BOZEMAN, Mont. — Not many nordic skiers find themselves coaching professionally at the age of 24. An even smaller percentage of those coaches are women. Bernie Nelson, head nordic coach of Bridger Ski Foundation’s postgrad (PG) and elite teams since late last summer, belongs to the 1 percent who fits both these descriptors.
However, neither of these factors bother Nelson.
“I don’t think that there being a lack of [elite] female coaches has anything to do with entry into the sport,” she said in a recent in-person interview. “I think it’s more that the lifestyle is not the most glamorous.
“Sleeping in bunk beds, sleeping on couches, sleeping in different tiny little rooms”, as she describes it, “coaches just put 150 percent into what they’re doing. And then they go home and collect themselves because next weekend, they’re doing it again.”
The copious amounts of coffee and early mornings spent doing hot laps in the dark is not a job for the weak at heart. Still, if the profession doesn’t include fancy hotels and plush king-size beds, what keeps Nelson, and other nordic coaches like her, going? According to Nelson, one word: passion.
“I don’t think that there is a single [nordic] coach out there — young, old, grumpy, not grumpy — who doesn’t truly love skiing,” she said. “I think that passion drives most coaches. Let’s be honest, coaches don’t start coaching for the salary. Coaches coach because they love coaching, or they love skiing, or they love teaching, or there’s something that they are passionate about in the sport.”
“Let’s be honest, coaches don’t start coaching for the salary. Coaches coach because they love coaching, or they love skiing, or they love teaching, or there’s something that they are passionate about in the sport.” — Bernie Nelson, head coach of the BSF Elite and postgrad teams
But what does this passion look like? For Nelson, who turns 25 on Tuesday, it’s five years of ski coaching — one year at Montana State University (MSU) as a student assistant coach, followed by two years there as an assistant coach, and a year as the Bridger Ski Foundation (BSF) PG and Elite Team head coach — as well as over 10 years of competitive ski racing. It’s also a lot of time.
“I put thought into each session and I put thought into each individual at each session,” Nelson said.
With a total of 13 athletes and close to 12 sessions a week, Nelson’s passion for coaching invariably means a lot of time dedicated to people other than herself. It also means looking to others.
“I try not to get stuck in just nordic,” she said. “I love hearing about what other people are doing in our sport, but also I love hearing what other coaches are doing in other sports because I think you can take those components, think about them and implement them when they need to be implemented. It’s more tools in your toolbox.”
A native of Truckee, Calif., she added that a bit of time in the race bib isn’t unwarranted as a coach.
“I think it’s so important to race every now and again, because it reminds you how much it hurts, how nervous you get, and all the different feelings that your athletes have,” Nelson said.
Being a nordic skier, Nelson explained that “it’s fun to tie up the competitive laces” and experience “the pain that’s replaced with euphoria” every once in a while. Especially when running on four hours of sleep with a legion of race skis to wax.
Part of the passion Nelson exhibits stems from those who coached her. “A lot of my coaching principles are rooted deeply in [Far West Nordic Head Coach] Ben Grasseschi’s approach to skiing,” she said. “Ben taught me not only how to love the sport and nordic skiing as an athletic endeavor, but also to love what you’re doing when you’re doing it.”
Nelson’s work with coaches, such as Grasseschi and former MSU assistant Chad Anderson, gave her what she called “perspective.” The perspective of not just a coach, but an athlete and mentor.
“Coaching is complex,” BSF Head Coach and Program Director Dragan Danevski said in a recent phone interview. “One coach needs to have different abilities: understanding physiology, understanding psychology, understanding waxing, organizational skills with athletes, races, and trips. These abilities come with experience and you need somebody willing to take on that challenge. Somebody who has enthusiasm, energy, and motivation. I believe Bernie is that person.”
Along with coaches, Nelson’s experience with team sports has influenced her coaching style.
“The biggest thing I bring to skiing is the idea of team and feeling a part of something that’s bigger than yourself,” she said. “There’s something to be said about digging deep and pushing past your point of comfort and really burying yourself in the pain, but there’s also something really enlightening about doing it for yourself and doing it for the people that are right next to you, whether you are on the same team or not.”
Nelson’s team philosophy certainly pulls her athletes in a unique way, with BSF Elite Team members Jennie Bender, Nick Michaud and Akeo Maifeld-Carucci describing her as the team “Momma Bear.” (See the video)
During an in-person interview, Michaud — the newest BSF Elite team member who hails from Maine — said that even after one summer with Nelson, he learned “there’s always more in the tank.”
“Working with Bernie, you learn a lot about the power of positive attitude and energy,” said Maifeld-Carucci, a recent Harvard graduate and also first-year BSF Elite Team member.
For Nelson, having that sort of positive impact on her athletes remains the most important part of her coaching. One of her goals for the BSF program includes “helping motivated and committed BSF athletes discover their athletic potential, believe in their potential and supporting them as they develop from domestic racing to the highest level of the sport,” she explained.
Nelson’s passion as a coach stems largely from the people she coaches.
“What makes me love coaching, is to not only see my athletes’ athletic development, but also to see their development as a person,” she said. “My goal in and out for the last five years that I’ve been coaching is to have my athletes not only leave as better skiers, but as better people.”
About the Author: Gabby Naranja considers herself a true Mainer, having grown up in the northernmost part of the state playing hockey and roofing houses with her five brothers. She recently graduated from Bates College where she ran cross country, track, and nordic skied and is excited to work with FasterSkier.
Gabby Naranja considers herself a true Mainer, having grown up in the northern most part of the state playing hockey and roofing houses with her five brothers. She graduated from Bates College where she ran cross-country, track, and nordic skied. She spent this past winter in Europe and is currently in Montana enjoying all that the U.S. northwest has to offer.