Editor’s Note: The following is the first post of a series proposed by Maks Zechel, a 19-year-old Canadian cross-country skier embarking on his first season training abroad. He recently made the big move to Norway, where he’ll be training and racing with Team Asker for the next nine months. Through these updates, Maks hopes to share his personal “observations, stories, and lessons learned” to help close the gap between North American and Scandinavian nordic skiing.
I am a 19-year-old Canadian cross-country skier who moved to Asker, Norway on Aug. 1, 2017, to pursue my goal of qualifying for, and being competitive on, the World Cup circuit in the coming years. The World Cup is a big stage, one that I am not even close to being ready for. Many North Americans, if given the chance, race World Cups because it is a wonderful opportunity that is almost impossible to turn down. But for many skiers, these chances do not lead to further success because they are not prepared for the intense level of competition that is World Cup ski racing. One of the issues is that North American skiers do not develop in close proximity to the world’s best skiers. We don’t know how fast a top World Cup skier races because we are never in the same races. Norwegian skiers are exposed to this level of skiing, even just through observance, during their entire ski careers.
This is the introduction to my series of observations, stories, and lessons learned as I live in Norway and train with Team Asker for the next nine months. I want to make it easier for other Canadians and Americans to come to Norway by making as many connections as I can and I hope to make them feel a little bit closer to the environment that the world’s best skiers grow up in. I am here to be in races that have a depth going all the way from your average junior skier to last weekend’s World Cup medalists so that I can attempt to pick away at the visible steps that lead to World Cup success. If we can be a bigger part of the Norwegian ski scene and see the environment that produces skiers like Martin Sundby and Heidi Weng, maybe that will erase some of the barriers that we see when trying to chase down seemingly “otherworldly” athletes.
Post 1: Why Norway?
I just moved to Kenya to pursue my dream of running a sub-two hour marath– I just moved to Norway to pursue my passion for competitive cross-country skiing. Just two days have gone by since I arrived, and I already love it here.
In Asker, Norway, my name is written in greeting on signs all over town! Well, maybe they are not greeting me. It is actually one sign by the beach saying that you can only park there for a “Maks.” of three days (maximum=maksimum in Norwegian), but hey, it is a step up from people thinking my name is a typo.
My name is Maks Zechel, and I am a Canadian skier who is made unusually happy by Norwegian signs. I learned how to ski at Cypress, just outside of Vancouver, at around the same time that I started walking. Since then I have lived in York, England; Zurich, Switzerland; Kingston, Canada; Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany; and most recently, Ottawa.
I started racing with Nakkertok Nordic, based just outside of Ottawa, when I was 11 years old. Once per week, my parents (both avid skiers) younger sister, and I would drive two and a half hours to Ottawa from Kingston so that we could all go skiing and I could train with Nakkertok. Being the biggest club in Canada, Nakkertok made me fall in love with skiing, as I always had one or two dozen skiers my age to train with. There is not much skiing in Kingston, so once I graduated from high school I moved in with some friends in Ottawa and took advantage of training with teammates and getting on snow more than once per week.
Over the past two years, I have studied part-time at the University of Ottawa, raced in Switzerland and Austria, skied on the Dachstein glacier in August, skied at Sunshine (near Canmore) in May, raced in Park City, trained and raced in Silver Star, and had various other amazing opportunities all over Canada and the U.S. All of this thanks to my incredibly supportive parents, who somehow rarely get frustrated by how excited I get over World Cup predictions based off of Lysebotn Opp results, or how this insignificant change in my double poling is going to make me race like Alex Harvey. As you can see, I like skiing…
Coming to Norway is something I have thought about for the past two years. I have come here with the goal of learning as much as I can from training and racing with the Norwegians. This season I will be racing at the Scandinavian/Norwegian Cup level and focusing on my personal development.
As many Canadians can attest to, it is hard to go from racing solely in North America to racing on the World Cup. European ski racing is unrivaled by anything we see in North America and — because of the distance separating us — we are not often exposed to that level of competition. By familiarizing myself with the European competition atmosphere, I hope to set myself up for success and show others back home what I have learned. As a first-year senior, I still have far to go, but I am here to learn and hopefully improve. Getting a start on a World Cup is not an opportunity that many Canadians receive; if I ever get such a chance, I want it to feel like a step, not a near impossible jump, up from my regular races.
Another reason that I have moved to Norway is, strangely enough, to reduce my skiing costs. In Canada it costs a ridiculous amount every year to fly to early season skiing opportunities, to train with other fast skiers at camps, and to attend as many high level races as possible. Despite all of these flights, I have still found it difficult (even as a junior) to fill my race calendar with enough opportunities to race at a high level. In Canada, the entire season is mostly centered on our World Junior/U23 qualification races that happen in January. Before that, we have two NorAm race weekends that happen in December. Everyone gets fired up for these fun and exceptionally well-organized races. However, once January is over and you have not qualified for anything yet, there are few races with deep fields left until Nationals at the end of March. Some opportunities exist, like SuperTours and Carnival races in the U.S., but they are infrequent, far away, or they overlap with Canadian races.
In Norway, once you have bought your plane ticket, there are regular high-level races, within driving distance, from mid-November until mid-April. The fields are deep, with most of the Norwegian World Cup team racing the Beitostølen Scandinavian Cup in November, and you are paying for a weekend trip within driving distance instead of flying away for ten days in Park City. Food in Norway has so far been reasonable; some things are more expensive and you should not expect to be buying “Costco-style”, but you can eat well without breaking the bank. Rent is expensive in some parts of the country, but through connections and a bit of luck you can make things work. I was particularly lucky and am paying $634 Canadian dollars (about $501 U.S.) per month for an adequate basement apartment.
Planning my trip to Norway was filled with days of excitement, but also with days of doubt that things would ever work out. From the start I knew that I was going to see this through to the end, so with a lot of willpower, and even more help from others, I am now finally in Norway. In my next post I will share my first impressions of Norway and explain how I was able to make it to Norway and join Team Asker, my new ski team!
Norwegian Phrase of the Week: “Hilse på!”
= What you say to a dog if you want to shake its paw. Literally: “Greet”
(Lesson brought to you by Kira, the dog who lives upstairs).
About Maks: Maks Zechel is a competitive cross-country skier who secretly wants to become a professional mile runner. He loves hiking and going on canoe trips with his family, as well as peanut butter cups in ice cream. Johan Olsson is his favourite skier and he hopes to race the Cortina-Toblach stage of the Tour de Ski one day. He enjoys writing about his experiences. Follow him on Instagram @makszechel.
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