This week, the top collegiate cross-country skiers in the U.S. converged in Steamboat Springs, Colo., to wrap up the season at the NCAA Skiing Championships, which begin Thursday with the 5/10-kilometer freestyle individual starts and wrap up Saturday with the 15/20 k classic mass starts. One Middlebury skier has the unique opportunity to be reimmersed in the collegiate circuit after a glimpse at post-collegiate skiing and will race for the NCAA podium with a different appreciation for collegiate competition.
Annie Pokorny, 23, returned to the collegiate racing circuit this season after a two-year hiatus while training and racing with the Stratton Mountain School T2 Team. Although this is a rare progression, it was a path that has allowed her a different depth of experience in the sport.
Skiing for Middlebury College, Pokorny had a breakthrough season in 2013 as a sophomore where she netted two top-10 finishes at U.S. nationals in Midway, Utah, and finished in the top 30 twice at U23 World Championships in Liberec, Czech Republic. The season reflected a huge improvement over the previous year where she finished 47th in the 10 k freestyle at U.S. nationals.
Although most collegiate skiers who continue onto the professional level exhaust their eligibility before moving on, Pokorny wanted take the sport to the next level sooner rather than later. In the spring of 2013, the Spokane, Wash., native made the difficult-but-measured decision to join the SMST2 team based out of Stratton, Vt. Pokorny was excited to be a part of the culture of success SMST2 built and join World Cup-level skiers such as Jessie Diggins and Sophie Caldwell. She also knew the opportunity might not present itself in another two years after she graduated and wanted to capitalize on her momentum by training and racing full time.
While training and racing with SMST2, Pokorny continued to take classes at Middlebury and balanced coursework with an international race schedule. She would take the fall semester off when training volume was high and take classes full time in the spring.
“The logistics have certainly been complicated, coordinating with professors to miss multiple weeks or months of class by Skyping into lectures (an idea inspired by Sadie Bjornsen), writing additional essays and navigating the black hole that is European village internet,” Pokorny wrote in an email. “However, I got to take advantage of the international racing available to me; finding balance never felt like a sacrifice.”
While Pokorny has posted solid results the past two seasons with SMST2, another breakthrough season proved elusive. With both her skiing and academic goals in mind, Pokorny made another pivitol decision — to return to college racing.
“I decided to return to college racing because it gave me the chance to have six weeks of consistent, competitive, comped racing while also allowing me the structure to take a full course load and graduate in the spring,” she explained.
However, the process of returning to collegiate racing required more than just agreement from her coaches. Because collegiate cross-country skiing is an NCAA sport, athletes must abide by the NCAA amateurism rules and in the eyes of the NCAA, Pokorny was considered a professional athlete while skiing for SMST2.
However, since Pokorny could prove she never made money from racing at SMST2, she was eligible to return to the collegiate circuit after being reinstated as a Middlebury athlete as a senior with junior eligibility. To ensure everything was in order before she put on a Middlebury suit, Pokorny sat out the first two carnival races.
Although it was a process, Pokorny said she felt supported in her decision from Middlebury, SMST2 and the ski community.
“Patrick O’Brien and Sverre Caldwell at SMST2 showed an immense amount of support for me returning to collegiate racing, which I’m glad I had before starting the process of returning,” she wrote. “When we knew I had eligibility, the Middlebury program communicated that to the rest of the Eastern Intercollegiate Ski Association (EISA) circuit and I received nothing but support from every coach and competitor.”
Pokorny describes her transition back as “nearly seamless.” In addition to being welcomed back to the team and collegiate racing, being on campus and attending lectures eliminated the stress of remote coursework.
She has also returned as a force on the EISA circuit, winning the 5 k classic pursuit at the Williams Carnival, the 5 k freestyle at Middlebury Carnival, taking second in the 10 k classic at University of Vermont Carnival and earning a berth to NCAA Championships.
“On the skiing side, I think one of the valuable lessons of skiing internationally is that it teaches you a certain flexibility and ability to navigate with new waxing, coaching and racing situations, so everything leading up to the races felt completely normal to me,” she wrote. “The Midd coaches, Andrew Johnson and Patty Ross, have worked to make sure that I felt supported on training and race days while the entire Midd team embraced my return like I was coming home.”
The transition also illuminated the unique and constructive culture of collegiate racing and how it can pave the way for international racing.
“I suppose one way my perspective has changed is that as an older, more experienced racer, I can appreciate the details that make racing NCAA a standout experience,” she explained. “In addition to the team culture and glitter and pride in representing your school, I can better see how what we learn on this circuit can transfer to international racing. The practice in mass starts, for one, and scoring points for and representing something greater than yourself, for another, are two things that will contribute to my racing after I graduate.”
Although it is easy to think that skier development is a linear process, this is rarely, if ever, the case. Pokorny’s grounded thoughts on her journey illustrate this phenomenon. There are lessons that can be taken from every race, from every experience despite if an athlete is aware and open to growth.
“I never considered returning to college racing a step back, but rather a step sideways, onto another incredibly competitive circuit that would contribute to my growth as a skier,” she wrote. “In the past three seasons, I have had some incredible experiences and feel that I have grown as a skier in so many different ways. I would never choose a different path, circuitous as it was.”
New to the FasterSkier team, Kaitlyn is a silent sports all-arounder, competing in cross-country skiing, cycling and triathlon since graduating from the University of Michigan, where she ran cross country and track. Kaitlyn is intrigued by the complexities of cross-country ski racing and is excited to start in the elite women’s field at the 2016 Birkie.