The five interlocking rings hanging over Sadie Bjornsen’s bed mean everything they did four years ago when she shelved her college education at the age of 19, moved home and threw all she could muster at a dream of skiing in the Olympics – only to come up short.
But closer examination of the wall ornament reveals that an upcoming February trip to Sochi, Russia, isn’t the only ticket to happiness for the experienced, confident and humbled Alaska Pacific University (APU) skier.
Massage. Stretching. Sleep. Learning to speak French (for her French boyfriend) – each task has its own ring and a place in the 23-year-old U.S. Ski Team (USST) member’s daily routine, so that her mind and body are given the best opportunity to remain healthy throughout this Olympic year. (The fifth ring’s contents were too personal to share.)
“The biggest thing that I learned [before the 2010 Olympics] was that I need different things in my life,” Bjornsen said Sunday on the phone from her home in Anchorage, Alaska. “Wholly focusing on skiing is not meant for me.”
The significance of the most routine physical activity was magnified this spring for Bjornsen, who could relax after emerging in one piece from USST training camp in Bend, Ore., and most recently, fitness testing in Park City, Utah.
At this time last year, she was hampered by a structural problem in her back and tendonitis in her foot, and this June she participated in most everything except treadmill tests because of foot limitations.
But 2012/2013 was anything but a lost year. Bjornsen was able to check off her first top 10 in a World Cup event, was a member of the fourth place 4 x 5-kilometer relay team at World Championships and added a pair of national titles. She just had a late start.
“Just racing in my first race, I appreciated it so much,” Bjornsen said. “I think it’s sometimes a good reminder to have those challenges. You just appreciate things more.”
Bjornsen estimated it was five years ago when she took the antibiotic Levaquin, which has a known possible side effect of attacking tendons, most commonly the Achilles. She’s lived with a form of tendonitis ever since.
Now she approaches training camps a little differently than her teammates. Bjornsen’s offseason is about consistency. If she has to substitute a dryland activity for a morning ski, that’s OK. Exercise in any form will make her stronger.
“The difference this year is I have a little more confidence in knowing that the way that I train can work out,” Bjornsen said.
What works for Bjornsen is laying off the intensity during the summer, as she has seen it come back to her quickly in the fall. She’s learned how to recognize the warning signs of a balky back. And she feels the support of her teammates and coaches.
“It’s hard because everyone is really competitive and everyone wants to push each other,” Bjornsen said. “Especially now that we’re having some success, you feel like every moment you have to be 100-percent. The girls are really good about being patient.”
Bjornsen described her coach, APU director Erik Flora as “unbearably positive.” Flora had his own racing career abbreviated by the combination of a car accident and back injuries.
“You have to be so mentally strong to make it through without any support,” Bjornsen said. “[The support’s] coming at me from all angles.”
With brief visits to Bend, Park City and Vancouver behind her, Bjornsen will train in Alaska for most of the summer, a place where she is constantly reminded of the intermediate goals she must attend to before approaching the ultimate one. Ideally she will race a full World Cup schedule for the first time in her career and post some of her best results in February.
“The Olympics are a possibility to really spread our sport through our country,” Bjornsen said. “There’s a whole new generation coming into our sport soon. I think it would be really neat for them to see that success is totally possible.”
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Steven McCarthy discovered a passion for sportswriting in the classrooms of the University of Maine school of journalism. He earned his Bachelor's degree in 2010, while complementing his studies covering two years of UMaine sports and summer college baseball on Cape Cod. He resides in southern Maine and works in a private school for kids with autism. In his spare time he's training for his next marathon (running or skiing) or coaching at a local high school.