FasterSkier caught up last month with Pete Vordenberg, the former head coach of the U.S. Ski Team. A former Olympic cross-country skier himself, Vordenberg coached with the American team for 10 years before resigning after the 2012 season.
FasterSkier spoke with Vordenberg by phone about his current pursuits — his LinkedIn profile lists his position as ‘Father’ at ‘Parenthood’ — his thoughts about the team’s performance at the 2010 Olympics, and about the team’s potential in the upcoming games.
He lives in Salt Lake City with his wife, and their two young daughters.
The interview has been edited and condensed.
FasterSkier: Is this a good time for you?
Pete Vordenberg: I probably sound a bit out of breath because I’m pushing a stroller around.
FS: Have you been skiing much?
PV: I think I’ve skied, like, two k’s, maybe, without a kid attached to me. Fitness is not good. It’s okay, I don’t care.
FS: So, what do you do now?
PV: That is what I do. I’m a stay-at-home dad. Anything else I do is, like, amounts to nothing. I’ve got some other hobbies, and then I help do some photo editing for a professional photographer. But no, I’m a stay-at-home dad.
FS: How is that?
PV: It’s like — I thought I’d had a pretty adventurous life and done some things that had made a difference, and made changes in my life. But this is the only thing that’s ever changed my life for real. I can barely think back past before having a kid. It’s like, it’s changed my life 100 percent. It’s amazing. And it’s really hard, but it’s also really awesome. It’s probably like a lot of parents would say: It’s pretty hard to describe, but it’s everything for me right now.
Even though I’ve had an awesome life with skiing and everything, I would say I’ve never been happier. That’s not coming from a place where I was unhappy at all.
FS: What’s your involvement with skiing now?
PV: I’m just a fan. I love to just check and see how everyone’s doing. And send off a little note of encouragement if they do bad, and congratulations if they do well. I don’t volunteer too much because I’m just really afraid of overcommitting myself. NNF [the National Nordic Foundation] has something going on right now, and people can donate some money and I’ll go skiing with ’em.
But my role in skiing is as a fan, and it’s not an unimportant role — they need us, you know. It’s like a rock concert with nobody in the audience you know? They need their fans, so I’m pretty happy as a fan.
FS: What does being a fan actually entail for you? Do you watch the races?
PV: When I can, I do. Usually, I don’t get to watch ’em live. It’s just not too realistic. I hope to be able to see some Olympics live. I’ll watch some videos later. Or, if somebody sends me a good link I can watch a race from, then I will, as much as I can, I’d say — which isn’t that often. Reading, and watching a little clip here and there later.
FS: How are you feeling about the team going into the Olympics?
PV: Oh man, it’s so exciting. I have my kind of historical take on it, from being an athlete, and from being a coach. I mean, we went into Vancouver with, like, some chance of winning something. But now they’re going in there with like real, earned expectations, you know? Like, for real! So, just that, just going in there with true, real, earned expectation is just such a big deal. For me. I mean, having started watching and being aware of the sport in ’84. And then going though such a drought and being a part of that drought, basically for a long time. It’s so exciting. And not only that, I know the athletes, and worked with pretty much all of them, so on a personal level it’s also really fun.
FS: What do you think the team’s chances are?
PV: I think we have a great chance of medaling in sprint, and relays on the women’s side. And on the men’s side, it’s less of a clear cut expectation, but there’s definitely a chance for both sprint and sprint relay, and then on the distance side, Noah [Hoffman] has had the fastest time [in an international race this year], so you never know. But the ladies side, there’s a lot of great opportunities, and in the distance races too.
FS: What’s the difference between the team heading into this Olympics, and heading into the last one, in 2010, when you were the head coach?
PV: I think they have a lot more stuff dialed in. Four years older, and just a lot of stuff coming together, and great team chemistry. You know, that really can be attributed to the staff, and to the work of the athletes themselves. It’s hard to have a cohesive team. You live together so much, and it’s just hard to do, and the athletes and staff have just done a great job with that, especially on the women’s side.
FS: Tell me a little more about what you mean with the chemistry.
PV: Whenever I tell people that, they’re like, ‘It’s an individual sport! Can it make that much of a difference?’
They spend maybe four hours a day training and doing the other things, and then all the rest of the time they’re together, so it’s a huge thing.
FS: Is that something you think you guys didn’t do that well with in the past?
PV: I think it’s always been something we knew is important and we’re trying to accomplish, and it just seems like — a lot of the things have come together, but I think it’s…let me think about this. It’s something we worked on forever, but I think the emphasis has been put on it more recently that has been successful, since my time. I mean, just to say it quite plainly, I think [women’s coach] Matt [Whitcomb] has just done an amazing job. And he’s had some athletes that are also good leaders, but he has just been a tremendous leader.
FS: What’s he doing, specifically, that’s made him successful there?
PV: What is it he’s doing? When I hired him, I hired him straight from Burke [Mountain Academy], and what caught my eye [at a Junior Nationals competition] was just how much fun his team had. Obviously, they had great results. But of all the teams you see, his team…I was just like, ‘Wow.’ He’s got ’em — they’re all really together and really cheering for each other — it was an impressive sight to see, and that was his high school team. We talked a bunch of times after that. I don’t know what it is, but he brings people together, and I think that’s just what he’s been able to do with the girls.
FS: All right — I’m going to jump into some tough questions because I think you can handle them.
You guys had some pretty high goals going into the last Olympics — you’d said you were aiming for medals, even though the U.S. skiers hadn’t regularly been on the podium leading into 2010. Looking back, were those goals realistic? And do you think even if they weren’t realistic, you accomplished something by setting them that high?
PV: Everything you said is true. We had had some really great results that gave us some high expectations. And I don’t know that the team’s expectations were quite as high as the media’s expectations, or the fans’ expectations.
FS: You were pretty clear though that you guys were shooting for medals in Vancouver.
PV: For sure, for sure. That’s what we were aiming for, and we’d had some results to indicate that was definitely possible. But now, they’ve had such great, unbelievable results consistently — I guess it changes what’s believable. They’ve had such great results that they’re believable now.
You know, it’s the Olympics, and crazy stuff happens at the Olympics. But that’s why I say what’s so cool is going in with legitimate — like, legitimate chances. What actually happens is, you know, we’ll see. It’ll be fun to watch. But my God, the work they’ve done — it’s just going to be so fun to see how it happens.
FS: Seriously though, can we talk a bit about 2010 and the goals you set there? You guys were obviously in a different place, where you couldn’t realistically project someone like Kikkan [Randall] to win a medal in the classic sprint.
PV: At the time, we definitely wouldn’t have put the hopes on Kikkan’s classic sprinting, that’s for sure. Nobody would have said she was supposed to win a medal in the classic sprint. There was probably a lot more pressure on Andy [Newell], and maybe that was not a good thing, because he crashed.
But it’s so hard. When I look back, I think of several things I would have done differently. But it’s an untestable thing. I can’t go back. If we had changed our hopes and expectations, maybe it would have gone better. Maybe it wouldn’t have.
In a way, it’s nice to be an underdog, because there’s no pressure except for whatever you put on yourself. But it’s also a little bit of a cop-out. Like, ‘Okay man, let’s go and win something.’
FS: When you look at the team today, do you feel like you contributed to the success they’re having?
PV: Oh, man. I love to look back and see the things that I feel like I did a good job with and feel proud about. And how they’ve contributed to where the team is now. As soon as I do that, instantly I’m like, ‘Then before me, this happened, and then there is this on the side.’
There’s so much that goes into it that it’s impossible to lay too much claim to it. But I definitely like to think that I played a really good role.
FS: What are the things you’re most proud of, looking back?
PV: We did a lot of organizational stuff, like putting more emphasis on the wax team and whatever, that I think was important. But what I like to think is that I helped really change the culture of the sport, and the expectations. And change it from a kind of a participation mindset to a preparation mindset. If there was something that I could own, I would love to take a lot of ownership of that.
FS: What does that mean, going from a participation mindset to a preparation mindset? Can you give me an example?
PV: It’s a little bit hard to quantify. I spent time going to the REG [Regional Elite Group] camps, which is junior camps throughout the country. Just the way people talked about the sport, and their training and the racing, and also the amount of training and the type of training that was going on in those camps, I think changed a lot over the 10 years that I was attending those camps.
I think that the country has opened its eyes a little bit more to what kind of preparation needs to go into winning. And you don’t see that all the time. Like, I get pretty disappointed sometimes when I read a comment or something where somebody has said something that doesn’t mesh up with the reality of being an elite athlete. But I think for the most part, people have a more clear idea of what has to happen. And I think that the program, the development side of things reflects that as well.
FS: Wait, do you read online comments now? You used to swear you didn’t look at those!
PV: Read the comments now? Oh yeah. It’s brutal. I mean, after the team naming — that’s just ugly. But yeah, it’s much easier for me to read it now because it’s not going to affect what I do. Before, I didn’t need that. And hopefully those guys are not reading it either, because they need to be focused on what they’re doing.
FS: What do you think about the team selection this year?
PV: I won’t say anything about the specific people that were picked. But man, going to the Olympics…Okay, this is my perspective, so you can’t say it’s anybody else’s.
But that comment about participating — man, that isn’t what they’re going [to the Olympics] to do. We’ve been going there to participate as a cross-country ski country for too long! And we’re going there to win some stuff. And that’s the prize, and that’s the goal. They have made the choices they have made for that goal to come true. That’s it. So it’s not, we’re not about going there to participate. We’re going there to win some stuff.
FS: Going back to the comments for a second — you said you hope the U.S. Ski Team staff isn’t looking at those. I recognize that there’s a lot of vitriol in those comments, but don’t you think there’s some degree of responsibility those guys have to be engaged with the community, and understand how people are feeling about the choices they’ve made?
PV: I wouldn’t ever leave a comment, because I think it’s just a toxic thing. It’s not anything that actually helps anybody. I go there, and I just feel nasty afterwards, like, ‘Why did I do that?’ It’s not good. There’s really good ways to communicate, and that’s not one of them.
FS: But how else do you communicate if you’re John Skier in Minneapolis? You and I have a phone number for [U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris] Grover, but that’s not something everyone can do, like pick up the phone and call him.
PV: I don’t know. The right way to do it is to communicate directly with the ski team. But that’s not — you can’t really have an impact now. Those lines of communication have to be open before. And they are — there’s a lot of ways to communicate with the ski team. But now, it’s not going to be one of those times.
There’s camps, there’s regional representatives — it’s just like how I imagine any government thing. I can’t call up Obama, either, but I can have an impact on a smaller level. I think that being a part of your regional organization is the best way to go about it, and then that’s how you get through to the U.S. Ski Team.
I guess one reason why the comments are so toxic and not helpful is because it takes the place of that. I feel like those people are not going to go through that — do actual work to get something actually done. It kind of takes the place of actually doing something. I love to use myself as a good example, like anybody does. I was a disgruntled athlete in ’98. And where it took me was onto the coaching staff, and trying to make a real difference.
That’s maybe an extreme example. But there’s ways to get stuff done that’s helpful and legitimate, and doesn’t cut down what people are actually doing. It doesn’t put down people who are actually doing work.
FS: Do you talk with those guys at all?
PV: The team? Oh yeah, not much. We don’t talk business at all. Just, like, ‘Great job with this.’
FS: Do you ever watch clips and notice things, like, ‘Oh, Kikkan’s not following through on her double pole.’
PV: If I do that without being asked, then…I shouldn’t. Every now and then, somebody will send me a clip and say, ‘What do you think about this or that? And I’m happy to [answer]. I think mostly, they just try to include me to be nice. I will gladly give ’em my opinion. What a great ego boost for me. I love to help out. But they sure don’t need me. They don’t need me at all. They’ve got the best setup they might possibly have.
FS: Looking back, is there anything you wish you’d done differently with the team?
PV: No, I wouldn’t say that. When I think about the work that I did and what I’m least happy about is probably how the men’s team came together. I didn’t get to work on that specifically as much as I would have liked to. If I could have gone back, I would have tried to follow Matt [Whitcomb’s] leadership a little bit better, and we would have had way less solo workouts with the guys at camps. And the guy’s team, even if it was a little bit hard to deal with in the short term — I think they would benefit, in the long term, with coming together as a team.
FS: Is that a harder thing to do with men than with women?
PV: I have totally thought about that, and told myself that — and I don’t think so. No, I don’t think so. I think it was harder to do with our men, but that doesn’t mean that it couldn’t have been done and shouldn’t be done. It needs to be done. It’s definitely not a gender thing. As far as my role, that’s a thing that I did not do a good enough job with.
FS: What got in the way?
PV: I shouldn’t say anything specifically. I don’t think that would be helpful. That’s something that I wish I had done, and again it’s not testable. I can’t go back and do that.
FS: Is there any advice you’d give the coaching staff as you head into this Olympics, like, looking back at the last one?
PV: We hashed over that kind of stuff after every race. At every camp, we’d talk about what we needed to do better.
Anything of that nature, we’ve already talked about. And I sure don’t have anything to teach Grover or Matt, or any of those guys at this point. That’s an ongoing process. They’ve learned anything from me that I know.
FS: Do you see yourself getting back into coaching at some point?
PV: I would say, no way right now. Just because I’m loving so much what I do. It’s impossible to see too far into the future. If I could see anything like that, it would be coaching just a small, junior deal. That’s for sure all I could even pretend to see coming.
FS: What about racing?
PV: Racing? Me? No, oh no. Uh-uh. I don’t even pretend to see that. I’m not that interested in that at all.
FS: Do you still go out, like, recreationally, and get outside?
PV: Yeah, for sure. I just love the outdoor lifestyle, and being outside is – we probably spend more time outside than any time, I’d say.
FS: Do you have your daughters in the development pipeline?
PV: Definitely. (Laughs)
Actually, if we could return a little bit — I want to say that if the ski team could do something better, it’s to show off how good a job they’ve done creating this pipeline, and all the information that’s available every step of the way. It’s amazing. [U.S. Ski Team coach] Bryan Fish has done a crazy good job with the education stuff. It’s really good, and then making the Olympic team, or making any team, it’s incredibly clear not only quality wise, but just what it takes to get there. That is something I really want to emphasize, is how good those guys have done in creating it, but how poor a job it’s been kind of advertised.
After the interview was over, Vordenberg emailed with some additional thoughts:
Dang, I just realized that I got pulled down the negative path in that interview by the comments! That’s the whole problem with them: They distract you from real work, and in this case from all the positive progress and work that has been done, is being done, and needs to be done. Dang it! If I could go back, I wouldn’t have talked about them at all, but would have just focused on all that has gone so well to bring us where we are now.
FasterSkier responded, by email:
I actually think it’s an issue that’s really important to the ski community right now — people were so fired up about those team selections and had so many opinions, and, from my perspective, many valuable perspectives to contribute. And I think it actually would be very valuable for readers to hear your opinion, as a former coach, that direct feedback, or feedback through regional representatives, is much more constructive.
If I can offer anything constructive, I am all for it. The U.S. Ski Team is the lead organization, and in my opinion should be a strong, even stronger leader. Part of being a strong leader is communicating, and a great part of that is listening. Having good opportunities for people to give feedback and offer ideas is important not only in getting good, actionable ideas, but also in bringing everyone in behind the same mission together. There are existing avenues for this…My advice is start with your regional leaders. Be organized and constructive and concise.
As for the team now, I understand the power of the games, the effect on clubs and everyone in the community. And as well as anyone, I understand the disappointment of not being named, and the work and dedication involved. That said, it is The Games. We need to keep the bar high if it is to keep its power. Great athletes will miss out. That is tough. We are going there to win medals, and that is even tougher.
If making it, if winning were less tough — even a little less tough — it wouldn’t have the meaning and the weight it has. And it wouldn’t make those of us who strive for it who we are. It has to be hard.
Along those lines, and if I could add something to the interview it would be this: The lesson of Kikkan is hard work over many, many years, and through many setbacks and disappointments. Not in spite of those disappointments and setbacks but because of them, she is where she is. I was certainly with her in some very tough times — times that broke my spirit, that would have broken many athletes. But not Kikkan. Man, she pushed on and pushed on and trained harder, got more focused. She is where she is because of many things, a lot of great support in Alaska and from many people, but mostly because she faced tough times and has pushed through them, pushed hard for many, many years. If it was easier, she wouldn’t be who she is or where she is. To our youth athletes, to those who missed these games by a hair or by a mile, be it fair or unfair, clear or questionable, that is your lesson. If you want this, keep pushing, keep pushing, keep pushing. That is the way.
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.