On the eastern side of the Northern Michigan University (NMU) campus, where Fair Avenue and Presque Isle Ave intersect, a righthand turn presents visitors with a view of the Berry Events Center and the school’s 26-year-old Superior Dome — a semi-Star-Trek-like outcropping in an otherwise conventionally secular setting. Between the two recreational buildings sits another building, the college’s Physical Education and Instructional Facility (PEIF). Designed predominantly as a practice venue for basketball players, the complex attracts other NMU athletes: nordic skiers.
Skiers who crossed the PEIF threshold glanced fleetingly at the fluorescent-lit, green-and-white basketball courts before heading toward the real reason they’d entered the building’s glass doors, the nordic-ski room.
Like any ski room, wax benches line the walls and the slight smell of particle board hangs in the air. Skis from the 1970s wait on one wall in an eternal yearning for snow. Certificates honoring the school’s former and current All-American athletes create a collage with newspaper clippings taped here and there. Race bibs and posters scrawled with faded signatures from national champions and graduated NMU Olympians cover any remaining open space.
As a prospective student sitting on one of the couches that corners the room, Adam Martin was struck by the number of athletes’ names honored and the extent to which many of them took their cross-country careers. An 18 year old in the midst of training with the Central Cross Country (CXC) post-grad program at the time, Martin’s visit was the result of a scouting search by NMU Head Nordic Coach Sten Fjeldheim, the ski room an auspicious scene to any dedicated skier.
Still, Martin never guessed that three years after enrolling at the university, he would be an adorned member of its accolades — earning four All-American National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) results before graduating in 2017. The results weren’t what he’d expected, nor were they even really part of his plan.
“I’m not totally into setting very specific outcome goals,” Martin, a Wausau, Wisconsin, native, explained on the phone from New Zealand in late August. “I try to focus a lot more on becoming a better skier, becoming more fit and really focus more internally on improving myself and then seeing where that puts me at the end of each year.”
That being said, by the end of his junior year at NMU, Martin had earned All-American status in both classic and freestyle races. He also competed at the 2016 Under-23 World Championships in Rasnov, Romania, leading the U.S. junior men in 23rd in the classic distance race. To top it all off, earlier that same season he raced to third place in the 15-kilometer classic at the 2016 U.S. nationals in Houghton, Michigan.
Before that nationals podium, Fjeldheim tallied Martin’s on-snow time as minimal. The team had not skied on snow until the week competitors arrived in Houghton. In all likelihood, the top contenders Martin faced had logged anywhere from two to three times as much — many of them had already raced two SuperTours, one in West Yellowstone, Montana, and the other in Sun Valley, Idaho.
“I really feel like a lot of athletes these days, they’re distracted,” Fjeldheim said during a recent phone interview. “I think you need to have a lot of mental energy to be a ski racer and you’re getting it sucked out of you by reading all this, I’m not talking about scientific research, I’m talking about stuff. You know, so and so is doing this, so and so is doing that. … You’re not thinking about it in terms of what you need to do and what works for you … It’s not about being able to be on a glacier 24/7. It’s not about being able to be on snow … a lot of U.S. skiers can’t.
“Adam had his best U.S. nationals when he had five days on snow,” Fjeldheim continued. “How do you explain that? Because it’s from May through December that matters.”
Martin spent his summers training in Marquette, Michigan, with his then-teammates Kyle Bratrud (now a member of the CXC Team coming off a 2017 national championship), Ian Torchia (now a senior at NMU and a second year nominee to the U.S. Ski Team D-team), and Sam Elfstrom (a 21 Title Defender), among others. Martin turned down internships so he could ski. He made skiing his life, not his results.
“From a dedication standpoint, I think I pursued skiing as well as I could, had I set that goal [of a nationals podium or an All-American finish],” Martin said. “Had I really said specifically that I wanted to do those, I don’t think it would have changed anything in a positive manner.”
Fjeldheim reflected that any time Martin walked into his office, he knew a slew of questions would follow. Martin regularly prodded him, researched Fjeldheim’s answers and returned with more questions. The curiosity stemmed from a desire to not only understand his training, but arm himself for the future.
“Never a lack of questions from Adam, he really dug into it,” Fjeldheim said. “He empowered himself with a pretty big body of knowledge about physiology, technique and race strategy.
“It was enlightening for me,” Fjeldheim, an NMU staple for the last 31 years, continued. “Having this young whippersnapper, can-do, nothing-can-stop-me type of kid.”
As a kid himself, Martin, who turns 23 next month, began skiing at an early age with his parents, not getting competitively involved until his middle-school years. By the time he reached high school his skiing only got stronger, his interest in it as well. He was the state champion his senior year, before taking a gap-year in Hayward, Wis., training partially with the CXC team.
“I didn’t race very well that year,” Martin reflected. “In terms of putting things in perspective, and maybe even maturing a little bit, though, I’m very glad I did it.
“Somewhat ironically, because I think most people consider taking time off just to ski as giving up a part of your academic career, I think for me it had quite the opposite effect,” Martin continued. “I really appreciated academics more and put a tremendous amount more time into my academics in college than I did in high school.”
While at NMU, Martin studied mathematics and computer engineering, eventually earning degrees in both. Along with being a double major, Martin’s four-year grade point average topped out at 4.0, earning him a nomination from the College Sports Information Directors of America’s 2017 Academic All-America First Team and the 2017 NCAA Elite 90 Award.
Still, even if Martin made his studies look easy, they took effort on his part. His missed many classes for training, 10 alone this past spring for U23 World Championships (which he jocosely pointed out in a FasterSkier profile was still less than last year). He met with instructors outside of class, making his skiing work in large part due to his diligence and his rapport with professors.
“I was very fortunate at NMU,” Martin explained. “The math department is pretty small and I knew all my professors on I’d say on a personal level, so they were extremely understanding of me going to ski races. I developed a certain amount of respect from them. They let me [leave class] because they trusted that I’d figure things out.”
Martin’s skiing would not be bogged down by school, and vice versa. The two went hand-in-hand, he could keep his mind off one and become consumed by the other. If Martin’s situation was unique, it wasn’t because of the subject he studied.
“Find a situation where you have a good relationship with your professors and they’re more than just a person in a lecture hall. I think that’s super important,” Martin said of balancing academics with skiing.
In deciding his next steps after college, Martin decided that if he were to pursue a profession in skiing, it would be now rather than later. In his search for a ski program, the inquisitive nature that guided his undergraduate years directed him once again: Where would he see himself get the most out of his skiing? What did he need as a skier and what did each program have to offer?
Last winter, he found his answer. Nestled in northern Vermont, the Craftsbury Green Racing Project (CGRP) presented itself as a clear solution. Not only did he connect with CGRP Head Coach Pepa Miloucheva, but the program was also financially favorable to him. Under the CGRP, his lodging and food would be covered by the Craftsbury Outdoor Center (COC) and much of his training and race travel by Concept2.
“I looked at a couple different programs and talked to Pepa in the winter and was very impressed with what she had to say in terms of what she thought I needed to do to get better, how perceptive she was of where I was at without me explaining very much, just from watching me race,” Martin said.
“Additionally, the Green Team is incredibly well funded. It’s one of the most professional ski teams I think you’ll find in the U.S. and it’s pretty cool to be on a team like that, to feel like you’re absolutely taken care of,” he continued. “That’s a large amount thanks to [COC owners] Dick Dreissigacker and Judy Geer and their support with the Outdoor Center and Concept 2.”
Four years of college tuition in the back of his mind, CGRP offered not just security, but independence. He would not need to turn to his parents nor spend all his spare time working a second and third job, though he currently works on small-scale computer projects for the Outdoor Center.
“Obviously my parents are extremely supportive, they have to be for me to have made it this far in skiing, but after graduating college, it’s not really an ideal situation for me to have to ask for a ton of support from them,” Martin explained. “So finding a team that covers all this was a huge help and pretty important in terms of not having to worry about that on top of training.”
Most recently, Martin made the trek to New Zealand for a month-long on-snow camp with the CGRP. He has been working with Miloucheva as well as his Craftsbury’s teammate Ben Lustgarten, who joined the CGRP at the start of last season. On its website, the team lists 12 athletes, four of which are men.
“He is really great to work with,” Miloucheva wrote of Martin in an email. “Very motivated, works really hard to improve every detail of his technique and fitness, asks lots of questions and always the right ones, which means he thinks about what I say and what I ask him to do. And he is genuinely nice person.”
While Martin acknowledges that many U.S. skiers are aiming for the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, his skiing goals, like the equations he works with, tend toward the conceptual as opposed to concrete.
“I have not set that specific goal, although I certainly will try to be in my best shape during the qualifying period … and give myself as good of a chance as I can,” he said. “Beyond that, while I’m pursuing skiing, I think my goal would be I would like to strive to be a competitive World Cup distance racer … whatever avenues would lead towards that.”
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.