Editor’s Note: Back out of hibernation, this is the first in this season’s ‘Pros of Tomorrow’ series, which highlights some of the most notable up-and-coming athletes around the world. Have an idea for a top-notch skier you’re itching to read more about? Email firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line: Pros of Tomorrow. Ideas for intriguing juniors or collegiate skiers, or lesser-known athletes are welcome as well — subject line: From the Pack.
Ben Lustgarten had big plans for his senior at Middlebury College, a small liberal-arts college in central Vermont with a strong history of ski racing. With his eyes set on the NCAA Championships in Soldier Hollow, Utah, the 22-year-old from Burlington, Vt., was determined to train as hard as possible in order to challenge the many Europeans who dominated both the western and national circuits.
Come March, however, Lustgarten was not lining up at the starting line in Soldier Hollow but instead stood on the sidelines, supported by crutches and sporting a heavily braced knee, watching his former competitors give it their all.
How did he get there?
Lustgarten had a modest start in nordic skiing. Growing up in northern Vermont, he dabbled in many sports ranging from soccer to track and field. It wasn’t until a friend suggested the he and his twin, Eric, join his high school’s cross country running and ski teams that he joined the sport.
When Lustgarten became a member of the Middlebury College Ski Team, he wasn’t well known on the national scene, having just rocketed into the Junior Olympics for the first time in 2010, earning two All-American honors in both distance races.
Lustgarten’s career at Middlebury was characterized by constant improvement a relentless dedication to becoming the best skier he possibly could.
By the time his senior year rolled around he had already placed fourth and eighth in the previous NCAA Championships hosted on his home-course in Middlebury. This time around he wanted to win.
However, from the beginning of the training season Lustgarten was hindered by injuries. After damaging his psoas in the fall he was forced to regularly spin and lift, as running and rollerskiing were out of the question.
Come December, Lustgarten was back to training as usual, slightly hindered by a two-week, minor foot injury.
On the eve of U.S. nationals in Soldier Hollow, Lustgarten was a unsure of his fitness and speed due to his limited training in the fall. It seemed that his lack of traditional training was inconsequential as the college senior held his own against the best in the country, finishing sixth in the 15 k classic and tenth in the 30 k freestyle. He was the second U23 skier in both races, finishing behind U.S. Ski Team member Erik Bjornsen, who went to the Olympics a month later.
The results were enough for Lustgarten to qualify for the 2014 U23 World Championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy, one of his major goals of the season. After racing in the Italian Dolomites, Lustgarten was disappointed with his results there, but the experience proved valuable for the Vermonter who had previously never traveled, let alone raced, overseas.
“I didn’t have the races I wanted to but it was my first time in Europe, and the travel and all that was a factor,” Lustgarten said in a phone interview. “I still had a lot of fun and the experience was really good to see how a lot of Europeans race and just to get a good view of that scene.”
The experience in Italy unfortunately was not all positive, as the Middlebury skier sustained a concussion in his last race.
“I fell pretty hard and hit my head against the snow. I felt a little woozy getting up again,” Lustgarten said. “That was an extremely hard race to finish. I lost my entire morale, all my momentum and ended up getting passed a lot. I did manage to finish, and found out I suffered a concussion.”
Upon his return to the U.S., Lustgarten had to sit out the next Eastern Collegiate carnival at Dartmouth. However, a week and a half after the concussion, he was back on skis at the Williams Carnival.
During this time, Lustgarten was starting to feel pressure from himself and others surmount as the NCAA Championships drew closer.
“I felt a lot of expectation, both from myself and other people, to win. I put a lot of pressure on myself and that pressure got to my head,” he said. “I couldn’t fully maximize my skiing potential. I was engulfed by this feeling that I had to win and that I should win. Obviously it hurt my skiing because I couldn’t win some of these races. I would beat myself up about it.”
Unlike those who have succumbed to similar pressures, Lustgarten recognized that to excel in the final races of the season he needed to return to the basics. Making an effort to ski his “own race” the Middlebury skier lessened the importance of splits and competitors and instead focused on his technique and pacing.
Having embraced this philosophy, Lustgarten entered the Middlebury Carnival and Eastern Intercollegiate Ski Association (EISA) Championships both calm and collected.
The new mindset paid off as Lustgarten crossed the finish line of the individual 15 k classic in first place, exactly 50 seconds ahead of one of his fiercest competitors, Scott Patterson of the University of Vermont.
“It not only helped my confidence to know that I might be able to win further races, but it really only matters when you ski within yourself and if you trust yourself and not to get all wound up in the scene with all the results,” Lustgarten said. “Which is really nice, because not only do you feel better about yourself when you cross the finish line, but generally the results are better. So it’s a win-win.”
The next day was a different story.
Entering the second day of the EISA Championships, the weather was warm and the conditions were fast on the hilly and technical course at the Rikert Nordic Center. Even going into the first laps of the 30 k freestyle mass start, Lustgarten could feel his shins tightening up.
After attempting to stick with the leaders, Lustgarten was forced to pull back, but the damage was already done. Barely able to move his legs, the Middlebury College Senior said both his competitors and spectators were giving him odd looks.
Descending from the last major climb in the third lap, Lustgarten knew he had to take the corners very easy or risk falling due to the tightness in his shins. Coming into one of the final turns of the lap Lustgarten went wide, miscalculating his speed and the sharpness of the corner he had skied so many times before.
Lustgarten soon realized he was headed for a tree, and immediately fell to the snow ensuring his feet were in front of him; a move that he would later characterize as lifesaving.
Unable to slowdown, he made full impact with the tree, placing all impact on his right foot. The next thing he knew he was sprawled on the side of the trail with searing pain in his right leg.
“In a normal crash, you get back up, you put your stuff back on, check if your poles are broken, and move on. I tried to move my leg and it was just so painful,” he recalled. “It was half bent and I couldn’t straighten it. I couldn’t move it. I was gasping in pain and after a minute I yelled out help because I knew I couldn’t get up. Then the world crashed around me and I realized that I was not going to finish this race. I thought my leg was broken and I thought my season was over. It was pretty traumatic.”
Lustgarten’s leg was not broken, but a visit to a doctor in Burlington resulted in the some of the worst news he had received: he was out for the rest of the season with a severely torn posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) in his knee. No NCAAs. No challenging the westerners. No conclusion to his final year of racing at Middlebury.
“I thought I was going to double pole NCAAs. I was livid that I couldn’t race. I would have done anything. It was my last season and I was going to do what I could to finish the race. Everyone was saying that I shouldn’t do it but I didn’t care what anyone said. However, if I had crashed and fully torn my PCL that would have required surgery and I would have been out of skiing for a year. Everyone talked some sense into me,” Lustgarten said.
He did, however, travel to the NCAA Championships in March but was delegated to the sidelines, resigned to thinking about what could have been.
“I tried to cheer on people as best as I could,” Lustgarten said. “But it was hard watching them because even if they were having a bad race they were out there trying their best. Representing their college and their coast. I wish I could have raced those good guys from the west. I had wanted to race them all season. Maybe I’ll get a chance next year.”
While Lustgarten won’t get a chance to race the collegiate circuit next year, he will get a chance to prove himself on the national scene.
Shortly after graduating from Middlebury College in May, Lustgarten traveled west to Idaho to join the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF) Gold Team, where he will compete in the hopes to make his mark in professional nordic skiing.
“It will be awesome to see what skiing is like without school,” he said. “I can spend a lot more time doing physical therapy, stretching, strengthening to prevent injury, increase balance, and just pend time doing small stuff that I wouldn’t have time to do at school.”
He believes these small changes will help him reach his lofty goals for the next season. On that list is a podium at US Nationals, a top 15 at the U23 World Championships, and to qualify for a couple World Cups in the 2015/2016 season.
Despite his elevated goals, Lustgarten knows he has a lot of work to do in the meantime.
“I don’t really know how my improvement will be with the injury and training. I have optimistic views,” he said.
In terms of his future as a pro skier, Lustgarten acknowledged that if things don’t go as expected, he plans to go back to school. If he does see improvement, Lustgarten would like to see how far he can go.
“I would definitely like to ski for the next couple years. Obviously the Olympics is a ways off, but that’s the dream for anyone who goes pro,” he said. “If things do work out well I would love to shoot for the Olympics in 2018.”
Long-term goals aside, Lustgarten is taking advantage of his what his new life as a professional athlete has to offer. For now, the emerging skier is excited to work on new sponsorship deals, develop a website and blog expected to be ready by the end of the week, in addition to full-time training.
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Lander Karath is FasterSkier's Associate Editor from Bozeman, Montana and a Bridger Ski Foundation alumnus. Between his studies at Middlebury College in Vermont, he is an outdoor enthusiast and a political junkie.