It has been a tumultuous two years for the coaching staff of the Montana State University cross country ski team. The past two springs have seen complete shifts in staffing — long-time head coach Grethe-Lise Hagensen’s contract was not renewed in 2014 and her replacement, Kristina Trygstad-Saari, resigned from her position at the team’s helm earlier this year. The Bozeman, Mont. university recently announced that former Middlebury College racer and Alaska Winter Stars coach Matthew Perry Johnson will be the newest head coach for the Bobcats starting in August.
In Trygstad-Saari’s first year as a coach the MSU Ski Team finished seventh at the 2015 NCAA Championships in Lake Placid, and the nordic team garnered two All-Ammerican honors. Despite the success, Trygstad-Saari decided to leave the position to explore paths unrelated to skiing. The 30-year-old has been in the ski community as a racer and coach since a her days as a junior with the Bridger Ski Foundation, and explained that she needed a change. “I’ve spent a lot of years moving around in the ski world, both racing and coaching, and I haven’t always been 100 percent sure that it’s where I should be,” Trygstad-Saari wrote in an email, adding that the decision to leave was incredibly difficult.
Trygstad-Saari said her experience with the MSU team was highly positive, and that a highlight of the season was in Lake Placid where skiers Cambria McDermott and Forrest Mahlen notched fourth and fifth place finishes, respectively. The lone year as head coach didn’t come without challenges, however, as Trygstad-Saari worked to balance athlete’s training and travel, in addition to the coaching transition.
“The year was challenging, and I had a lot to balance and learn,” she wrote. “Some of our athletes got pretty tired later in the season, and I think I could have done some things differently with training and travel planning. However, I was generally satisfied and think the team responded well to the changes.”
With her departure from the team, the single-season coach is ready for what the future holds. Trygstad-Saari is currently in Vermont finishing up her master’s degree at the Middlebury College Breadloaf School of English. “Hopefully I can explore some options that will put [the degree] to use!,” she wrote. “As of now, the future is wide open, and I look forward to some new adventures.”
A large pool of candidates applied to replace Trygstad-Saari, but in the end it was Johnson who got the job. The new head coach grew up skiing with Alaska Winter Stars in Anchorage and raced for Middlebury College in the years following. After graduating he began assistant coaching at Burke Mountain Academy. He left three years later to become the program/director and head coach of the Utah Nordic Alliance, and in 2014 he returned to his roots and coached with Alaska Winter Stars.
MSU Athletic Director Peter Fields said in a press release that he was pleased with Johnson’s hire. “Matt possesses a strong background in program and student-athlete development,” Fields said. “He has also worked on both coasts as well as the Rocky Mountain region, and is well respected. Matt sees the big picture and is very motivated to continue the level of excellence the Bobcat ski program has established.”
Johnson applied for the open position at MSU because of the potential he saw in the program. While it was difficult for the Alaska native to leave his current athletes, he said the high-level juniors he has coached over the years inspired him to make the progression to collegiate coaching.
“Bozeman is such a great environment for ski training year round and the potential I see in the MSU Nordic Program is massive, so in that sense applying for this position specifically was an obvious choice,” Johnson wrote in an email. “The more difficult aspect of the decision was deciding whether to move on from coaching juniors, which I’ve made the focus of my career so far… The way those kids motivate me to work as hard as I can for them definitely pushed me towards pursuing the position with MSU to work with an entire team at that level.”
In the coming year, Johnson hopes inspire the team and its individuals to greater success. As for the future, however, he has big hopes for his team including an NCAA title. “I would like to help establish this team as a place where athletes who are serious about their skiing as well as academics know they will have every opportunity to improve and grow,” Johnson wrote. “I think this team can win NCAA titles and produce athletes who are ready for World Cup competition after graduation.”
To get there, Johnson will have to overcome the challenges associated with being a new coach on a well-established team, especially given the fact he will be the third head coach in two years for many of the older athletes. “Any time there is coaching turnover there are challenges to overcome,” he wrote. “It’s a situation I’ve dealt with from an athlete’s and coach’s perspective so I know that as long as everyone feels comfortable communicating openly, there’s nothing we can’t overcome with relative ease.”
Although Trygstad-Saari is leaving, she is excited to see what Johnson will do with her former team. “He’s had a wide-range of coaching experience and has the passion and motivation to help drive the program,” she wrote. “He also has the skills to excel in the position beyond the ski trails; he will be a tremendous asset to the Bozeman nordic community. I think the team is in a great place, but I’m confident that Matt will bring even more to MSU and continue this trajectory.”
Johnson will start at MSU in August and said that he has yet to come to a final decision regarding an assistant coach.
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.