The world is coming to Soldier Hollow in Midway, Utah. From Jan. 30-Feb. 5, the Olympic venue known as “SoHo” will host 2017 Junior and U23 World Championships. Throughout the last week, skiers from approximately 40 nations have descended on rural Utah and the race venue tucked up on the Eastern flanks of the Wasatch.
From the outset, athletes, coaches and wax techs will be busy. It’s the usual hustle and bustle and last-second scramble of any ski race weekend — the early morning ski tests, athlete meals, handing out bibs, and delivering just-in-time prepped skis to a racer waiting at the line. No glamour. It’s long before any potential podiums — it’s when any coffee is good coffee.
This environment with higher-stake races at SoHo isn’t simply a means of exposing emerging international skiers to the world’s best. It’s also fertile ground for coach development where they are exposed to the inherent stressors of international-level ski racing. This year, U.S. Ski Team Development Coach Bryan Fish will lead the cadre of 12 junior skiers and 10 under-23 (U23) skiers gathering in Utah, with the help of Stratton Mountain School (SMS) Elite Team Head Coach Patrick O’Brien and Bend Endurance Academy (BEA) Nordic Director Bernie Nelson.
O’Brien, a 26-year-old Vermont native and former Craftsbury Green Racing Project skier, will lead the U.S. Junior Worlds team. He’s coming off an eventful U.S. nationals, also held at SoHo, where his level of tolerance and preparedness for the whimsical Heber Valley weather gods was tested.
“It was one of those situations when it’s a waxers nightmare and you just have to try and figure your best to have options and keep your head on a swivel and see how conditions are changing,” O’Brien said on the phone from Truckee, Calif., site of last weekend’s SuperTour races, as he reflected on the all-hands-on-deck conditions during nationals.
“We ran the full array for what we saw for weather,” O’Brien added. “Temperatures that were so cold that they were causing the diesel generators in the wax areas to gel and shut everything down to some really heavy rain that was putting the courses in jeopardy as well as our ability to get there and set up. We were digging drainage ditches and sandbagging to move water around the wax area to some pretty heavy snowfall for the last day sprint qualifier.”
That experience will help O’Brien keep his calm. In the event of an all-conditions SoHo morass during World Juniors, he’s already helped his SME Elite techs and athletes make quick decisions there.
“The thing is, you just have to be prepared for everything, you never know what you are going to wake up to, at SoHo especially,” O’Brien said.
His return visit to the 2002 Olympic venue, only weeks after U.S. nationals, comes with an emphasis on ensuring the athletes are prepared, and less pressure on prepping skis — he’ll leave that job to the team’s wax techs.
“The role that I am best suited in is trying to see the forest through the trees and provide the clearest information in terms of what I see going on out there,” O’Brien clarified. “So the best thing that I can do is be outside the wax room.”
“I am a facilitator,” Nelson, also 26, said of how she defines her role when traveling as an international coach. “These athletes come with training plans, they come knowing what they are going to do. I am the person in the starting pen that is like, ‘Hey, you’ve got this, the work is done. Go out there and have fun. Have a good race.’ ”
The coaching duo return to Utah with past international coaching experience on their resumes. It’s O’Brien’s third year as the SMS Elite Team head coach, where he supports his athletes with training plans and wax-tech support at SuperTours, including U.S. nationals. He’s also teched and coached at a spring OPA cup trip and at last year’s season-ending World Cup series, the Ski Tour Canada.
Nelson, the U.S. U23 team coach, served the dual tech-coach role at 2015 World Championships for Australian national-team member Paul Kovacs. At the time, Nelson was also Kovacs’s coach at the Bridger Ski Foundation (BSF). She also teched at last year’s Juniors Worlds and U23 Worlds in Romania. Like O’Brien, Nelson gained experience working the Ski Tour Canada.
Both coaches enter a situation demanding flexibility and a willingness to embrace unknowns. For Nelson, the U23 athletes are ones she may not work with on a daily basis, but she’s begun to develop relationships with.
“Kelsey Phinney came and spent a summer with me when I was at BSF,” Nelson explained. “Bill Harmeyer is a former BEA postgraduate and I spent this past summer with him. Logan Diekmann is a former post-grad, Alayna Sonnesyn also spent the summer at BEA. I feel really connected to a lot of the athletes. For the ones that I don’t, it goes hand in hand. It’s my job as a coach to reach out to them and let them know I am someone they can trust.”
Nelson said she’ll only be responsible for waxing skis when asked by a technician. Her primary tasks will focus on athlete preparedness, and include big-picture items, like allowing athletes to decompress away from the competition venue, and small-picture, businesslike tasks of handing out bibs and communicating accurate start times, which aren’t exactly glamorous, but essential.
“I also feel responsible for making sure the techs have what they need to succeed — coffee, a chair, or whatever,” Nelson added.
Nelson said she believes the U.S. sends competitive teams to Junior & U23 World Championships. Although this year, with U.S. athletes enjoying home-field advantage, Nelson stated she’ll emphasize not adding any undue pressure to perform.
“It is important for the athletes to not feel that pressure, but to understand that they belong there and they have been brought to this event for a reason,” she said.
One reason these athletes are brought to events like Worlds is for the opportunity for a race performance on the international stage representative of their current form and to learn. These events are stepping stones.
Rolling into the SoHo infield where a world of flags will snap in the Wasatch downdraft may also remind these two young coaches that they are enhancing their knowledge base to help foster a stronger ski community.
“I am still learning,” Nelson willfully admitted. “Every time I go on a trip my eyes are wide open. I think there are always opportunities to make split-second decisions and I think a lot of the learning happens after the fact, because you get to another situation and you’ll have the tools to make an informed decision that you didn’t really realize that you had. They compound and build on each other.”
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.