Almost a decade ago, Bill Pierce and Yuriy Gusev took a walk in the Cable/Hayward area of northern Wisconsin, where Gusev, the director of Central Cross Country (CXC) since 2005, decided to root the CXC Team and Junior Program (and later an adaptive program and CXC Academy).
Pierce, who built custom homes at the time through his own company, Pierce & Associates Design/Build, Inc, wanted to show Gusev a thousand-acre parcel — a potential site for a big idea.
A competitive cross-country skier and runner up until the mid-80s, when he studied at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Architecture and Urban Planning, Pierce moved to Hayward and found part-time work in 1997, grooming the Birkie trail on a need-basis with one broken-down snowcat.
“When I went to Hayward, my first job to get paid skiing was [as head coach] at Hayward High School,” Pierce said Thursday on the phone. “That was enough money for one month over five to make a living off of so I did other things.”
It wasn’t long before he was chairman of the American Birkebeiner Board of Directors and landed his first full-time coaching job in 2007. He built his home in Seeley and dreamt of more for Hayward: a charter school and training center for nordic skiers — and not just any nordic center: a multi-use events center.
“If you want to be mainstream and survive as a business, you can’t just be nordic,” Pierce reflected.
In his development near the Birkie’s “00” halfway point, ski trails touch every lot. Yet without Telemark Resort open, the area remains without a nordic center.
Thinking back to his idea, he imagined opening the events center to non-skiing attractions: music festivals, beer-and-wine tastings, bike shows, and more. Unless its developers were subsidized, they would have to — selling trail passes four or five months a year wasn’t going to pay the bills, he said. But with the offseason revenue, they could fund their dream of a true nordic-training center.
To this day, Gusev has kept that same goal in sight and taken steps, such as researching the potential of Telemark Lodge, to make it a reality. It’s been on Pierce’s mind for the last two decades, and he said the 1,000-acre parcel remains on the market.
“It’s a soft market and soft economy … [and] we’re looking at another piece of land south of here,” he said. “There’s opportunities.”
But Pierce, CXC’s elite head coach since May 2013, couldn’t wait on that. In the last few years, he applied for other jobs, including with the American Birkebeiner — which Gusev knew about as a board member — and as executive director at Soldier Hollow in Midway, Utah.
One position near Winter Park in Granby, Colo., stuck. Pierce accepted the Snow Mountain Ranch YMCA’s offer to come on as its first full-time nordic director this fall, and he sat down with Gusev to tell him about it three weeks ago.
“I knew that sooner or later Bill will leave and we were somewhat planning on it,” Gusev wrote in an email. “We have discussions with other staff about possible options if that would happen. We also had plans to add additional staff this fall even before Bill notified us about his leaving.
“It is definitely a loss for CXC and the Midwest Nordic community but Bill is following his passion and I’m glad he found something that he is very excited to be involved in,” he added. “We all at CXC wish Bill the best in his new venture.”
“It was a hard choice,” Pierce explained. “I’d come back in a second to work for [CXC]. It was a lot of factors, some of them were personal…”
In post on CXC’s Facebook page on Thursday, Pierce announced his departure and move to Colorado on Oct. 1.
“… Life is extremely short and we really won’t ever know what the next day will bring,” he wrote. “In the past year, I have seen a lot of loss and it has been a difficult one. I lost my Mom, two very close friends and colleagues in John Hugus and Igor Badamshin, and I lost my marriage. It is time for a change.”
CXC’s former high-performance advisor and CXC Team coach, Badamshin died of an apparent heart attack while skiing on the Birkie trail in January. He was 47.
Hugus, who founded the Knicker Nordic Ski Club in Wausau, Wis. — of which Badamshin was also head coach — and served as secretary of the Central Wisconsin Skiing Association, died last October at 57 after batting multiple myeloma for 17 years.
“With Igor’s death and coaches leaving to do different things, I’m leaving because I feel like I can do something more for developing the sport, to help people enjoy it and enjoy winter,” Pierce said on the phone.
His first job with CXC came in 2007, when Gusev hired him as a full-time head coach of CXC’s Junior Development Team. He worked there until 2010 and went on to co-found F.A.S.T. Performance Training with his wife Kathy, spending the next three seasons working to establish a high-performance mecca in Hayward.
It wasn’t for naught. Athletes like Ben Saxton, now on the U.S. Ski Team’s D-team, came up through F.A.S.T., and Nichole Bathe, a University of Alaska-Fairbanks sophomore and CXC training partner, have already achieved top national results.
Gusev had brought International Paralympic Committee (IPC) World Cups to Cable, and in the last year, landed the 2015 IPC World Championships and 2016 U.S. Junior National Championships. But Pierce said the next step — creating a permanent nordic or training facility — required teamwork.
“Any project of that size takes a group of people and collaboration,” he said. “Everyone wants to be a part of that growth. I think people need to realize more that we need to work together to do that.
“No matter how small, you are just doing the right thing. If you’ve got four or five kids, just coach ’em. … You’ve just got to stick at it year after year and just be consistent what you do. It’s a long, long process.” — Bill Pierce, F.A.S.T. Performance Training founder and CXC elite-team head coach, who recently took a job as Snow Mountain YMCA’s nordic director
“You think of Hayward as a destination,” he added. “You get a few hundred people every weekend.”
Upon a recent visit to Winter Park, he estimated 1,000 people in the area on a weekday.
“That’s a destination,” he observed. “I call it an adventure park or activity park. They’ve done a good job of becoming a true destination.”
While he said Hayward’s not quite there yet, “they’re different animals,” he explained. Snow Mountain’s YMCA of the Rockies has been around for more than 100 years. “The Birkie trail has been groomed for twenty years,” he pointed out.
Since then, the American Birkebeiner has grown its fleet to three PistenBullies and roughly four snowmobiles under Pierce. Formerly the Birkie’s head groomer, who oversaw 88 k of trails and 14 pieces of equipment, he retired from grooming last year to return to full-time coaching.
“I love sitting on the groomer at night; it’s a blast,” he said. “[But] I don’t have to sit on it every night for eight hours.”
As for that job: “I felt like I did what I wanted to do and it was time to leave and do something else,” he explained.
Leaving the Midwest, where he was born in southern Wisconsin, went to school in Milwaukee, and spent 14 years in Minneapolis, was about timing as well.
“I’ve always moved around — I haven’t been home in three years,” he explained. “That was actually one of the considerations: when you’re on the domestic circuit, you’re on the road from October to March. … To me, it wasn’t a sacrifice, it’s just hard.”
He began researching other opportunities to educate himself. When he discovered the opening at Snow Mountain, the idea of expanding an existing nordic area with 100 kilometers of trails, adding to mountain-bike terrain and cultivating the fat-bike craze there was too good to pass up.
“Of all the jobs I’ve looked at, this is an accumulation of all the duties in one,” Pierce said. “I kind of look at it as three phases: running the center, overseeing the coaching, and overseeing the trails. It’s a year-round job.”
And while it will be a transition — from elite coaching to building a nordic culture from the ground up — he said he’s ready.
“The relationships that have been formed with many people, colleagues, and athletes cannot be matched or replaced,” he wrote on Facebook. “I loved all aspects of the position but most of all I really enjoyed coaching the Master skiers. They truly are trying to find enjoyment and re-creation in this sport and it was so rewarding to see progression and enjoyment from these athletes and people!
“The hard part is leaving the relationships,” Pierce explained on the phone. “I won’t forget them, I just wont see them as much as I did now.”
At a CXC masters camp late last month, he had CXC Development Coach Andrew Keller run more than half of the sessions. Keller will fill in as elite coach during the transition this fall, Gusev confirmed.
“Of all the years that I’ve coached masters, this was the best,” Pierce said, adding that they have another masters camp next week. “Being a coach … is being able to look at someone and tell them how to change, and … the level of professional and social relationships that you build…
“You’ve just got to be consistent and keep doing it,” he said of his passion and advice to other coaches. “No matter how small, you are just doing the right thing. If you’ve got four or five kids, just coach ’em. … You’ve just got to stick at it year after year and just be consistent what you do. It’s a long, long process.”
In October, he’ll start all over again in Colorado, assessing what is needed there. Unsure of what the future holds, he’s excited by the challenges and possibilities.
“F.A.S.T. is not dead,” he joked.
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.