As the youngest in a family of five, it’s no wonder that Ian Torchia, an incoming junior at Northern Michigan University (NMU), considers himself “scrappy.” It’s also no wonder that, when it comes to sport, Torchia takes on skiing with tooth-and-claw grit. Within the first few hours of being a freshman on the NMU ski team, the Rochester, Minn., native established himself as tenacious if nothing else.
“Watching him ski on the treadmill the first time I worked with him, he was just raw,” Sten Fjeldheim, head coach of the NMU men’s and women’s nordic teams reflected in a phone interview. “His technique was, well, not pretty, but I knew he had a heck of an engine from his running times.”
After Torchia finished his freshman year just outside qualifying for NCAA Skiing Championships, he made it a goal to reach the championships the following year. As a sophomore, he not only qualified for NCAA’s, but he went on to place second in the men’s 10-kilometer freestyle and fourth in the 20 k classic mass start at the 2016 championships in Steamboat Springs, Colo.
By the end of his first two years at NMU, the 20-year-old Torchia had also tapped into another tool: technique. He asked his college coaches ceaseless questions, watched countless ski videos and began to implement what he saw on the screen into his own skiing.
“He’s just really good at being a student of his own sport: skiing,” Fjeldheim said of Torchia’s technical improvements.
However, the sophomore’s upward climb last season didn’t end with his work on the NMU ski team. In January, he won the junior men’s 10 k freestyle at U.S. nationals in Houghton, Mich. Also at nationals, he placed seventh among seniors in the men’s 15 k classic, and at 2016 Junior World Championships in Romania, he raced to 15th in the junior men’s 15 k freestyle.
Most recently, Torchia discovered he was among 16 athletes nominated to the U.S. Cross Country Ski Team.
“I was on my way to go cliff jumping when Bryan Fish [U.S. Ski Team development coach] called me,” Torchia said on the phone. “The celebratory back flip didn’t go too well.” (According to Torchia, the backflip was more of a “back flop.”)
Though perhaps brazen when it comes to black flips and Lake Superior bluffs, the main sentiment Torchia spoke of was that of humility. In his eyes, the opportunity to ski for U.S. Ski Team ‘D’ (or development) Team is an opportunity to once again put his tenacity to the test.
“You know, there’s still two more levels of the U.S. Ski Team to go,” Torchia said of the ‘A’ and ‘B’ team levels. “If anything, [the nomination] just motivates me to train harder. I mean, the way I see it, it’s an honor to be named. I get invited to the camps and I get the uniform. It puts a bigger target on my back, but I’m OK with that.”
U.S. Ski Team (USST) Head Coach Chris Grover explained in an email that the team was “looking for athletes who can deliver big results in Europe against tough fields,” he wrote. “Ian was the standout USA male once again at World Juniors and posted his second consecutive top-15 result there.”
At the 2015 Junior World Championships in Kazakhstan, Torchia notched 11th in the 20 k skiathlon.
Moving forward, Torchia plans to accept the nomination and attend the two USST summer training camps, the first one taking place in Bend, Ore., this month and the second in Anchorage, Alaska. According to Fjeldheim, not much will change for Torchia in regards to training.
“He’ll pretty much be on the same training plan that he’s been on,” Fjeldheim said. “But I think the opportunity for him to ski with some other national-team skiers is going to be good.”
Along with accepting the nomination, Torchia also plans to continue attending NMU as a full-time student and eventually earn a degree in exercise science.
“I think my mom would kill me if I wasn’t in school,” Torchia said.
But his reasons for staying in school extend beyond his so-called death sentence, even if it means suffering through organic chemistry finals. To Torchia, continuing his education sends a broader message to other nordic athletes, especially those trying to determine whether skiing in college can lead to a ski career.
“One of the main reasons why I wanted this to happen is to show that you can do it while you’re in college,” Torchia said of his national-team nomination. “It is hard to balance school and skiing, but it’s doable. [College skiing] is a pipeline.”
School, Torchia insisted, also gives him options outside of skiing.
“Make sure to have balance in your life between skiing and make sure skiing isn’t the only thing in your life,” Torchia said of how he found success in sport. “We kind of take that mentality here at NMU. We have the top GPA of all the sports teams here, so it’s both skiing and school. It’s a lifestyle and we love it. It’s hard, but you got to go for it.”
Beyond the importance Torchia finds in education, his NMU teammates and coaches also played a large role in his decision to continue his ski career on the college path. He cited post-practice conversations and training plans his coaches provided as a staple to his success.
“I could not have done this without Sten and [NMU assistant coach] Shane MacDowell,” Torchia said.
“Ian always shows up with a smile on his face,” Fjeldheim said. “Yeah, he like to pull pranks on me and his teammates every now and then and we prank him back, but he’s a great kid to have on your team as far as sportsmanship goes and manners. He’s very humble.”
“It’s a lifestyle and we love it. It’s hard, but you got to go for it.” — Ian Torchia, NMU junior and U.S. Ski Team rookie
With teammates like Adam Martin and Jake Brown, both first-team All Americans at this year’s NCAA Championships, Torchia views his peers as motivation and proof of where they, too, are headed.
“You can never get too big of a head around here because there will always be someone to serve you a piece of humble pie,” Torchia said. “I can say that I won’t be the last one to be named [to the U.S. SKi Team] out of NMU.”
With the nomination, Torchia is undecided as to where his ski career will be drawn after graduation day. Though not currently on the CXC team, joining the program is one potential route for him post-college.
“Kind of this past year, I guess I really thought about skiing after college,” Torchia said. “Right now, Kyle Bratrud is [in Marquette] skiing for [Central Cross Country] and we’re getting [Dartmouth grad] Oscar Friedman up here. I think we’re going to make a return to the days when CXC was a really a powerhouse. I can see myself here. We’ll see. It’s still a long way away.”
While Torchia’s five-year plan remains flexible, his 14 weeks of summer are at least set to go. This includes attending the two USST training camps, training in Marquette, Mich. (potentially with the likes of Kris Freeman, he said), and wedding crashing.
“I’m going to go home, surprise my mom on Mother’s Day and then head out to Bend for the camp there,” Torchia said. “Then I’ll come back [to Marquette] for June and then go out to Anchorage for that camp. And then it’s my sister’s wedding in Colorado. So it should be a fun summer.”
Particularly fun due to the training crew he plans to surround himself with.
“Basically the entire [NMU] guy’s team is going to be [in Marquette] this summer,” Torchia said. “We call it the Marquette Training Group: MTG. So, MTG 2.0 is kicking off this summer. We’re hoping that a few guest stars show up; there’s rumors that Bird [Kris Freeman] and Tad Elliott and Paddy Caldwell and Brian Gregg might be up here. So it’s going to be pretty kickass.”
While the USST nomination makes him a new training target to many, Torchia remains humble of where he’s been and where he’s headed. For now, he appears to prefer taking it one step at a time up the ski ladder — even when it comes to housing.
“I’ve got the Trailer Park Room,” he said, indicating that as one of the younger athletes, it may have fallen on him to take on the tiny living quarters in the NMU men’s ski house for the summer. “It’s the smallest room in the house, but I kind of like it. It doesn’t have a closet, very narrow and small, but I don’t know, I like it.”
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.