When Sara Studebaker retired from biathlon after a successful 2013-14 season and the Sochi Olympics, she envisioned coaching in her future.
But a college team wasn’t the first job that came to mind.
“I’d always thought about college coaching and how that would be something I was interested in,” she told FasterSkier in a phone interview on Monday. “I guess that initially I assumed I’d work in biathlon. But that didn’t work out for a variety of reasons.”
Studebaker had enjoyed her time racing at Dartmouth College before she began her biathlon career, but admitted that in recent years she had been more focused on her own sport than the college scene.
“We always look up the NCAA results, but mostly it’s to see people that you knew, or how Dartmouth did,” she laughed. “College skiing is probably similar from my standpoint as biathlon is for a lot of other people, in that it’s that thing you look up once a year.”
But when she found herself taking a call from Andrew Kastning, the head coach at the University of Alaska Anchorage, things just seemed to fit. Studebaker had moved to Anchorage to be with her fiancé Zach Hall, another former national team member who coaches AK Biathlon. Suddenly, she had the opportunity to work with a group of talented young skiers – and a lot of resources to channel in doing so.
“I’m really looking forward to meeting all the athletes and getting back involved in the collegiate environment,” she said. “I had a great time skiing in college, so I’m really excited to be part of that world again.”
Studebaker noted that her former Dartmouth teammate, Kristina Trygstad-Saari, has recently taken over the reins at Montana State University, so she’ll be seeing some familiar faces on the western college circuit.
For Kastning, Studebaker was a natural choice for a position that was vacated by former UAA and Sun Valley standout Nicole De Yong. With four World Cup and one World Championships top-20 to her name, Studebaker knows what it takes to be successful at the elite level – but also is familiar with the college scene.
“With news that Nicole was stepping down from her role as Assistant Coach, I knew I had big shoes to fill,” Kastning wrote in an email. “I liked the idea of having a female on the staff that can address situations from different perspectives but unfortunately, female coaches are hard to come by so I began looking in all directions to fill the position. Sara was fresh in my mind from working with her in the arctic for NANA Nordic, so I knew she was retiring and moving to Alaska.”
Studebaker said that work is just officially starting so she’s still doing mostly planning and paperwork, but looks forward to her first full-time coaching gig.
“I’ve had the opportunity to work with a large number of really great coaches, from college and even before college, through my professional career,” she explained. “So I definitely hope I can bring that to the table. I think that any time you have exposure to more coaching styles, it helps you gain insight into how to reach people. Not everyone responds in the same ways to each kind of coaching. Hopefully having worked with European coaches and American coaches, collegiate and high school, will help me relate to these athletes a lot better.”
She will be able to draw on a lot of memories of her own college experience – a government major at Dartmouth, she captained her team to a win at 2007 NCAA Championships – such as how to balance being a student as well as an elite athlete.
But she marveled at the resources that UAA has to deploy for its ski team, including the brand-new Alaskan Airlines center, an athletic department building for all sports, including skiing.
“Just walking around there, you know, their weight room is giant and brand new, we have a new ski room, and new locker rooms just for the ski team,” she said. “This sounds silly but, you know, they have the sea wolf in the carpet in the locker room, and I was like, wow, this is big! It’s really cool. It’s a big advantage for these athletes to have this support, and to be taken so seriously… These athletes have the ability to really do some more focused training.”
As Studebaker settles in, Kastning hopes that she can impart some world-class wisdom on his athletes.
“Sara should be able to provide valuable insight into race day preparations both mentally and physically, thanks to her experiences on the World Cup and at the Olympics,” he wrote. “She seems very organized and prepared to face fluid situations with a clear head from her years as an elite biathlete, characteristics that I believe will carry over well to Seawolf Skiing. We are excited to have her and I’m confident she will strengthen our program immensely.”
Studebaker certainly hopes so.
“For me it was a very conscious decision to retire,” she said. “If I had wanted to keep going, I could have, and I would have been pre-qualified for the World Cup. I had good results last year, I had a good season. I was just ready to be done. So I think from that angle, I’m really excited to be here. Hopefully that will rub off. And hopefully my credentials will be helpful.”
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.