At 29, U.S. Ski Team member Simi Hamilton is calm and cool. Talking over the phone, his mellowed tone echoes that of seasoned ski mountaineer or devout powder-day worshipper, both of which he is. There’s lots of stoke, it’s simply tempered and masked in humility.
That demeanor dispels this fact: in 2016, Hamilton finished his season ranked the 10th best sprinter in the world. Any added pressure coming into the 2017 season, which begins Nov. 27 in Kuusamo, Finland, because maybe he’s got a target on his back? Not so much.
“No. I never feel like I have a target on my back,” Hamilton said in an interview on Oct. 17. “I, for sure, had a great season last year that I’m really proud of. I feel like I skied consistently well, especially in the sprints starting around Christmas and moving on past that. I felt really strong all year. I never really feel the outside pressure of other seasons weighing on the season coming up.”
Last season on Dec. 19 in Toblach, Italy, Hamilton finished second in a skate sprint. Two and half months later at the Ski Tour Canada (STC), he qualified second and finished third at Stage 1 in Gatineau, Quebec. In between, Hamilton was a persistent North American sprinting presence.
Hamilton, like many other skiers, said his primary goal this season is 2017 World Championships. But performing consistently on the World Cup also remains an objective. Hailing from 8,000-foot Aspen, Colo., a lack of oxygen doesn’t correlate to a lack of expectations for the skier, best known for his skate sprinting.
“I am just really looking forward to this year,” he said. “It’s a little different in the sense that my main focus will be world champs this year, which is good for me because it is a skate sprint on a course that I enjoy and I think that I can ski really well. They’ve made some changes in Lahti to the course and their are some technical features that suit me really well and I am really looking forward to that. But at the same time, I am looking to hopefully feeling fast and fit throughout the whole season, not just for world champs. I think there will definitely be some great opportunities presenting themselves in the sprinting with some good altitude sprints in Davos and Val Müstair [Switzerland] and just some other skate sprints scattered throughout the season.”
(The Davos sprint is Dec. 11 with the Val Müstair sprint on Dec. 31 — serving as the first stage of the Tour de Ski.)
Coming off a career-best season, Hamilton remained committed to improving. This spring, he began working with U.S. women’s coach Matt Whitcomb to tweak some of his perceived deficits. Prior to working with Whitcomb, Hamilton’s primary coach was U.S. men’s coach Jason Cork.
“Matt and I have known each other for a really long time now and we have always worked really well together and have always been great friends,” Hamilton said of his new coaching arrangement. “And it is a pretty kind of natural direction for both of us to take — just working with each other and it has been great.”
According to Hamilton, he’s worked with Whitcomb at all the USST camps this offseason; Bend, Ore., New Zealand, and currently in Park City, Utah.
“I think we are pretty pumped about how it has gone so far and I’m looking forward to being able to work with him on a daily basis throughout the whole race season … and just have him there for the adventure during the race season,” Hamilton said.
Over the past few seasons, strong double poling in classic events has been a prized commodity. As skiers get stronger, they’re able to exclusively double pole some distance and sprint races. The International Ski Federation (FIS) recently implemented an 83-percent rule, where classic poles in a FIS-sanctioned classic race can be no longer than 83 percent of a skier’s height with ski boots on.
The rule shouldn’t impact Hamilton despite placing an emphasis this summer on fine tuning aspects of his double poling.
“In terms of the new percentage rule, it doesn’t really affect me too much because the longest classic poles that I skied with in the past have only been about 81 or 82 percent of my height,” Hamilton explained. “So I wasn’t really looking to go any taller with my poles, so it doesn’t really affect me too much which is nice. … I am not worried about having to really alter my technique just because of that rule. I’m just fortunate to stick with what I have been working on and stick with the poles I have had for the last few years … and keep chipping away at that.”
Technically speaking, Hamilton specified double poling up steep climbs in classic sprints as terrain in which he could improve — terrain where some skiers would opt for skate skis or waxless classic skis.
“I have been playing around with a much shorter range of motion on the climbs to keep my tempo much higher,” Hamilton said. “I think historically in the past I have been a double poler that really relies on a lot of power, and that can come back to bite you a little bit when it gets really steep or it gets really punchy in soft snow conditions. So I think just focusing on staying in a really high position with a much shorter range of motion and maintaining a really quick tempo has been a really good thing for me to work on this summer. I feel like I definitely made some gains with figuring out those mechanics and am looking forward to working on them during dryland for the next month and then throughout this race season and putting them to use during some big races.”
New school may be double poling some World Cup sprint courses, yet Hamilton’s calculations factor in his lower-body power. For 2017, he remains dedicated to understanding his classic-ski fleet and closing or making gaps using kick wax when it’s in play.
“For me, it’s actually also a conditions kind of thing, like in Drammen last year I felt like I had a decent day, and who knows if I had I had been able to go past the semis if I was double poling, but I was striding all day in Drammen and a lot of people were double poling,” Hamilton said of his if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it premise.
“So it mostly depends on what the conditions are during that day, how the snow set up the night before, how fast it is. And honestly, if you step on a pair of your klister skis in the morning and they are rocket fast and you have great kick — for me that is still going to be a no brainer to go on a really good pair of classic skis. I feel like especially with my leg strength, I can use striding to my advantage. And if the opportunity presents itself that double poling is going to be a lot faster for me on a specific day, on a flatter course like Drammen or Stockholm, then I’ll for sure put double poling into the equation and think about it.
“I think right now it’s not so much looking at races this coming season and the year after saying, ‘Yes, I am definitely going to double pole that race,’ ” he continued. “It’s mostly just about developing a really good double pole technique in case the opportunity does arise and it makes sense to actually double pole that day.”
With his sights set on the World Cup, Hamilton keeps a less-than-myopic view on the future. If you follow him on Instagram or Facebook, training and adventuring often blur lines. Thus, a professional career fusing his love for the outdoors is part of his post-ski career framework.
“A lot more people are interested in getting into the backcountry right now, so I am looking at it as an opportunity as more and more people are traveling outside ski-area boundaries,” he said of his passion for pursuing an advanced degree in snow science. “It’s an opportunity to develop more technology and shared cloud-based knowledge in order to make the backcountry safer for a lot more people traveling out there. So I’m psyched about creating or helping develop ways to ensure a safer kind atmosphere for your common backcountry skier … I think it would be pretty cool to give back to the outdoor community in that way and keep pushing the development of avalanche safety and awareness.
Hamilton also mentioned he’d be excited to eventually settle in or around Aspen and the mountainous terrain he grew up in. That raises the question of how he’ll tap into his years of training. In Hamilton’s hometown part of the world, the end of winter is often celebrated by competing in the Grand Traverse Ski Race: a 40-mile backcountry race from Crested Butte to Aspen. Most often the Grand Traverse is won by human lungs racing on lightweight skimo gear. But on occasion, when the freeze-thaw cycle aligns, conditions are ripe for some to give it a go on skate gear.
“I know it would probably take more than one time doing doing it before I hit the right conditions,” Hamilton said when asked when he’d jump into the Grand Traverse race. “I am really hopeful that in the future when I do do it, whether it’s one out of ten times or one out of twenty times, that it will be the perfect conditions for skate gear. I think if it were just right, I think that you could just demolish the record with some really good crust conditions. If it were really fast crust conditions you could basically V1 and V2 maybe 80 percent of the terrain — really move a lot quicker than putting skins on. I am super psyched to jump into that race someday.”
For now it’s Hamilton’s formidable World Cup competition that understands he’s racing to win. In the future, the Aspen and Crested Butte locals may be watching Hamilton and a partner (Grand Traverse racers must compete in pairs), skate into the distance over Star Pass and Taylor Pass — heading home.
We asked Hamilton to give our ’17 Questions for 2017′ a go. Here are his responses:
1. Biggest change in your life in the last five or so months since the ski season ended?
Outside of training, not a whole lot has changed… my sister got married so now I have a brother in-law. I guess that’s a great change.
2. Biggest change in your training?
I’ve added a bit more easy volume this summer. Which has been awesome since some of that has come in the form of a few 6-8 hour runs and mountain bike rides. I always love getting out for some epically long adventures in the mountains… that’s my favorite kind of training.
3. Major areas of improvement you’ve seen so far?
My coach, Matt, and I have been working on some new mechanical things with my double pole. I’m seeing some improvement there which I’m excited about, especially since having a good double pole on the World Cup is becoming more and more important.
4. Whom you’ve been working closest with this offseason (coaches or training partners)?
I’ve been working closely and very positively with my coach Matt Whitcomb, and have been getting in some great training with my teammates Andy Newell, Ben Saxton and Paddy Caldwell in Vermont and on snow in Bend, OR and New Zealand.
5. Best trip in the last five months (and why)?
New Zealand was a great camp for us this year. We saw a lot of different types of conditions from soft spring skiing to firm ice to mid-winter dry powder, so it was very beneficial to be able to train during a 2.5 week window on the most common snow types we see throughout the whole race season. I’ve taken a couple great trips to the desert since I’ve been home in Colorado this Fall, so that’s been awesome.
6. Favorite cross-training?
Mountain biking and backcountry skiing.
7. Favorite non-athletic activity or pastime this summer?
Working on my bike.
8. Song that was your jam this summer?
Old Thing Back by Notorious BIG
9. All-time favorite race moment?
Getting 3rd by a few centimeters in the Sprint in Gatineau, Quebec, last spring. A lot of my family and a ton of friends were there for that race, and it was just a great day in a lot of ways.
10. First thing you pack in your bag when you leave for Europe?
A lot of clean underwear and Cold FX.
11. Venue/event you’re most excited to visit this season?
Lahti, Finland (where the 2017 World Championships will be held)
12. Who will win the men’s and women’s World Cup titles this year?
Francesco De Fabiani and Charlotte Kalla.
13. Biggest sacrifice you feel you’ve made choosing this career path?
Keeping all of my stuff in one place. Between my all of my ski stuff, climbing gear, backcountry gear, and bikes, I can never remember where everything is.
14. If you could change one thing about your sport, what would it be?
I would push for adding more city sprints to the World Cup schedule. I think it’s a great way to showcase our sport to spectators that wouldn’t otherwise be interested in our sport, and racing in a city landscape is always such a cool thing.
15. What did you have for breakfast this morning?
Oatmeal squares and coffee.
16. In 5 years, I’ll be ____?
In school, studying snow science.
17. In 50 years, I’ll be ____?
An avalanche forecaster in Colorado.
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.