The last time Britain’s Andrew Young got interviewed was almost four years ago.
“The Olympics is the only time in four years that the British public cares about our sport, to be honest,” he told FasterSkier in an interview earlier this week. “It’s the one-off time in four years that we get to sell our sport and sell our results, maybe try to get a sponsor or something like that.”
At just 21 years old, Young is embarking on his second round of Olympic media hype (“Vancouver was pretty cool,” he said of his first Games experience). Such is the life of a British skier. There’s no adoring public, very limited funding, and not much snow. To be a good skier, Young believes that you have to leave the United Kingdom and move to a different country. It’s a tough row to hoe.
Yet the British team has been gaining a lot of respect in the last few years. Teammate Andrew Musgrave gets much of the attention – including from this site, which recently wrote about him joining a team headed by Norwegian legend Thomas Alsgaard – but Young is on the same trajectory. Just, well, younger. He started his first World Cup at 16, the youngest skier ever. Fast forward and this season, in his first year of U23 eligibility, the Lillehammer-based Scotsman finished in the top 30 in every race he entered at U23 World Championships.
Despite growing up in a country that doesn’t seem so ski-friendly, Young’s childhood in Huntly, outside of Aberdeen, Scotland, sounds a lot like any skier’s, anywhere. He started skiing when he was two, and was soon in the Huntly Nordic Ski Club. Among the first sorts of competition that he and his friends set their minds to: beating their sisters at skiing.
“My sister is three years older than me, and [Musgrave’s] sister is a few years older than him, so it was always a competition to beat the girls,” Young said. “They were older and they were just as good as we were, when we were 11 and 12. They were better than us.”
Those sisters – Sarah Young and Posy Musgrave – are also now skiing on the international circuit. It was a good atmosphere for a fledgling athlete.
“Once we could beat them, then it was a competition to beat ourselves,” Young said. “Then we started going to rollerski races and it was a competition to beat anyone else – like if there was an adult that showed up that was supposed to be good at rollerski racing. This was around the time when [five-time Olympian] Mike Dixon had just retired from biathlon so he would turn up to rollerski races and it was a competition to beat him and the other older biathletes.”
And all of a sudden, that cohort of boys has found themselves no longer boys, and periodically reuniting on the World Cup. The British team doesn’t have the funding to follow the circuit all year, nor is it a highly centralized team. Young lives in Lillehammer now, although he previously spent two years at the NTG in Geilo, Norway; Musgrave, for instance, went to a ski gymnasium in Hovden and now studies engineering in Trondheim in between training and racing. Their sisters and some other teammates are still based in Britain.
When they get together for training camps and races, though? Things still feel the same. It’s a family affair especially for Young, whose father coaches the British team, although some of the skiers work with their own coaches.
“It’s nice, and awkward,” Young said of the arrangement. “It’s always a bit awkward having laddish banter with your teammates and then your dad listening, there’s a lot of stories shared between teammates that you don’t want your dad to find out.”
The camaraderie that the group has developed over ten years has made them faster and supported a good team atmosphere.
“We don’t try to beat each other – of course we do in training, but the competition isn’t to be the best British person,” Young said of the team’s camaraderie. “That doesn’t play any role. It’s about being best. Just trying to be good, the best amongst everyone.”
With such lofty goals but also budget issues, the British pick World Cups carefully. This year, Young’s itinerary included the World Cup opener in Gallivare, Sweden (“all of the best guys are really out of shape, and the first courses are really flat so they don’t have the hills to get a really big advantage”); the first few stages of the Tour de Ski; U23’s, the Davos World Cup, and World Championships; and the last races in Drammen and Oslo.
His best results came at U23’s, which he says is a favorite event, and possibly in the sprint at World Championships, where he finished 45th. In World Cup racing, Young placed in the 60s and 70s.
As a 21-year-old, he doesn’t find encountering those results discouraging in the least.
“If you finish a bit down the field, you just set a benchmark and you know what you’re working for next time,” Young said. “I’ve always known that if I compare myself to the other guys who are my age, there aren’t that many people my age who can beat me. So I know I’m on the right path, it’s just to keep going. If you get beaten by seniors when when you’re a junior it’s not really that important.”
For the rest of the season, the British athletes attend lower-level races and often scatter to their various winter homes. In the last few years, Young has raced mostly in Scandinavia, where he believes he can get better development opportunities at the Norwegian Cup or Continental Cup levels.
He is coached by Geir Endre Rogn, a former NCAA podium finisher for the University of New Mexico who coaches the Geilo NTG. Rogn had helped the British team with a summer training camp; when he saw Young at Holmenkollen at the end of the 2010 season, he asked him what he was doing the following year. No plan, Young said. So he moved to Geilo and trained with 25 Norwegian men his age, improving his technique and his fitness.
It was a massive improvement on his previous situation: after deciding that he had to leave Britain if he wanted to be the best he could be, Young had spent the previous season entirely on the road, with no home base.
“The first year, after I left school, it was really hard,” he said. “Every Monday was a new hotel, and when you’re washing clothes in the shower it’s not really fun. You never have internet, you never have a washing machine – it’s the simple things that you just get a bit tired of.”
Geilo provided not just higher-quality training, but stability. Among the highlights of that time was a seventh-place finish in the 20k at Norwegian junior championships two years ago. Young bested, among others, biathlon World Junior Champion and current senior national team member Johannes Thingnes Bø, and Therese Johaug’s younger brother Karstein.
So when he moved to Lillehammer to get “better training opportunities,” as he writes on his blog, Rogn kept supervising from afar.
“Lillehammer is a bit ridiculous,” Young said of his current setup. “You go out training and you’re going to see someone you know. There’s so many skiers here, so the chances are there’s going to be someone else doing the same thing as you on the same day. I try to meet up with others to train three or four days a week and then maybe do the rest on my own, but oftentimes I bump into someone else out training anyway.”
Perhaps the current generation of skiers are paving the way for even more success in the future. Young and Musgrave are certainly broadening the network of contacts available in Norway, one of the best places a British skier could choose to relocate. And Young highlighted two clubs, his own Huntly Nordic Ski Club and Cairngorm Biathlon and Nordic Ski Club, as well as a group in London that introduces Brits, many of them kids, to rollerskiing.
Living outside the country, the current roster of athletes can’t always participate in this building of their own sport. Instead, they have to work from afar. On his blog, Young recently wrote an impassioned plea for his countrymen (and everyone else) to wear helmets while rollerskiing. He clearly cares about those following in his footsteps.
“I don’t really care what people do in there own time, how other people train,” he wrote. “But what I do care about is the future of British skiing, and the development of the sport. I urge you to have a helmet… not just for your own safety, but for the safety of other younger skiers who will, in all likelihood, copy you.”
And finally, he and his teammates have their big chance every four years, when the Olympics rolls around. When I asked Young whether seeing skiing on TV actually generates meaningful interest, he at first seemed doubtful.
“They see it on TV and then they go back to what they were doing – well, no, in some ways people get a bit interested, I guess,” he said. “I don’t know of anyone who just started skiing because they saw the British team on the Olympics.”
But thinking a bit more, he said that Sochi will likely gain them a few more fans.
“I guess there are people who start watching it more if they know it exists,” he said. “When I was younger I used to swim and my swim coach got addicted to ski jumping. He watched it at one Olympics and then watched it every winter all the time. So people do get hooked on sports, and if we get a few more fans then it’s better for us.”
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.