When you’re a collegiate skier with dreams of making the Olympics, it’s hard to imagine where you’ll end up after your competitive career. But Andrew Johnson thought about it during his three years at Middlebury College and resolved to return to his home state of Vermont.
It might take some time to get there – a couple years in the US Ski Team’s residency program, five years on the national team itself, two Olympics and two years at the University of Utah – but he’d be back.
After his third World Championships in 2007, the Greensboro native began assistant coaching at Utah. Johnson spent just over two years at the university and picked up a degree in environmental studies along the way, moving on in September 2010 to assistant coach at the University of Vermont (UVM).
Back then, that new job was a dream come true for the three-time national champion. Johnson spent the next two-and-a-half years building a career and coaching style in Burlington with UVM head coach Patrick Weaver. Johnson described their approach as similar and simple at the same time, emphasizing team dynamics while creating an environment for any fundamentally solid skier to thrive in.
Last year, UVM won the NCAA Skiing Championships. Earlier this month at NCAAs at Middlebury’s Rikert Nordic Center in Ripton, Vt., the Catamounts challenged the University of Colorado for the team title and ultimately took third behind Colorado and Utah, respectively.
Fast-forward to Tuesday when Middlebury announced Johnson would be its nordic head coach for the 2013/2014 season. The 35-year-old would have to move about an hour south and leave an institution that helped cultivate his coaching aspirations, but he was back to Middlebury, where he spent three years skiing as a three-time NCAA All-American.
“I feel pretty lucky,” Johnson said on the phone Thursday. “I spent a bunch of years out West, but I very much consider myself a Vermonter. This is where I want to live. … Even going back to when I skied at Middlebury, I always kind of had in the back of my mind that it would be cool to coach there.”
Johnson skied for longtime Middlebury coach Terry Aldrich from 1997 to 1999 before relocating to Park City, Utah, to train with the US Ski Team. Meanwhile, Andrew Gardner of Bates College took over for Aldrich in 2006 and served as Middlebury’s head coach for the next seven years.
At the start of this season, Gardner announced that he’d be leaving the college to start a communications business. It wasn’t an easy decision, Gardner said March 9 on the last day of NCAAs, but he was happy to time it with Rikert hosting the event, which had been in the works for several years.
“You couldn’t sort of script a better movie ending to a career,” Gardner said after Middlebury, a Division III college, placed 10th in the team standings among D-I schools. On both days of racing, Middlebury junior Ben Lustgarten made the top eight.
“There’s no manual on how to leave a job like this,” Gardner added. “It’s a siren song every year where you get to spring and you’re like, ‘Oh it’s easy,’ and then you get sucked in.
“I think that happens for a lot of folks,” he continued. “I just know there are other things I want to do and if I don’t do them I won’t get to, so that was kind of the motivation to announce early, that and to give sort of the best possible options for a replacement.”
That said, Gardner explained he’s not going anywhere and if the new head coach wants him around, he’ll be happy to volunteer while “leaving them enough room,” he said.
“I’m not moving,” Gardner said. “I’ve got great relationships here so that’s my plan.”
Johnson, whose last day at UVM was Friday, said he didn’t plan to make any drastic changes once he starts at Middlebury on May 1. He’ll initially get to know the team and said it was important to have consistency in longtime assistant coach Patty Ross.
“I don’t think there’s anything easy about a coaching change,” Johnson said. “It’s something that needs to be treated kind of gingerly and come in and be sensitive and respectful of how things have been done in the past and not make too many changes right off the bat.”
He said it was “hard to walk away from a good thing” at UVM, but the university understood the move. He was going back to Middlebury at an exciting time after the college invested in massive facility upgrades, like Rikert. His position would entail a different focus than that of D-I universities with distinct NCAA goals, but Johnson said his coaching wouldn’t change.
“To me, you’re given a group of athletes … and your task is to help them achieve their goals,” he said. “I don’t think at the root of it that it changes things or changes my approaches or makes my coaching any different.”
Also on the U.S. Olympic Committee Athletes’ Advisory Council, Johnson was recently elected to a second four-year term. This time around, he’s in the leadership group with five others who help direct the council. Fortunately, that means he gets more of a say with scheduling meetings — usually four or five a year — around his new full-time position.
“[I] signed up for a bunch of projects a couple months ago thinking I’d have some down time,” he said with a laugh. “Right now I’m hoping to run a couple election processes. This week, it’s probably 15 hours of work, but that’s very high-end for me. … It’s all volunteer.”
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.