Last September, amidst the chatter of others gathered for the 11th annual U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Assembly in Colorado Springs, Colo., Sara Studebaker-Hall and the CEO of the Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation (UOLF), Colin Hilton, shook hands. Studebaker-Hall, a two-time Olympic biathlete, was attending the meeting as an athlete rep for the US Biathlon Board of Directors and was introduced to Hilton by US Biathlon Association (USBA) President and CEO Max Cobb.
The three were partaking in the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Assembly’s two-day fall symposium, an event that included seminars on athlete rights and anti-doping. At the time of their introduction, Studebaker-Hall had no idea that her conversation with Hilton would evolve into a job opportunity and eventually, her return to the Intermountain region. Originally from Boise, Idaho, Studebaker-Hall was starting her third season as the assistant coach for the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA).
But last fall, her coaching position and the future of the UAA Ski Team were in question. Financial restraints at Alaska’s state universities had put more than one cross-country ski program in limbo.
Back in Anchorage and also unsure about the future was Studebaker-Hall’s husband, Zach Hall, a former national-team biathlete himself. A native of Nikiski, Alaska, Hall had been working to develop a competitive youth biathlon program in Anchorage and was questioning whether or not it was time to make a career move.
Then Studebaker-Hall learned through Hilton that UOLF was looking to add a new biathlon program to Soldier Hollow, its cross-country ski resort in Midway, Utah. A world-class venue, the Soldier Hollow (SoHo) shooting range had hosted biathlon competitions during the 2002 Winter Olympic Games, yet no biathlon, development (devo) or competition (comp) teams existed in the SoHo or Midway area.
“One thing I look at is what are we doing with our venues, are we providing the sport we out to provide,” UOLF Vice President of Sport and Venues Marc Norman said on the phone in September. “The fact that we weren’t hosting [biathlon] and weren’t running any programs in it was a quick red flag for me.”
Along with the addition of a biathlon program, Team Soldier Hollow was also in need of a youth coach for its nordic program. From 2012 to 2015, Morgan Smyth served as the program manager, overseeing the Comp and Devo teams, the Youth League and the Charter School Ski Program. At the time of her departure, 145 kids were enrolled in SoHo’s programs — 10 on the Comp (competition) team, a number which has almost tripled since then.
“I left Soldier Hollow to work for Park City Nordic Ski Club [PNSC] as the Nordic Manager,” Smyth wrote in a recent email. “PNSC was part of the Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation. Ironically Soldier Hollow became a part of the Legacy Foundation less than a year later but I live in Park City so it was nice to work closer to home.
“I left Park City Nordic this fall and started a Physical Therapist Assistant program,” Smyth continued. “I am excited to try something new but plan to stay involved in the ski community. Hopefully coaching the younger kids during the winter months.”
Last fall, after Studebaker-Hall returned to Anchorage, she and her husband were offered the opportunity to work with Team Soldier Hollow, with Hall heading the new biathlon program and Studebaker-Hall leading the pre-existing nordic ones. When the offer was made, the UAA Ski Team’s future remained uncertain, and the two ultimately accepted UOLF’s offer, viewing it too good to pass up.
“It was hard to leave UAA,” Studebaker-Hall explained on the phone earlier this summer. (The UAA Ski Team was ultimately saved three weeks after she and Hall accepted). “But moving to a head-coaching position and managing a program here and getting this off the ground was kind of a once in a lifetime opportunity, so we had to take it.”
Studebaker-Hall is now serving as the head coach and program manager for Team Soldier Hollow’s Devo Plus and Comp teams. The competition team alone has 25 athletes, many of which Studebaker-Hall described as being “on the precipice of just getting going”. As she transitions from coaching collegiate skiers to juniors, she expects a few challenges mainly involving the mindset of younger skiers.
For most of the college skiers she’s coached, knowing the fundamentals of being an endurance athlete were automatic: get adequate amounts of rest between training sessions, practice good hydration. In contrast, a majority of her Team Soldier Hollow athletes are still learning the basic principles, such as the importance of recovery, nutrition and getting decent amounts of sleep.
“With youth kids, you’re trying to instill in them this idea that coming to training everyday is really important,” Studebaker-Hall observed, “Even just how to think about training, all these things I think that maybe I took for granted a little bit, that all the kids that I previously worked with knew already. That’s definitely a challenge, but one that I’m really excited about because these kids are so moldable.”
Most of the juniors she’ll coach this winter range in ages from 10 to 20 years old.
“They’re really ready to take in everything you say,” Studebaker-Hall continued. “You have a huge opportunity as a youth coach to do that for kids, maybe even more so than on a collegiate level, because you’re their first real coach.”
Though Studebaker-Hall only started working with Team Soldier Hollow this summer — Hall arrived last December — she’s already made a positive impression on many of her athletes. Pearl Harvey, 16, who has been involved with Soldier Hollow’s nordic program since she started walking, highlighted Studebaker-Hall’s interest seeing her athletes succeed.
“I have never had a coach so involved with technique and caring about my progression as a skier and a person,” Harvey, who hopes to one day receive a college scholarship for skiing, wrote in an email. “Sara, for me, is a big role model and she is shaping me as an athlete with being more conscious of my technique, eating, drinking and sleeping habits. She is also shaping me as a person and keeping us in check and making sure we are on the correct path.”
As Studebaker heads Soldier Hollow’s nordic programs, her husband is in charge of SoHo’s new biathlon programs: Intro Flex , Devo Plus Flex and Comp Flex (development team). Hall estimates he has a total of 20 athletes in the biathlon program, though not all belong to Team Soldier Hollow. The Utah Nordic Alliance (TUNA), the Park City Nordic Ski Club or Wasatch Nordic have athletes participating in SoHo’s biathlon program, thanks to what they dubbed a “flex” program option. With this “flex” program, members from any of the surrounding nordic ski clubs can join Team Soldier Hollow for biathlon training without changing their club affiliation.
“We’ve got the only range in the area, so what we’re trying to do is work with all the area coaches to schedule training sessions, so that it works as much as we can with them working with their local nordic clubs, ” Hall said on the phone in July. “A big part of the program is just pushing general nordic development and adding opportunities with biathlon.”
Sparking interest is the first step for Hall, as well as getting the word out about the biathlon program. Having U23/Junior World Championships held at Soldier Hollow last season was also helpful in promoting the biathlon and nordic programs there, as well as giving younger athletes an idea of where skiing could take them.
“This is my first summer trying Biathlon, and I am loving it,” Lina Farra, 16, wrote in an email in September. “Both Zach and Sara have very high-level Biathlon experience, and that combined with their great passion for sport sets this program apart from others around the nation.”
SoHo is currently bidding to host an International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Cup in 2019. According to Studebaker-Hall, an exploratory committee is also forming for a potential Olympic bid — the last Olympics held at SoHo took place in 2002.
“From a programmatic standpoint, we definitely want to see Utah kids participating in this sport,” Norman said. “There’s no reason we shouldn’t have a strong biathlon program. That’s our goal, is to build up and be one of, if not the best biathlon programs in the nation. And have kids of all ages and abilities participating in biathlon.”
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.