Justin Fereshetian knew from a young age that he wanted to coach.
“I knew that once I was finished racing, I wanted to be a coach,” the Turner, Maine, native said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “I’ve grown up just going to track meets, going to cross-country meets, and helping out. I was getting to be around that atmosphere all the time and I really enjoyed it. Then I got really into skiing, and I wanted to continue that avenue.”
After attending the University of Maine, Presque Isle, Fereshetian took his first step down the coaching path when he worked as an assistant for the Maine Winter Sports Center (MWSC) last season.
This spring, with a reorganization of the nonprofit and the dismissal of head coach Will Sweetser, Fereshetian was handed the opportunity to go one step further: to become the head cross country coach in a program where he had trained and raced himself.
“I was a part-time assistant, and I really loved it,” Fereshetian said. “Now that I will be full-time, I’m really pumped.”
He may be just 25 years old, but Fereshetian already impressed fellow MWSC staff last season with his approach to coaching. Sweetser said he had been working to create a full-time position for his mentee, maybe not this year but next year, and encouraged Fereshetian to apply for the new position after his own departure.
“He’s pretty self-aware,” Sweetser said. “He knew that he would like to have another year or two to work with a more experienced coach to get his legs fully under him. I think that’s pretty cool to have a younger coach with that kind of awareness… I’m pretty impressed with his ability to be humble and open to suggestions. And if you talk to the athletes, he has a great rapport.”
Fereshetian is now less than a month into his tenure, and still learning what his role is in the organization. With the disappearance of funding for MWSC’s Olympic Development program, most of the senior athletes who were formerly in the cross country team have now left.
“We don’t really have any nordic postgrads that are staying throughout the fall,” Fereshetian said. “We have a couple who will be here for part of the summer before heading off to college in the fall.”
He’ll try to rally the experience of those older athletes, while they are around, to motivate and inspire the high school crew which will form the core of the MWSC cross country program this season.
“It’s really helpful having those guys around, because I can give them advice on what to do but then they can have someone who’s had experience with success and be able to look at what they are doing,” he said. “To have someone there racing and doing a really good job, it’s great to have good role models.”
MWSC is coming off one of its best years ever for junior cross-country skiing.
“We had six athletes in attendance at Junior Nationals last year, and we had even more than that qualify,” Fereshetian explained. “That was the most kids that Maine Winter has sent to one JN’s, I believe. That was really special.”
Three of the athletes (Austin Huneck, Daniel Streinz, and Lance McKenney) turned in top-10 performances in individual races; so did former MWSC athlete Kamran Hussein, who had moved to the Stratton Mountain School.
“My goal is to continue their development and try to help be able to reach their goals again,” Fereshetian said. “We definitely want to send multiple kids back to JN’s again.”
Fereshetian is mostly sticking to the MWSC training script that has been written by Sweetser and biathlon coach Seth Hubbard, saying that it has been proven to work. He’ll add his own little twists, though.
To do that, he has a lot of inspiration to draw on. Fereshetian’s father, Al, is the track and field and cross country coach at Bates College in Lewiston, and has earned Coach of the Year honors in multiple different athletic leagues, including in his previous tenure at Appalachian State University.
“I definitely learned a lot from my dad,” Justin Fereshetian said. “And I also learned a lot from the great coaches that I’ve had: Paul Stone, Alexei Sotskov, Will. I had a lot of really influential people to gain knowledge and resources from.”
According to MWSC CEO Andy Shepard, taking young coaches with passion and a good work ethic and turning them into experts has always been the organization’s strategy.
“A lot of the coaches we’ve hired over the years have been young, and just getting started,” Shepard said. “We’ve given them access to resources and a support network that has helped them turn into some of the best coaches in the country… We believe that we’re capable of developing these coaches with the right attitude and work ethic, into world class coaches. I think our track record would suggest that we have success with that too.”
Right now, the summer group is training five days a week, and Hubbard has been helping Fereshetian through the process of learning the ins and outs of the job.
“Right now we have kids all over the place, and the training group is a little bit small right now,” Fereshetian said. “But once we get further into the summer we will get more closer to normal.”
And Fereshetian is also helping out with a training camp that draws athletes from all across the state: any athlete who qualified to represent Maine at the U16 or Eastern High School Championships, or to represent New England at Junior Nationals, or to represent the U.S. at World Junior Championships, is invited. The camps happen four times a year and this time edition is at Sugarloaf.
“We work with coaches from around the state to bring shared best practices together, and then all of that is applied to the kids who show up at this camp,” Shepard said. “It’s an awesome bunch of kids. We’re working not only on technique, but there’s also a lot of classroom stuff, nutrition and hydration and physiology. It’s one of my favorite times of the year.”
In that atmosphere, Fereshetian is being shaped into a leader.
“Definitely, there are big shoes for me to fill,” the 25-year-old said of his new job. “I in no way expect to be the type of coach that Will Sweetser was right off the bat. He had a lot of experience, and I learned a lot from him this last season. It was great working with him. But I feel confident in my abilities as a coach, and I’m really excited. It’s a little bit daunting, but I’m definitely a lot more excited than nervous.”
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.