Late last year, Ben Popp found himself at home – or at least closer to his roots – building a cabin in northern Wisconsin. He and his wife, Megan, had bought land in Earl, a 20-minute drive from the motherland of the American Birkebeiner in Hayward, in hopes of vacationing and one day retiring there.
In January, Popp’s dream started to take shape. News spread about Ned Zuelsdorff’s retirement as executive director of the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation (ABSF), and Popp entertained the idea of life in Hayward directing the Birkie.
A 38-year-old native of Phillips, Wis., about two hours east of Hayward, he couldn’t tell you the exact number of Birkies he’d done over the years – maybe 14 or 15. He missed a few in college.
But even when he moved to Minnesota’s Twin Cities, he never forgot how iconic it was and came to appreciate the importance of the 50-plus-kilometer trail in the scheme of worldloppets and facilitating healthy outdoor activities.
Earlier this month, Popp accepted the position as executive director of North America’s largest ski marathon. What was more, he was going back to northern Wisconsin with his wife and twin boys, Luke and Grant.
“The stars were kind of aligning,” Popp said on the phone from St. Paul last week. “The position became open and we said, ‘Wow this is crazy. Not only are we building a place there, it might be kind of a dream job to run the American Birkebeiner.’ ”
New to the area, Popp intends to follow up Zuelsdorff’s eight years of executive work and bring what he learned with the SISU Nordic Ski Foundation to the ABSF.
The co-founder of SISU, Popp started the Twin Cities non-profit with Mike Nightingale in 2008 to enhance nordic skiing in the Midwest and promote what Popp affectionately calls “an active outdoor lifestyle.”
Five years later, the foundation has grown by 500 percent in terms of race participation with 12 events per year, according to Popp. SISU has 16 programs with more than 800 participants, and it hosted 2,600 athletes in the second year of the SuperTour’s Tour de Twin Cities.
No longer a fledgling startup, the foundation has increased its revenue by 660 percent and is working to build a nordic center at Battle Creek Park just outside Minneapolis. All that growth made Popp’s decision to leave a little easier.
“The baby’s going from crawling to walking, so to speak,” he said. “That’s what kind of put my mind at ease.”
With Battle Creek still in the planning stages with an anticipated completion in 2015, he’ll stay connected as a SISU board member. In the meantime, Popp will start tackling all things related to the Birkie in June, including land-rights issues with private owners and the currently closed Telemark Resort.
He’ll also finish converting his family’s cabin into a permanent residence with hopes of moving in before the snow starts to fly and his 7-year-olds start second grade this fall.
FasterSkier: How were you able to grow or expand SISU?
Ben Popp: The interesting thing about SISU’s been that it started only five years ago and has really grown rapidly, in part due to creating some good programs centered around really good coaches and mentors that were really good at attracting people to skiing and racing and being outside and active. Then we had some good events. They helped promote the sport and helped promote SISU, and through that, we got some really good allies through city officials and county officials. Suddenly we had all these partners, and it started to grow and that active outdoor lifestyle started to become more mainstream. People wanted to be a part of it, so it’s exciting for the foundation. It’s still very small and growing, but it’s becoming a bigger part of the community in St. Paul and the metro [area]. I think that whoever comes in [as executive director] is gonna have a great time and really enjoy seeing where this goes.
FS: How difficult was your decision to leave SISU for the Birkie?
BP: It’s been really hard having started it and seeing it grow. It’s silly to say maybe, but it was really proud [seeing] SISU kids on the podium at junior nationals this year. We’re five years in and already we’re starting to see some of our kids do really well … it’s exciting to see that growth.
Having grown up in northern Wisconsin, I’m really excited certainly to move back there and be a part of that community and the largest ski race in North America and all the influences that can happen to the Birkie because of the event that it is. That was an exciting opportunity, but I’ll be honest to say that it was a tough decision because SISU is very near and dear to my heart. Part of it was knowing that there’s a really good, strong board of directors, and the coaches that we have are really vested in it. That made it easier to say, ‘It’s hard to leave, but we’ve got a great group of directors and a great group of coaches so it’s in good hands.’
FS: What attracted you most to the Birkie position?
BP: The reason I started SISU, the important part was obviously supporting ski racing, but also promoting this active outdoor lifestyle. I would argue the Birkie is – if it doesn’t do it now, it can in the future – be a really strong presence in … promoting that lifestyle. Suddenly that opportunity to be involved with that and carry that message to an even broader audience than I have with SISU was really exciting.
Because of the assets [the Birkie] has in terms of the Birkie Trail, the iconic ski trail and hiking trail and running trail as well as all the mountain bike single track that’s been created … it really becomes this destination for silent sports. You couple that with the race, now you have this tool to promote this active lifestyle and also skiing. That was really second to none, and getting to live back to northern Wisconsin where I grew up was certainly part of it. That only added to the location that has been of interest to our family and where we want to be.
FS: What are some of your goals for the Birkie?
BP: [Youth development]. Using some of the assets of the Birkie, whether it’s grant programming or utilizing coaches’ education or going around the state of Wisconsin to start more programs, just getting more youth engaged in nordic skiing really early on.
If you look at the Midwest team as a whole from the junior standpoint, it’s Wisconsin and Minnesota, basically. Forty of the 50 athletes this year came from Minnesota and 10 from Wisconsin. You look at the pieces Minnesota has and Wisconsin doesn’t, one is a really established high school program, and two is a really established youth program. Wisconsin, while it’s not that they don’t have that, it’s just that it’s not as established or robust. They do have a high school ski team program, but it’s only a handful of ski teams as opposed to Minnesota, which has thousands of kids. So you see, when you have these programs and this pipeline you get a bunch of really good skiers out of it. Trying to create some of that programming would be something that would be good for us.
The Birkie Trail as a whole is an iconic piece. Last year they hosted a snow-bike race in March and filled it up. We could’ve had the same sort of thing in the Twin Cities and had 50 people do it, but the draw was going to this crazy hard trail and snow bike on it. So I think, one, [we need to] utilize the trail through family events or races, just getting more people to it, to further grow skiing and this lifestyle of being outdoor and active. Two, growing the media attention drawn to, not just the Birkie, but skiing and biking and being outside. I think we can do a better job of promoting this sport that’s is sometimes looked at as really small. Certainly [U.S. world champions] Jessie [Diggins] and Kikkan [Randall] have brought more life to it, but we’re constantly fighting this uphill battle of gaining more mainstream attention to nordic skiing. That’s something that I hope to use the Birkie to do because it is a big event and there’s no reason that we can’t draw more attention to the sport, and gaining mainstream sponsors that will further promote skiing as well.
FS: What are some of the challenges you face as incoming director?
BP: The very obvious one is Telemark is closed again right now. That’s been the iconic start for the race since its inception and that’s important. You can’t have a race without a start, middle and a finish, and without a start, we don’t have a Birkie, we don’t have anything. I know that securing a start area and the parcels of land that [participants] cross are really important. I think getting up there and working with Bayfield County and Sawyer County and the owners at Telemark to solve that long-term is really important. The Birkie has a huge economic impact on that region so it’s in everybody’s interest to make sure that we get that solidified for years to come.
I’m new to the area so continuing to grow existing relationships is always a challenge. Anytime you’re stepping in, you don’t have a lot of those same connections and relationships so I think that will be an important component and challenge initially, especially since Ned has already left. [But] he’s going to be staying in the area and being involved in the trail-work crew so it’ll be an asset having him around, certainly he’s done great things and I think we can learn a lot from what he’s done.
FS: When do you think you’ll race your next Birkie?
BP: I don’t know, I think there’s going to be a lot more things to do on race day than skiing. … I think my days of racing are probably a little behind me for at least a few years. Maybe I can pick it back up when my kids start racing and we can race it together.
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.