When longtime Williams College Nordic coach Bud Fisher began to contemplate retirement, he knew someone who might want his job.
He called Jason Lemieux, a former Williams racer who had gone on to ski for the Subary Factory Team before moving to Hood River, Oregon, to be closer to his wife’s family. Lemieux was happy on the West coast, coaching with XC Oregon and working marketing for a carbon fiber manufacturing company.
But he had never given up the idea that it would be nice to coach at his alma mater – which is also only half an hour from where he grew up in Massachusetts.
“It would have been a lot to give up for any other location, or any other school that is farther away from my family,” Lemieux said in an interview last week. “So this was pretty much what we had on the top of our list, and what we were willing to make the sacrifice for.”
Lemieux spent the last two years working side by side with Fisher as an assistant coach. The official handoff – or at least the emotional one – happened over spring break in Sjusjøen, Norway, where the current Williams team and a group of alums took a trip with Fisher to spend a lot of time on snow and celebrate their love of the sport.
“We ended up with a group of about 50 people skiing all day every day,” Lemieux said. “The kids were just all fired up. After such a long season, they still wanted to ski all day every day. It was a once in a lifetime trip. We’re hoping to do it again down the road sometime.”
Fisher always instilled Scandinavian values about the role of sport in a balanced life in his athletes. Having coached briefly at the NTG in Lillehammer, Norway, he knew exactly how much a part of life skiing is in Norway.
And that’s something that Lemieux says he will work hard to keep as a tenet of the Williams program.
“We used to always talk about the lifestyle to income ratio,” he said of Fisher. “That’s the goal, one way to find happiness. We’re definitely about the lifestyle, and it’s how I am too. When people are struggling or trying to balance, it’s all about the love of the sport. It has to be fun. It’s not just about the results.”
Official practice doesn’t start until the first Monday in October, but Lemieux says he has obviously been in touch with the team and it is shaping up to be one of the college’s best years ever.
Williams placed 15th at NCAA Championships last year, with the best cross country performance by Eli Hoenig, who placed 17th in the 20k freestyle. This year, Lemieux belives that the men’s team might be the best the school has ever seen.
He’s particularly excited about 2015 NCAA’s, which are to be held in Lake Placid, New York.
After graduating from Williams in 2001, Lemieux moved to Lake Placid to coach the Nordic combined team at the National Sports Academy. It’s where he made a big jump in his own skiing, after using mornings to train before teaching and coaching in the afternoons and evenings. So he knows the race trails well and says that it’s informing his team’s training this fall.
“Those trails are awesome, they’re great,” Lemieux said. “We’ll be doing some workouts that mimic the Lake Placid courses. There’s big ups and big downs there.”
So what has changed at Williams now that Lemieux is alone at the top?
Some things are superficial.
“Well, the average age in the office went down by a lot,” he laughed. “We have a new alpine head coach as well, and of course two new assistants because we both were the assistants before.”
And in a big relief to Ephs fans everywhere, Lemieux is touting a new race suit which more closely resembles the classic purple cow print than the suits of the last few years, which relegated the pattern to a small strip on the sides.
“I don’t think people will see a whole lot of difference from the outside looking in, but we do have new ski suits,” he joked. “They are definitely identifiable as a purple cow suit. It’s a modern world version of the purple cow.”
As an alum himself, Lemieux is intent on upholding the Williams Ski Team traditions, many of which date back decades. This fall, many of the standard workouts and time trials will still be on the schedule.
“We always do a race called the Schnellsteigen, which is about an hour uphill running race,” he explained. “It’s good training, but it’s also just a tradition. There’s 30 or 40 years of data so people can look back on their Schnell time. We’ll of course do that.”
But he is also adding some new variety to the training routine.
“We do a lot more creative agility workouts now, and different ways to train specific technique strength and speed,” Lemieux said. “I’m a little les straight-line focused. I like to have them working on a lot of different things for agility and athleticism. We’re doing some newer tests as well. We never had really a double-pole test, and we started a shorter uphill running test two years ago as well.”
So the updated Williams team? Lemieux hopes that by building on the school’s long tradition of Nordic excellence and introducing a few key new ideas, the Ephs will be able to rise to even greater heights.
“It’s important to be really consistent and have traditions, but at the same time you have to always look for new workouts and always look for new routes,” he said. “You try not to do the same thing every week, just to keep people excited about going to practice.”
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.