Fifteen years into her international racing career, Caitlin Gregg is still learning.
2015 was a breakthrough for the Minnesota-based cross-country skier, who won World Championships bronze in the 10 k freestyle.
But the next season was one of frustration: the first half spent spinning her wheels on the World Cup, never feeling quite right, and then a trip home to re-tool midseason (and win another American Birkebeiner) before ultimately finishing 33rd in the Ski Tour Canada.
“It’s so hard when you have such a good end to a season and you’re so fired up and so motivated,” Gregg said in an interview this week. “You think you’re invincible and you’ve figured it all out. I write my own training plan, and I think I got a little excited and did a little too much intensity and a little too hard. My [Level 3 sessions] were just a little too hard. You learn from those mistakes.”
Gregg, 35, is taking those lessons and applying it to this year’s big goal: racing the 30 k freestyle at 2017 World Campionships in Lahti, Finland.
“I wanted to do the 30 k at the Olympics and didn’t make it,” she said. “The calendar has that race again at World Championships. To get there is never a guarantee. But speaking to [U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris] Grover, he obviously published some criteria and my path fits with what the Ski Team said is how to get there. I’m going to go off of what they said, which is leading the domestic SuperTour and having a strong showing at nationals.”
This summer, Gregg’s training has been initially based on volume and more Level 3. A few weeks ago she started incorporating more intensity and time trials, and is pleased with her fitness.
“I wouldn’t say that I’ve done anything revolutionary in my training this year … but the time trials have been going great,” she said. “I’ve had a bunch of PR’s.”
The strategic shift after last season has also meant staying closer to home. Gregg was named to the U.S. Ski Team after her World Championships performance. Partly as a result, she and her husband, 2014 Olympian Brian Gregg – a duo who bill themselves as Team Gregg – spent a big chunk of last year in Park City, Utah.
Gregg has no regrets about that experience, but the couple decided to get back to their roots in the Twin Cities this year instead of going back out West.
“I really wanted to be home this summer and spending as much time as possible with my home team, Loppet Nordic Racing,” Gregg explained. “My training camps this year were with the LNR crew, which was really fun. It brought us to Hayward, Wisconsin, and Marquette, Michigan, and we ended up doing one camp in Park City. It was a busy summer with a bunch of camps.”
Much of that training ended up being with the LNR junior team.
“Piot [Bednarski] runs a pretty good operation in the sense that these kids are working hard,” she explained. “It’s not about just showing up at practice to say you were there. It’s about really putting in the work… They are skiing at a super incredible level.”
The trip to Park City, for instance, was partly because 2017 World Junior and U23 Championships will be held at Soldier Hollow. Gregg said she was “so excited” for the U.S. juniors who are preparing, dreaming, and fighting for the chance to compete there on home soil.
Gregg built on the juniors’ energy and used creativity to fit her training plan in alongside theirs.
“I was able to utilize slower wheel speed or weight vests, or I might do a couple extra intervals at the end while the girls cheered for me, or jump in with the boys for a workout,” she said. “It was really fun to have a consistent group of athletes to work with and a similar program all year.”
Gregg – who along with her husband has long been involved with local club teams as well as the mentoring program In The Arena – is becoming more and more serious about coaching in and of itself.
So the idea of training alongside area juniors was one she latched onto.
“My hope was to be an elite athlete who these guys could have an opportunity to train in the mix with, and really almost be an opportunity that they could be following me as much as possible,” she said. “I think that makes a big difference for them. I think it was a really good for both me and them.”
Another piece of the coaching puzzle came from involvement with Central Cross Country camps, including in Marquette, Michigan, where she could reconnect with her college coach Sten Fjeldheim at Northern Michigan University.
“I’ve decided that I love the coaching and I want to get more experience coaching, so there was an opportunity to go up there and see, from a little bit of an outside perspective, how Sten and [assistant coach] Shane [MacDowell] are running their program,” she explained.
That also meant checking in with a number of Loppet Nordic Racing athletes who had moved on to Northern Michigan University.
“This summer we had about ten girl from LNR actually going to ski in college,” Gregg said. “That is awesome. I owe so much to my opportunity to ski in college, both from an athletic standpoint and to get a scholarship to be able to go to school. So it really meant a lot to me to see these girls want to continue racing. And also how many of them got scholarships. It makes me feel good seeing that impact transfer over to them.”
As for the path Gregg’s own college career started her down, she’s still chasing Lahti.
“The girls on the ski team, they are so strong right now in so many different areas,” she admitted. “But there’s the potential that they don’t all want to race the 30 k at the end of the championships. So there could be an opportunity there.”
Team Gregg plans to start the season in West Yellowstone, Mont., even though it’s not a SuperTour this year.
“We are really happy because we have so many incredible sponsors which are based here domestically,” Gregg explained. “We race on the World Cup, the Olympics, World Championships, but we are really supported by the companies as domestic-level athletes so it’s awesome for us to be able to race here and showcase how grateful we are for the products. West is always a great opportunity to do that, a great time for U.S. skiing to get together.”
After that it will be the SuperTour circuit and U.S. Nationals, in a bid to land atop the domestic ranking list and get named to the World Championships team.
Not everything is under Gregg’s control; even if she is leading the SuperTour, it all comes down to how big of a team the U.S. ends up taking to World Championships.
And Gregg has been on both sides of that decision. In 2014 she was left off the Olympic team, and in 2015 she was taken to World Championships and competed in just one race, earning that bronze medal.
“There always exists something where you have the other athletes just racing in Europe, and you never go head to head with them,” Gregg said. “I think the fittest year of my career to this year was that year of the 2014 Olympics, and that’s a hard call. You just never know. And I can’t imagine it’s easy for them to make a decision.”
At this point, Gregg is simply going all out.
“I think it’s fair and I just have to put my trust and my belief in it,” she said of the criteria. “And hopefully they decide to take some extra athletes besides the national team.”
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.