This ‘Pros of Tomorrow’ series, brought to you by the generous support of Fischer Sports, aims to highlight some of the most notable up-and-coming athletes around the world, not necessarily Fischer-sponsored skiers. If you have an idea for a top-notch skier you’d like to read more about, please email email@example.com with the subject line: Pros of Tomorrow. We’re also looking for stories about intriguing juniors, collegiate skiers, or lesser-known athletes; please email us with names — subject line: From the Pack.
FAIRBANKS, Alaska — Heads turned when the first American across the line in the women’s 5-kilometer classic race at the 2014 NCAA Skiing Championships in March was an 18-year-old freshmen from the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF).
Nichole Bathe took fourth overall in the race, following her win at Midwest Conference Regionals, also in the 5 k classic. Earlier in the season in January, she placed third among seniors at U.S. Cross Country Championships (U.S. nationals) in the classic sprint for her first national podium. A classic specialist, she was 11th in the skate sprint at nationals and 12th in the 15 k skate at NCAAs.
Now 19, Bathe is beginning her sophomore year at UAF. The Madison, Wisc., native chose to attend school at UAF because Alaska is so close, but yet oh-so-far away, from her hometown.
“I was looking at a couple of different schools, but I liked the fact that UAF was in the Central Conference,” she explained at a coffee shop in Fairbanks. “And I knew [UAF Head Coach Scott Jerome] before I came up here and I liked him, and I liked his coaching style, so that was mainly why I came.
“In the end I decided that I didn’t want to be that close to home, I wanted to try something new and get out, but I wanted to be a part of the Central Conference,” she added. “I think it’s a nice conference to be in just because there are lots of people and I get to go back to the Midwest when racing. So I get to see my parents on race weekends, which is always nice. I also get to ski on courses that I skied on as a junior, so I know the courses pretty well.”
Growing up skiing under Central Cross Country (CXC), Bathe remains an athlete there as part of its regional elite group.
“When we took Nichole on, we knew that she was good,” UAF Coach Scott Jerome said in his office. “We had seen her results at Junior Nationals, especially up close and personal [when Junior Nationals were] here in Fairbanks, where she got a top-five finish in the classic race – I think it was third place. And so we knew she was good.”
He pointed to assistant coach Christina Turman, who was in the room for most of the interview.
“I don’t think [either of us] would have predicted she would be top-5 at NCAAs her first year, but certainly we knew that she had the determination, training background and work ethic that we were looking for,” he said.
With three seniors, UAF has a young team this year with a large influx of new skiers. Bathe in her second year will likely be one of a small group of experienced collegiate skiers that her teammates will look up to.
Jerome sees lots of potential in Bathe, with some focus on her weaker areas.
“Strength for Nichole was a big factor last year,” he said. “She was physically weak in some areas, and when she got in the weight room consistently results really took off.
“Part of the problem is that when she gets tired her technique really falls apart,” he added. “I think the strength component is really important for her because she has to be strong enough that when she gets tired she has to hold it together — whether it’s the final climb or the final 2 k of a race, she has to hold it together.”
Jerome touched on a couple technique issues that need smoothing over, some of which amount to the growing pains of moving into a higher level of competition.
“Really working on glide is important,” he said. “When you’re a junior and you’re a little bigger than the others you can kinda fake it, but now everybody’s development has gotten to the same point and so you can’t fake it anymore.”
Above all else, though, Jerome stressed that whatever they were doing with Bathe’s training appeared to be working.
“We don’t want any big changes to the training plan — it’s been working, and you don’t want to change something that’s working,” he said. “Maybe tweak it here and there. Christina Turman has done a fantastic job working with Nichole and working with her on her technique. They’ve really formed a very strong coach/athlete relationship, it’s worked really well, and Christina has laid out a really good training program that Nichole has responded really well to.”
“If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, and so far so good,” he added.
“If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, and so far so good.” — Scott Jerome, University of Alaska Fairbanks Head Nordic Coach, on sophomore Nichole Bathe
Bathe spent the summer training with CXC in the Midwest, mostly trying to build distance and focus on longer intervals. When she wasn’t training, she worked as a bartender at a beer and wine bar.
“We don’t have many liquor laws in Wisconsin,” the 19 year old said with a smile. “I just poured tabs of wine.”
In the winter, school and training keep her busy. She studying for a degree in social work with a minor in justice.
“My goal with the whole thing is to work in the justice system with orphan and foster kids and replacing them into homes,” Bathe said.
Every college skier knows that it is difficult to balance the time requirements of training — especially in Alaska where so much travel is required — with school. This is not lost on Bathe, and provides a rare insight into where she thinks skiing might take her after graduation.
“I think Sophie Caldwell is a very important person to look up to if you’re a college skier because she did go through college,” she said of the U.S. Ski Team member and 2014 Olympian, who graduated from Dartmouth in 2013. “It shows that it is possible to go through four years of schooling and then come out at the end and still be able to race World Cups and race them well, like she does. I think she’s actually been really helpful for skiers who are in college currently and helping us to realize that we can still keep doing it out of college.”
Apart from hinting that Bathe considers a ski career after college to be a possibility, she limited her speculation to the upcoming season.
“Doing better at NCAAs than I did last year is a goal, and [so is] making the World Juniors trip again,” she said.
At last season’s Junior World Championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy, she had a personal-best 26th in the 5 k classic.
“When I get there I’ll know what to expect, instead of going in like a newbie like I was last year,” she added. “So I’d definitely like to do better there than I did last year.”
The 2015 World Junior Championships will be held in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
“I haven’t really looked too far ahead of any of that,” Bathe shrugged. “I just like to play it year-by-year and see how it goes.”
As for the transition to life in Alaska, Bathe has only glowing things to say.
“I love Alaska. I mean, there’s no place like Alaska,” she said. “Even just driving through Alaska you get to see a lot of stuff. … We get to pick berries, and we have lots of fun in the spring … We go snow-machining and downhill skiing and it’s fun.”