Three years ago, Loppet Nordic Racing (LNR) was just an idea.
But when Reid Lutter and Piotr Bednarski decided to combine their successful Minnesota Valley Ski Team and Go! Training programs under the auspices of The Loppet Foundation, things started moving fast in Minneapolis and Saint Paul, Minnesota.
In the club’s first season of racing, it took home the boys’ club title at Junior Nationals in Anchorage, Alaska.
Lutter said that neither coach was expecting to find their new program on top quite so soon.
“When we came together we thought we could be competitive for a podium, but we didn’t think we’d have that great of a performance,” he laughed. “We were surprised when we won the boys title in Alaska.”
Their top racer, Ben Saxton, moved East to join the Stratton Mountain T2 team (and has since moved on to Dartmouth College and the U.S. Ski Team). But that didn’t slow down LNR.
At Junior Nationals in Stowe, Vermont, in March, they took home both the boys’ and girls’ titles. Lutter described watching as first one skier, then another – from a variety of different high schools and programs around the Twin Cities – turned in stellar performances.
“It came together and they all skied really well,” he said. “Tons of kids from different high schools kind of fueling off each other to it that goal – the goal was to win that national title.”
Going into their third season of existence, LNR might well be considered a juggernaut of junior cross-country skiing in the United States. That was the plan all along, but don’t let the results fool you: the keys to the club’s success, Lutter asserts, are fun and community involvement. LNR might produce junior national champions, but it also offers programs for younger kids as well as adults.
This summer Bednarski, who serves as the head coach, supervised training for over 160 juniors. Lutter, whose title is head junior coach, helped organize three different week-long training camps in connection with Central Cross Country (CXC), each of which had enrollment around 40 athletes. And a new “FAST Kids” program saw about 30 middle-school skiers training during the summer as well.
“We train really hard, but we also have a lot of fun and we don’t take ourselves too seriously,” Lutter said. “We’re not performing brain surgery now, we’re just trying to get kids fit.”
Overseeing such a large program is something of a balancing act, but Bednarski and Lutter manage the chaos. The key is to have coordinators for different regions of the twin cities – Chris Harvey on the west side, and Julia Curry on the east – and an army of experienced racers helping out with group work three days a week.
“We’re always at a 10:1 ratio,” Lutter said of his coaching staff. “Well, sometimes it slips up to 12:1. But we’re really sure that we’re getting the kids attention every day they’re out training with us. So that’s why when you look at the coaching staff, it looks like every person in Minnesota is helping out.”
That also translates to a lot of people who feel like they’ve participated in the club’s strong results. The first step when LNR was founded, Lutter said, was to catch up to other top clubs around the country. Now, they can go farther.
“The Twin Cities should be performing similar to Anchorage,” he said. “We have more teams and more athletes than any other locations anywhere else in the country… we’re excited about where we’ve come in the three years since we merged and formed a super club, but we also feel like we haven’t reached the level where we should be. What can we do with the power of a huge metropolitan area?”
That is, definitely, the question. LNR hopes to send athletes to World Junior Championships and the U18 Scando Cup trip, not just hit the Junior National podium as they have been doing the past two years. Eventually, elite racing is on the radar.
And being in the twin cities, the club has several helpful tools at their disposal. One is the organization and assistance of CXC, an organization which Lutter considers a valuable partner.
The other is the rabid enthusiasm of the Minnesota high school racing scene. The vast majority of LNR participants ski primarily with their high schools in the winter, although LNR will be offering more winter training sessions this year for those who want them. It’s a balancing act, Lutter says, but one with a lot of benefits.
“We all want the same thing, which is to get these kids to ski fast and have fun and keep skiing,” he explained. “Our goal as a club is basically to make World Juniors, the J1 trip, to get high places at junior nationals. The high school coaches’ goals are to get on the podium at state. A lot of the time those will coincide nicely. I think that LNR has had the past 4 or 5 past boys’ state champions, so it’s working pretty well.”
And, Lutter says, he envisions only even more success in the future. By partnering with the Loppet Foundation, the two successful coaches were able to plug into something bigger and think outside the box. With some new programs, more kids will be skiing in the Twin Cities than ever before.
“We think that this is really the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “The other programs that our foundation is working on, in terms of working with inner city youth and working with middle schoolers, and trying to expand skiing to lower income people, those are great, great base programs.”
Lutter and Bednarski also joined forces with another vision in mind: to offer more training for younger racers. Another Twin Cities program, Endurance United, is now also offering that type of programming, but five years ago it was scarce.
From that idea was born the FAST Kids program.
“We were competing with each other for athletes, and we wouldn’t see them until they were in high school, and then you were just always trying to get kids in your summer program so you could pay your coaches’ salaries,” Lutter said of the pre-LNR days. “One of our main ideas was that look, we’re not going to be competing for resources, instead we’re going to be coordinating so we should have some funds left over to help fund a U14-U12 coordinator.”
He’s looking forward to the day that the FAST Kids become fast high school students.
“When Piotr and I talk about the club, we’re so excited about where we are right now, but it’s also like, my goodness, when these sixth and seventh graders get up to be juniors, hopefully we can do even better,” he said. “They’re the ones who will go through the whole program.”
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.