The sound of a Gator utility vehicle heading out to one of the race-course checkpoints. The long lines to the port-a-potties. The tribes of teams stretching in the shade of tree trunks near the white, spray painted start-line boxes.The smell of dirt and sweat. For Chad Salmela, a former high school cross-country runner and coach, nothing compares to the sensory mélange of a cross-country running meet.
With that in mind, when the head running coach for The College of Saint Scholastica (CSS) for the past 26 years, Steve Pfingsten, decided to retire in mid-February, Salmela — in his 10th year as the CSS nordic head coach — saw an opportunity. He approached the CSS Athletic Department with an idea: if given Pfingsten’s position, using his background and knowledge in both skiing and running, Salmela could work to bring the two CSS endurance sport programs closer together.
Three-and-half months later, Salmela, a Virginia, Minn., native, is the new head coach of the Saints’ cross-country team and assistant distance coach for track and field. His dream to integrate the two programs will take teamwork and communication between himself and the new nordic coach — still to be determined. While he plans to help interview and mentor the new nordic hire as needed, he is most excited about the chance to once again discover himself amidst the fall running season.
“I can’t wait for that first meet where we get off the bus and the sights and the sounds and the nerves,” Salmela said during a recent phone interview. “There’s something majestic to me about cross-country running … as a coach, there’s just so much more to do the morning of an event in cross-country skiing. You don’t ever get to just revel in the atmosphere quite like you do in cross-country running.”
Eliminating some of the elements involved with being a nordic ski coach on race day — waxing, testing, wax station set up and break down — doesn’t just afford more time for existential reverie. In Salmela’s eyes, it also creates more opportunity for coaches to engage with their athletes.
“In cross-country skiing, waxing and ski preparation is important,” the 45-year-old coach said. “I’ve made it important and [the Saints] program has succeeded on the waxing for sure … but there’s a cost to that. The cost is you don’t get to interact with the athletes and really engage with them as well as you could. That’s the one big upside to people starting to limit the fluoro carbon use. I think it will get coaches back in touch with their athletes and sport again.”
Getting back to basics of athlete-coach interaction is not the only thing Salmela hopes to achieve by making the switch. Though he started the Saints’ ski team in 2006 and has since helped the school develop the competitive Division III program it has today, the key for Salmela as a coach is staying challenged and open to change. Even if that change is a little uncertain.
“It was not easy for me to leave the ski team,” he said. “I created the program. It’s not just that I was there 10 years, it’s that I was there 10 years and it was nothing when I started. It didn’t exist … and as a DIII program in 10 years of existence, [CSS] is pretty good … we were as good as we’ve ever been two years ago. We had more talent and better results. We won the conference championship, we did well against NMU [Northern Michigan University] and NMU is awesome. So to walk away from all that, it almost seems nuts.”
The CSS nordic program’s growing success over the years under the guidance of Salmela is evident, with Bjorn Bakken’s first NCAA qualification in 2008 (the team’s second year in existence), Tyler Kjorstad’s second NCAA qualification in 2009, the men’s first team win in 2012, Paul Schommer and Jeremy Hecker’s 3rd and fourth NCAA qualifications in program history in 2012, followed by the Saints women’s first team win in 2014, Schommer’s All-American finish in 2014, and the first dual-female NCAA qualifiers in 2015.
As Salmela explained, doing so took 10 years’ time and patience, occasionally working with athletes who had been injured or were just beginning their ski careers.
“Chad didn’t really impact my ski career, he started it,” Schommer, a 2015 grad and now an aspiring Olympic biathlete from Appleton, Wis., wrote in an email. “Without him, I wouldn’t of had the career I’ve had and hopefully will have … I think a lot of athletes overlooked the amount of time Chad put into their training plans, time analyzing lab tests, and preparing skis for race weekends. Chad doesn’t take shortcuts … He cares about more than performance. He cares about the whole picture knowing that to be a high level athlete it’s all the little things that add up.”
“Chad doesn’t take shortcuts … He cares about more than performance. He cares about the whole picture..” — Paul Schommer, former St. Scholastica skier and All-American on his college coach Chad Salmela
As Salmela looks to swap skis for running spikes, he explained he is not leaving athletes like Schommer behind. He is discovering ways empower more. After returning from a TED Talk in his hometown presented by the former mayor of Duluth on vulnerability, Salmela realized one reason for the career is change is to ensure that not only is he challenging his athletes, but he is being challenged by his work with them.
“It does feel like I’m stepping down the rabbit hole into a whole new world,” he said. “[But] I like challenges … and maybe that’s the essence of my coaching, is that I am vulnerable and that there’s some genuineness to being vulnerable and opening yourself up to vulnerability. I’ve certainly made mistakes with athletes, and I’ve certainly taken wrong paths in training. So I’m far from perfect, but I think the search for being a little more perfect is always good. You’re never going to get there, but the destination of trying is pretty powerful.”
A Change of Pace and Salmela’s Next Steps
Tempo runs. Hill workouts. Steady states. Strides. When it comes to running, there are quite a few workout sessions that are considered a standard in the sport. Lab testing is not one of them.
However, athletes who run for the St. Scholastica cross-country and track teams — Salmela predicts around 50 cross-country and 65 to 90 track and field athletes (20 distance runners) will join the program this upcoming season — can expect these tests to become a staple in their training plans.
A US Biathlon National Team competitor for two years after high school, a US Biathlon assistant coach from 1998-1999 during his undergraduate years at Middlebury College, and the National Junior Development Program Director in 2000 — during which he helped render three future Olympians, Tracy and Lanny Barnes and Annelies Cook — along with seven years of coaching running, Salmela has a wealth of experience with high-end performance training plans. Using his knowledge on physiology primarily from nordic skiing, such as monitoring athletes’ aerobic efficiency in the lab, he hopes to bring a new perspective to the American populist running culture.
“I don’t think there are a ton of Division III running programs who are bringing athletes into the lab,” he said. “My feeling is that there could be more emphasis generally placed [in running] on aerobic efficiency … I think that if you are strong enough and if you implement the right kinds of stress loads on runners, you can vastly increase the aerobic volume training of a runner, beyond what is commonplace today.”
While increased aerobic volume training may be novel to many of Salmela’s future runners, he sees change as an imperative part of being an athlete, skiers and runners alike.
“The one thing 20 years of coaching has taught me is that, for any single person, doing the same thing forever is never the most optimal way to go,” he said. “You have to change. Your body changes and you have to change.”
A fresh start, fall racing and forfeiting long winter van drives are not the only things Salmela is embracing as he passes the CSS nordic team torch to the next coach. The switch also opens up the the opportunity for him to further establish himself as cross-country skiing’s garrulous nordic guru.
“I don’t have any contracts of anything right now, but it frees up the potential to do more T.V. work or commentary work,” said Salmela, who’s been a color commentator for NBC at the last three Winter Olympics, as well as a biathlon and cross-country World Cup commentator. “It’s nice to be able to have that freedom. I certainly thought of that in this process … That’s definitely a factor, but more than anything, I needed a career change.”
With a career change still steeped in coaching, Salmela does not relinquish the chance to spark and inspire.
“I can’t travel as many people in skiing just because budget-wise and the number of skis I have to pack,” he said. “So I’m really excited that I get to coach a sport where I get to load a bus full of kids and I get to inspire them all to run the best they can.”
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.