – including 3- and 4-year-old kids. At 29, he talks about family, focus and balance like a seasoned veteran, which in most respects, he is.
After the 2009/2010 season when Liebsch finished in the top 30 at the Canadian World Cup in Canmore, Alberta, he decided to take a bit of a breather in 2010/2011.
“I raced but I needed some downtime, some family time and work time,” Liebsch said on the phone last week while training in Canmore. “Last year I was kind of getting back into it. Racing went a lot better than I expected, and I didn’t do a full season, but I jumped in a lot.”
This year, he said he’s “diving headfirst” into a full racing schedule starting with the SuperTours in West Yellowstone and Bozeman, hopefully making it to the Canadian World Cups and 2013 World Championships.
In May, about three months after his wife’s car accident, Liebsch flew headfirst over his handlebars in a frightening bike crash. He was cruising around 40 miles per hour on his road bike when a hairline fracture in his rear wheel free hub (which he didn’t know about) broke completely. The chain ring popped out, gears went loose and chain dropped between them, locking up the back of the bike.
“I went over my handlebars … I wasn’t breathing and I almost killed myself,” he said. “It all happened in a fraction of a second, and before I knew it I was in that long dark tunnel with a bright light at the end of it on my way to meet my creator and luckily two guys from my master’s team were riding with me and one was an EMT so they got me breathing again and got me going.”
Liebsch was admitted to a Level I Trauma Center, where he stayed overnight. He couldn’t remember much else that day, and said the next 10 days were “really bad.”
“I had road rash all over me. … I split my scalp open and broke some ribs, and dislocated shoulder and all that good stuff, but I recovered pretty quick,” he said. “I didn’t know how bad off I was going to be, but I did PT and recovered really well from that actually.”
His neurologist and physical therapist also helped Marybeth after her accident. “They were like ‘Geez guys. What is going on?’ ” Liebsch said with a laugh.
Three weeks later, he raced the cross-country leg in the Ski 2 Sea relay in northern Washington to fulfill a sponsorship obligation with Team AeroMech. They finished second just seven seconds behind first for the closest finish in race history.
“My wife and I planned the vacation around that trip a little bit so I kind of forced my way through that,” he said with a laugh. “Actually, it wasn’t so bad, but after that I took another two or three weeks before I got back into any easy training.”
Healing his ribs and shoulder took about six weeks, and his post-concussion symptoms were gone within three months with the help of physical therapy.
“I got on it right away and I’ve been training since then and it’s been really good,” Liebsch said. “I’m feeling really good now and staying healthy before the start of the season.”
Here is the rest of FasterSkier’s interview with Liebsch:
FasterSkier: In the past you’ve talked about the challenges of supporting your family through ski racing. What’s your outlook for this season?
Matt Liebsch: I’ve had to find more support because it’s going to cost more to do everything that I plan on doing. I’ve been planning to make World Champs and go to that. If I’m racing as well or better than I did last year, I think that’s a pretty good probability.
We’ve changed our team name [from Team Birkie to XC United]. I tried to add some athletes this spring; a couple of them got cold feet that I wouldn’t be able to maybe do enough fundraising or find enough sponsorships so it’s still just me. I have a good masters support team … [and] Borton Volvo, a dealership in the Twin Cities, is the title sponsor. They gave us a team vehicle with some sponsorship to help pay for a big chunk of my season. We just got the vehicle last week, it’s an XC60 [Crossover] racing series, 330 horse. It’s a pretty sweet little midsize SUV.
I have all the same sponsors from last year onboard so I should be set up pretty well financially I think to make it through most of the season. Anytime you go over to Europe it gets really expensive really quick, but it should be good.
FS: What’s your tentative race schedule?
ML: I’m going to start in West Yellowstone and Bozeman and try to qualify for the December World Cup and then do U.S. nationals to kind of see how I’m feeling and how I’m racing and kind of go from there.
FS: Aside from your accident, how has your training changed this season?
ML: Jacob Beste [formerly on the U.S. Biathlon team] started coaching me midway through last season so I’ve stayed on with him. He’s written my full training plan so we’ve been pretty serious this summer (laughs).
FS: How did that setback affect you?
ML: Any time you have kind of forced time off from training that I’ve had or experienced, you always seem to come back a little stronger from it. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’ve been trying to tell [Canadian national team biathlete] Brendan Green that. He’s got his herniated disc and he can’t really train at all [after two surgeries this summer] and he’s kind of bumming about that a little bit. But I keep telling him, ‘Oh no, you’ll come back stronger,’ because he had a top 10 the World Cup last year, a couple of them [including a career-best ninth in February].
(Note: Liebsch stayed with Green and Canadian cross-country skier Ian Murray from Oct. 16-21 to ski on snow at Frozen Thunder in Canmore. On Friday, he’s headed to Seeley, Wis., for the “Train like a Birkie Champion” weekend clinic, which Liebsch called the “Birkie Champ Camp.” It will be his second of the summer with F.A.S.T. Performance Training coach Bill Pierce.)
FS: What are you really looking forward to this season?
ML: I’m excited to bring my family on the road with me for West Yellowstone and Bozeman. They’ll be on the road with me for three weeks, and it should be fun to have my wife and 3 and 4 year old along with as kind of a distraction from all that seriousness of racing. I’m just trying to keep things fun this year, that’s what I did last year and that’s why I think I raced so well.
FS: How do you continue to balance family time with skiing?
ML: Gear West [is] super gracious to let me go down to part time and flexible part time over the next 18 months as I kind of go for it (laughs). But the industry needs a decent snow year, for sure. … Do your snow dance. I hope it snows this year.
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.