Liebsch Earns Final Spot for U.S. at Ski Tour Canada

Jason AlbertFebruary 27, 2016
Photo: Gear West/Salomon skier Matt Liebsch racing to an overall eighth place finish in the men's 30 k freestyle mass start on Thursday at U.S. nationals in Houghton, Mich.
Matt Liebsch (Gear West/Salomon) racing to an eighth-place finish in the men’s 30 k freestyle mass start at 2016 U.S. nationals in Houghton, Mich. (Photo: Toko)

Earlier this month, FasterSkier published an article outlining the likely starters for the Ski Tour Canada. Scrolling down the list of Americans, there was a gap with “???” below Noah Hoffman’s name and above Eric Packer’s.

That mark represented the single U.S. men’s quota spot remaining since Adam Martin, a Northern Michigan University skier and the third man on the SuperTour distance list (post-nationals), declined the opportunity to race at the Ski Tour Canada (STC) World Cups so he could focus on NCAA Skiing Championships in March.

According to Matt Liebsch, a Gear West/Salomon skier from Orono, Minn., he received an email from U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover on Thursday morning stating he’d been officially selected for that remaining spot.

The Tour begins next Tuesday, March 1 in Gatineau, Ottawa. It may be last minute, but it’s something Liebsch, a longtime racing veteran, welcomes.

I didn’t know if they were going to take somebody from U23’s,” Liebsch said on the phone about the waiting game, which could have spanned until the end of U23 World Championships on Friday. “They said they would if somebody had a real good result there, but nobody skied quite strong enough so I got the email yesterday [Thursday] at 8 a.m. saying I was in.”

Matt Liebsch (Gear West/Salomon) racing to second during the SuperTour men's 15 k freestyle in November in West Yellowstone, Mont.
Matt Liebsch (Gear West/Salomon) racing to second during the SuperTour men’s 15 k freestyle in November in West Yellowstone, Mont.

It’s been a long road for 32-year-old Liebsch, who scored his first SuperTour points in 2006 in West Yellowstone, Mont. Nearly a decade later, this past November, Liebsch placed second to his friend Brian Gregg in the West Yellowstone SuperTour distance opener: the 15 k freestyle.

“I was a little bit surprised that I was on the podium for West, honestly,” Liebsch said. “And Brian Gregg, my training partner and I were both like, ‘Wow, geez, how’d that happen?’ We felt pretty good during the race.”

That podium may have been a surprise for Liebsch, but he had set his intentions for the season well in advance.

“My goal since summer training was to make Tour du Canada. That’s why I trained a bunch and why I trained pretty hard with Brian all summer,” he said. “So that was kind of something that I circled on my calendar, yeah, I want to qualify and do those. There are a couple of 15 k skates, and the only 15 k skate I have done at a World Cup level, I was in the points. There is a 15 k at Canmore and then there is a pursuit on the East Coast, so I like my chances in those a lot.”

In his career, Liebsch has competed in four World Cups, all in Canada. The 15 k freestyle in which Liebsch scored World Cup points was in 2010 in Canmore. He finished 29th for the second-best American result

After his West Yellowstone podium, Liebsch set his sights on the distance races at U.S. nationals in January to solidify his goal of earning starts at the season-ending STC.

“I just knew that nationals was double-distance Super Tour points, so I figured I needed to be in the top 10 of both of those [distance races] to be in the mix,” Libesch said.

In the first distance race at nationals in Houghton, Mich., Liebsch placed eighth in the 30 k freestyle mass start, finishing 47.4 seconds behind winner Tad Elliott of Ski & Snowboard Club Vail. Earlier in the week, in the 15 k classic individual start, Liebsch finished ninth.

Liebsch entered nationals with one outcome in mind regarding the 30 k skate race.

“I wanted to be on the podium, honestly I wanted to win that thing,” Liebsch recalled. “I’ve been second and third in the distance races at nationals over the past five or six years. But I’ve never taken a national title, that was my chance. I just skied tactically a little bit too aggressively early in the race and burnt too many matches … But I went out and was skiing  aggressively like I was going to try and win that thing.

“I wasn’t really thinking I need to ski conservatively to try to just place well enough to make the Tour du Canada,” he added. “If that had been my goal, I probably would have been maybe top five, somewhere in there for the skate race. And then I would have been on Tour du Canada for sure, and I would have known back in, I don’t know, early January. That of might made things a little bit easier for me logistics-wise. But I was at nationals trying to win that race.”

“I wasn’t really thinking I need to ski conservatively to try to just place well enough to make the Tour du Canada. … I was at nationals trying to win that race.” — Matt Liebsch

Since being notified of his STC invite, Liebsch has had little time for logistics. Soon after, his friend Brian Gregg nudged him to start an online fundraiser.

“I started it last night, maybe around 7 o’clock,” he said on Friday. “I left work early and I told my bosses that I need to figure some stuff out to get up there.”

Liebsch works at Gear West in Long Lake, Minn., as the full-time director of nordic ski sales and service.

Nation’s Group skiers, like Liebsch, are responsible for funding the entire cost of their trip. He estimates with flights, housing and food, along with hiring a wax technician, the price tag will be somewhere around $5,000 dollars.

Just prior to his phone conversation with FasterSkier, Liebsch had raised around $3,500 dollars. By the time he had hung up, he’d surpassed his initial goal. Late Saturday morning, that number was up to $6,600 (and he’d set a new mark of $6,800).

“I’ve just been totally taken aback by the support from the ski community. It’s just been super humbling. I’m super blessed to have that support,” he said.

Matt Liebsch's two daughters, Samatha and Charlotte (Cha-Cha) at the 2016 American Birkebeiner earlier this month. Liebsch placed 17th in the elite men's 52 k freestyle race in Hayward, Wis. (Courtesy photo)
Matt Liebsch’s two daughters, Samatha and Charlotte (Cha-Cha) at the 2016 American Birkebeiner earlier this month. Liebsch placed 17th in the elite men’s 52 k freestyle race in Hayward, Wis. (Courtesy photo)

Liebsch is an anomaly at the elite level of U.S. cross country skiing. He works many hours at Gear West along with the more full-time part of his life: raising three children, ages 7, 6, and 2, with his wife, Marybeth.

Liebsch jokingly referenced Norwegian World Cup leader Martin Johnsrud Sundby’s parenting duties.

“I think Sundby’s got three kids as well, although his full-time job is skiing,” he said. “It’s exhausting sometimes, but honestly, I live about a mile from my work, I’m in the western metro area [of Minneapolis]. The rollerskiing, the trail running, and the training opportunities are literally right out my front door.”

This was Liebsch’s schedule Friday morning: Marybeth, who works at the Loppet Foundation, took the two older kids to the bus first thing. Then, she drove to work while he watched the baby at home.

“I’m a buyer for the store so I was just doing some pre-season reporting and watching the kid,” he said. “Then I took the baby down to Wirth [Park] and swapped and gave her the little one and then met Brian [Gregg] at 10, and we skied for two hours real hard. Now I am going home to have lunch and take a nap and then get a massage and then I think I’m going to lift lightly this afternoon. Friday and Saturday are my normal off days from work.”

Juggling work, the real nuts and bolts of raising children, and keeping dreams alive can be a pressure cooker — especially when those dreams are elusive.

“It seems like I’ve lived most of my athletic life on the bubble,” Liebsch said about his not making the cut for the last two Olympics or a World Championships. “It definitely has been heartbreaking at times to get left home. I just love skiing so much. If I’m here locally it just means I get into some local races. I think for some in the ski community that when they are done racing, they kind of look at it like their job, and when they are done racing they might be done skiing. I just love skiing, so when I get to race or train, that’s just what I like to do.

Matt Liebsch carries his son across the finish line of the 2009 American Birkebeiner
Liebsch crossing the finish line at the 2009 American Birkebeiner with his son.

“If I’m not in Russia racing the Olympics, I’ll be stateside racing SuperTours, or jumping in some local races, local marathons,” he added. “I just have that perspective. When I get left home from things that I felt like I should be at, it’s kind of easy to get down on yourself. But I like skiing so much usually I get over myself pretty quick and just keep at it.”

This time around Liebsch won’t be left back at home. Although known as a distance skier, when Tuesday’s freestyle sprint initiates the STC, Liebsch says he’s ready.

“The skate sprints, I’m super pumped about that,” Liebsch said of Stage 1 in Gatineau and Stage 3 in Quebec City. “I’m going to approach them like I normally do. I’m excited at the opportunity, and if I have god skis and a good day, I think I can do real well. I am most excited about the distance stuff and there are only three sprints in the Tour, and we’ve got five distance days. I am pretty pumped about that.”

With his plane ticket booked, and some minor details to be worked out, Liebsch will soon head north. It just may be without the kids in tow.

“Hopefully I can convince my wife to come up to Canmore for a couple of days to watch me. We are going to leave the kids with Grandma and Grandpa,” he said. “I’m super pumped to get an opportunity to score some World Cup points again. I think I’ve got a legit chance in some of the distance stuff. Hopefully I stay healthy and sharp and I’m expecting I just get stronger as the Tour goes on … I won’t have any work stuff. I’m going to just be able to put my feet up and hopefully just get sharper as we go.”

Matt Liebsch with his three children on the podium at a local race in the Twin Cities: Ski Renne. (Courtesy photo)
Matt Liebsch with his three children on the podium at a local race in the Twin Cities: Ski Renne. (Courtesy photo)

Jason Albert

Jason lives in Bend, Ore., and can often be seen chasing his two boys around town. He’s a self-proclaimed audio geek. That all started back in the early 1990s when he convinced a naive public radio editor he should report a story from Alaska’s, Ruth Gorge. Now, Jason’s common companion is his field-recording gear.

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