Part I: My Story
By Nancy Fiddler
In 1993, after a seven-year stint of racing on the national and international stage, I returned home to Crowley Lake, Calif. I had picked up cross-country skiing late as a college sophomore at Bates in Maine, then quit and floundered for a few years before making a comeback at the age of 30. I was a national champion 14 times over, two-time Olympian and member of the U.S. Ski Team. Now at 37, my ski-racing career was over and my future open-ended. It was time to get on with the rest of my life.
That spring, the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) was offering a career-counseling seminar for retired Olympic athletes in Los Angeles, so I thought, “Why not?” I spent a day with basketball players, swimmers, pole vaulters and other fellow Olympians, going through the steps to finding success in the world outside of sports. We wrestled with career choices, self-evaluations and large life decisions, like moving to a new city, to turn our disciplined ways in a new direction.
The only problem was that I was not ready to leave the sport I had grown to love so much. Move to a city? I wasn’t picturing any of it. My husband and I had a home in a beautiful place in Crowley Lake and were hoping to start a family. When I asked about careers in our sport, the seminar leader made it clear that staying in my small mountain community and coaching cross-country skiing was not going to take me very far.
I returned home with all of the fine skills I had acquired as an athlete and subsequently listed on the USOC forms. Discipline, motivation, time management, desire for excellence – all these marketable skills were not going to make me an investment banker, a CEO, a small-business owner, or even a real estate agent.
Our Eastern Sierra community lies at the bottom of a large downhill ski area and has an equally large alpine and snowboarding culture. Nordic skiing occupies a small space in this environment, and at the time of my retirement 20 years ago, there was not a single youth nordic program in the area. I took a deep breath and began banging my hard head against the wall.
I began by volunteering to teach skiing at an elementary school phys-ed class in Mammoth Lakes, Calif. I dragged one of my friends along to help me and thus began my coaching career and the nordic programs that still exist today in my community.
My first high school team was truly a gamble; I walked into the school with some posters advertising a new nordic team; everyone welcome. Of the eight kids who showed up to practice, only one of them had ever been on cross-country skis before. I taught them all to ski, took them to school-league races in my car and didn’t get paid a thing. On that team alone, I saved one boy from a high-school career of hallway fist fights, gave a few kids their only chance of making a high-school team, coached a roller-hockey player to a Junior Nationals (JN) exhibition sprint title, and saw a bunch of kids fall in love with my favorite sport.
Twenty years have passed and now those elementary school programs have around 100 participants and another 40 between the middle and high schools. I organized Masters clinics and season-long programs, taught in the nordic ski school, formed a club team and made it my goal to bring nordic culture into my community.
While I have been a JN coach for Far West many times, most of the coaching I have done has taken place close to home. I have passed up opportunities to travel on World Junior trips and more because I was dedicated to my project and my teams.
When our daughter was born, it was even more difficult to imagine traveling much farther than the school-league races. Part of me still wonders whether I should have taken the leap right after my racing career ended and moved to a new place and a new career. At the very least, why didn’t I start shopping for a collegiate coaching job?
I reasoned there were many kids right here at home needing my skills and dedication. There were many people along the way who had taken the time to teach me the ways of cross-country skiing, and it seemed perfectly natural to turn around and give it back. It changed my life, so why not try to enlighten others?
After reading Chelsea Little’s recent article tackling the subject of gender stereotypes in nordic skiing, I began to think hard about the situation. What stayed with me was the reference to the scarcity of female coaches on the international circuit. I couldn’t stop thinking about the many highly qualified and experienced women in the U.S. who are leading skiers of all ages and abilities in this greatest of sports. I wondered about their stories and knew it was time to shed some light on the work they do.
I quickly drew up a list of the female ski coaches I knew. The list grew with the help of some good references, and soon I had a lengthy compilation of coaching contacts across the country, all working at various levels. Many coaches took the time to answer my questions about their careers and themselves. While each story is unique, and each coach has her own voice, there are many common threads. We are all part of The Team.
Part II of this series will focus on women in collegiate coaching. When I raced at Bates in the late ’70s, there were no female coaches anywhere in college skiing. While men still outnumber women in this field, at least five women now hold head coaching positions on Division I college teams and have changed the traditionally all male climate of collegiate coaching forever.
Below the collegiate level lies a vast population of junior skiers, from Bill Koch Youth Ski League and other similar programs aimed at 5 to 11 year olds, to school-league teams and rapidly growing club programs for 12 to 19 year olds. Part III will investigate the role female coaches play in the Junior National pipeline. Grassroots programs and the coaches who invest in the youngest skiers are the topic of Part IV.
It is my hope that my story shows how far the U.S. has come in terms of skier development in the last 20 years. Faster juniors and more of them are coming up through the pipeline with an army of qualified coaches behind them.
Women are rapidly joining the ranks with plenty to offer in terms of mentoring both boys and girls. The success of the women’s U.S. Ski Team in recent years is a testament to the work of many coaches, all the way down to the most basic level working with the youngest kids.
Nancy Fiddler is a two-time Olympian and 14-time National Champion. She has been coaching juniors and masters for 20 years in Mammoth Lakes and Truckee, Calif., and most recently in Sun Valley, Idaho. She lives most of the time in the Eastern Sierra with her husband and daughter and is currently trying to get in touch with her creative side through writing.