The future of the Bridger Ski Foundation (BSF) elite and postgraduate team was a bit uncertain in July.
Shortly after coming on as BSF’s new elite-and-postgrad coach in May, alumna and Bozeman, Mont., native Kristina Trygstad-Saari left her position to lead the Montana State University (MSU) nordic team.
To make matters worse, soon-to-be BSF athletes Sam Tarling and Eric Wolcott decided to retire from skiing, leaving just two elite skiers, Jennie Bender and Riley Eusden, on the team.
Today, however, the woes of the summer are behind BSF as it says its team is stronger than it has been in years. In a remarkable turn of events, the elite and postgraduate team now boasts 14 high-level athletes led by Truckee-native Bernie Nelson.
Rebuilding the Team
According to BSF Head Coach Dragan Danevski, the summer months were trying for the team’s skiers and coaches due to the uncertainty of the program. However, Danevski and his colleagues worked tirelessly to build the team from the bottom-up.
“It was not good for BSF’s image in the summer,” Danevski said in a phone interview. “Many of us were not happy with how that developed. It was disappointing for us.”
According to Danevski, the first step in rebuilding the team was hiring a coach.
Nelson, who served as assistant coach to Grethe Hagensen and Chad Andersen at MSU, was exactly what Danevski was looking for: she had extensive knowledge of the sport, experience racing, and energy.
“This is not a job for everybody. Everyday you have to work with athletes, you have to energize them, and you have to motivate them,” he said. “You can do that only if you as a coach are energetic and enthusiastic. That is what we see with Bernie.”
Once Danevski hired Nelson, he was faced with the daunting task of completing the team roster.
With persistence and good luck, Danevski recruited 10 incoming and current MSU students to join the postgraduate program.
Nelson was also instrumental in building the the team’s numbers. Given her experience as a college athlete from her days at MSU, the 23 year old could relate to university students as they balanced school and skiing.
With the postgraduate team squared away, all that remained was the addition of more elite skiers to the team.
American skiers had already been with their respective teams since the beginning of the summer, but fortunately for Danevski and BSF, two foreign skiers were looking for an American team to join.
Australian Paul Kovacs contacted Danevski this spring about the possibility of training with the BSF elite team. Always open to new energy, Danevski remained in touch with the Australian and accepted him on his squad. After hearing about the opportunity from Kovacs, another Australian skier, Mark Pollock jumped at the chance to train in Montana and worked to earn a spot on the team as well.
Both Kovacs and Pollock raced in the FIS Australia New Zealand Cup this summer, and now that the Australian winter is over, the two will travel to Bozeman in the coming weeks to begin their training and racing with the team.
Reflecting on the changes to his team, Danevski said he was pleased with the progress and happy that the program was able to recover from a tumultuous summer.
Bender, who spent part of August and September in the east, said that she didn’t recognize the team when she returned to Bozeman.
“When I left for the Lake Placid [training camp] there were three athletes,” she said. “When I came back there were 14 new people and a new coach. Now that we have this big group, there’s been great a vibe.”
Team Veteran: Bender
At the center of the BSF elite team, Bender has seen it all. In the past two years, she’s had ranging results spanning from the top of the podium to the back of the pack.
Since she began skiing with BSF last season, the Vermont-native earned her second national title in January. At the same time, however, she failed to accomplish her goal of making the 2014 Olympics and struggled to find her form in last March at the World Cups in Finland and Norway.
Bender said that a major factor in her inconsistent results over the past two years was her health. In addition to a case of mono and Lyme disease in 2012, Bender suffered a herniated disk in 2013. Due to fatigue and pain, her training and racing suffered.
“The last two years have been a physical struggle and a mental struggle,” Bender on the phone. “Having a couple good races at nationals was huge. … I didn’t go out and accomplish what I was hoping to do with my World Cup starts, but having those starts was important for me and I’m hoping to have more because I’m ready for that next stage. I feel that there is more that I can give.”
Despite the impediments of the the last two years, Bender said she believes the 2014/2015 season will be her best yet. With her health intact and little-to-no pain in her back, she said she recently finished her most consistent-and-productive summer training to date.
She also has a new outlook on life and skiing. Bender said she learned important aspects about herself from the past ups and downs, and that such lessons will aid her in her search for top results.
“Tenacity became really important. I’ve had my lowest of the lows and my highest of the highs all in one year with being at my wits end and then being on top of the podium,” she explained. “Being thrown into different those two different spectrums, I’ve learned to maintain a solid head and realize what’s important and what’s not important in life. I think it’s been a good lesson on how to stay positive and not dwell on the negative.”
As the winter approaches, Bender said that she is excited to demonstrate the hard work she has put into her training over the past months. Her season goals are lofty – a spot on the 2015 U.S. World Championships team – but not out of reach.
A Team of Potential
Bender’s teammates are also aiming high.
According to Danevski, Kovacs hopes to compete for the Australian World Championships team in Sweden this February, while Pollock’s main goal is to race at the U23 World Championships in Kazakhstan.
Three of the nine postgraduate skiers are training to compete at Junior World Championships, while the rest of the squad is looking to prequalify for Junior Nationals by ranking as top-20 juniors at U.S. nationals in January in Houghton, Mich.
While the team will have the opportunity to accomplish their goals in a few short months, the way BSF sees it, it’s already won half the battle, rebuilding from what many would call a devastating summer.
“I think BSF has potential to be a very solid elite team,” Bender said. “Everyone on the team is in a really good space. Everyone is working hard and it’s great.”
Lander Karath is FasterSkier's Associate Editor from Bozeman, Montana and a Bridger Ski Foundation alumnus. Between his studies at Middlebury College in Vermont, he is an outdoor enthusiast and a political junkie.