GeneralInterviewsOlympicsRacingMedal Talk: Olympic Roundtable with Holly Brooks, Pete Vordenberg, Nancy Fiddler, and Chandra Crawford

FasterSkier FasterSkierFebruary 22, 2018
Kikkan Randall (l) and Jessie Diggins after being awarded their gold medals from the freestyle team sprint at Thursday night’s Olympic medal ceremony in PyeongChang, South Korea. (Photo: FlyingPointRoad)

After the U.S. women’s historic gold medal on Wednesday, we wanted to try something a little different and invite a few prominent members of the North American ski community to a roundtable discussion. Contacted via email, they each weighed in on the following questions with an interactive Google doc, where they could view others’ written responses and build on the conversation.

In no particular order, we’d like to introduce our special guests:

  • Holly Brooks, former U.S. Ski Team member and two-time Olympian (2010 and 2014)
  • Pete Vordenberg, former U.S. Ski Team head coach (from 2002-2012)
  • Nancy Fiddler, former U.S. Ski Team member and two-time Olympian (1988 and 1992)
  • Chandra Crawford, former Canadian National Ski Team member, three-time Olympian (2006, 2010 and 2014) and, before Wednesday, the last North American to win Olympic gold in cross-country skiing (in the freestyle sprint in 2006 in Turin, Italy)
  • *John Caldwell, 1952 Olympian and one of the founders of the U.S. women’s cross-country program who coached the U.S. Ski Team through five Winter Olympics (1960, 1964, 1968, 1972, and 1984), was also invited to the discussion and opted to respond with a mini essay on the subject, which was posted separately.

Roundtable Q & A

Q: Where and with whom did you watch today’s race?

Chandra Crawford: In my living room at 3 am with my husband Jared. 1.5 year old Kyla was crying a bit upstairs but she had to wait for the race to finish to be over-enthusiastically consoled. She was probably wondering what her mom was so excited about.

Nancy Fiddler: Today is my birthday, and I got up to find text messages on my phone with birthday greetings and news of the gold medal (I didn’t stay up to watch it). I played and re-played the final moments over and over again. I was not prepared for my physical reaction to watching Jessie cross the finish line; I was overcome with emotion and the tears flowed. I showed the final moments of the race video to everyone at the hair salon where I got my hair cut this afternoon. Watched the entire race again this evening with my husband.

Olympic women’s relay viewing party last Friday, Feb. 16, at the Brooks/Whitney house in Anchorage, Alaska. (Courtesy photo)

Holly Brooks: After hosting a festive viewing party for the 4x5k complete with USA-themed food and 5 kids ages 5 months to six years old in flare head to toe we decided to have a low-key night for sprint relay. I watched LIVE with my husband Rob (wouldn’t miss it for the world) and my twin 5-month old twin infants were asleep in their respective cribs wearing their homemade relay socks. I was sitting in front of the TV on my knees yelling words of encouragement and affirmation when the internet connection died one minute into Jessie’s final lap — talk about WORST TIMING EVER. After what seemed like the longest Coca Cola commerical of my life we reconnected to see the final downhill, turn and finishing straight. For the final sprint I remember yelling, “YOU’VE OUTSPRINTED HER BEFORE!” reminiscing about World Champs last year.  Once it was clear they won it was tears upon tears of joy!

Pete Vordenberg: My wife Barb was Kikkan’s Olympic roommate in 2002.  And Barb grew up just miles from where Jessie grew up.  We’re big fans.  We watched in bed on a laptop – like modern Americans do.

Q: What do you think has been the most important cultural shift in recent years to bring U.S. Skiing back to a place where today was possible?

Chandra: Incredible, second-to-none dedication to a positive and supportive team environment.

Nancy: I agree with Chandra! The shift began with Kikkan’s initial success, when Americans saw the possibility of our athletes being able to compete on the international stage. But the team spirit that was cultivated around this tangible success is what changed the look of U.S. women’s nordic skiing. I know I got caught up in it and knew it was just a matter of time before the Olympic medal ceiling was smashed.

Holly: Kikkan’s unfathomable faith lead the way….. Then I believe it was a matter of getting the right people into the right place at the right time.  The coaching staff and their ability to look at us as people, beyond simply results is crucial. I think that unconditional love and support is/was essential to a positive team environment, sustainability, and keeping people engaged and interested in supporting one another. People always ask us (I use the present tense because these girls will always be my teammates!) how did you do it? We took what was originally an individual approach and applied a team approach to it. Rather than being preoccupied with beating eachother we understood that we could collaborate and band together to beat the world. Which tonight, resulted in an Olympic GOLD MEDAL.

Pete: The quality of work being done, day-to-day and year-to-year training by coaches and athletes across the country is the reason we are where we are.  How that improved is a rise in development efforts and programing at team/club, regional and the national level.  All of it is tied together.
Luke, Farra, Wadsworth and I all raced together at the national team level in the late 80’s through late 90’s early 2000’s.  These were hard and lean years that came on the tail of more hard and lean years that followed the successful Koch years.  That we all (Luke, etc) ended up working in US Skiing is not an accident — we all wanted more and saw a way to do it.  Bodensteiner began to build a consistent domestic and North American race circuit that really enabled US racers to compete at the right level and build from there.  This was the start of a good pipeline for racers to develop.  Chris Grover and Miles Minson started a development team.  It was a small team, but it was a development team – the work they did was back to the basics, build from where you are not from where you wish you were.

Very importantly around this time a few junior programs added senior programs to build a link from junior to senior level racing.  We were all working to developing skiers along a pathway, the pipeline – not just taking skiers to the World Cup, most of whom had not really developed enough to be at that level even if they were the best in the US.  Somewhere in here better drug testing plays a role and more dopers are getting caught and then fewer are doping.  This is a factor that is hard to quantify.  There is still doping.  But it seems less prevalent and this is an advantage to us as clean racers.

This development system was capitalized on by Trond Nystad and built and improved upon by myself, Trond, Grover and Vidar Lofshus.  At this time Luke helped us build an actual team.  We began to put together a national team program, a consistent staff, a more complete wax team and continued to focus on development (today Bryan Fish runs much of the USST’s development efforts and he does amazing work).

Kikkan Randall (l) with her fourth-career World Cup podium after placing second in a freestyle sprint in December 2010 in Düsseldorf, Germany, behind Italy’s Arianna Follis (c) in first and ahead of Slovenia’s Vesna Fabjan (r) in third. (Photo: Pete Vordenberg)

That is the beginning of the shift — a real focus on the development pipeline.  But one thing I think is important to point out is that this effort across local, regional and national teams also changed the tone of US Skiing –- the tone is now one of preparing to win.  We began to work together across the whole country to win at the international level.  That is huge.  This is probably the biggest thing – a ground swell of collective effort toward a shared goal.  The number of people who played a specific, vital role are too numerous to name. Erik Flora at APU who is Kikkan’s coach and Jason Cork with the USST who is Jessie’s coach both deserve mention, but who coached and mentored Cork and Flora?  They also deserve mention.  I mean, I still teach classic the way Nancy Fiddler showed me how to teach classic!  It is all interwoven.  Before Erik and Cork, Kikkan and Jessie were coached by their youth coaches, their high school coaches, they were supported by race course volunteers, people handing out orange slices after races, parents driving to practice, club organizers and regional leaders and national team coaches like Whitcomb… That support network, that development pipeline, that nationwide effort is what got this medal.

I do want to point out the role of Andy Newell was the first one to get a World Cup podium after two generations of skiers struggled to crack the top 30.  Newell was the tip of the spear.  The 2002 team was awesome, Freeman got very close (and was robbed of medals by dopers) but it was spring, 2006 when Andy got a WC podium that the possibilities became more real.  Kikkan’s podium in Russia was a huge moment for us as a country too and since then, well, here we are.

Q: What made the biggest difference in today’s race?

Chandra: Jessie’s ability to go beyond her limits is truly on another level, and they both rose to the occasion as game-day champions in terms of mental state.

The entire team keeping everything positive through the exhausting, media-intensive lead up to these games. And a gold old 15-year “overnight success story” led by Kikkan Randall’s belief in teamwork and profound humility and caring.

Nancy: Today it was about the combination of Jessie’s heart and Kikkan’s ability to perform under immense pressure. This was the American combination I picked to win a medal, and my intuition proved correct! They did it at Worlds and knew they could do it again if each one of them performed at their top ends. I do not think Jessie ever doubted that she wouldn’t get by Stina for one moment when she rounded that last turn.

Holly: Belief, experience, support from the “team behind the team” and the fact that the course played to their individual strengths. Kikkan is one of the best uphill, V1 jump skaters in the world and Jessie is one of the best downhiller/overspeed, “finishers when a teammate is waiting at the finish line!”

Pete: Today’s race was just one race, the fitness, the program, the team, the work, it has been done and rehearsed, and done again and rehearsed again, built up over years.  It is everyone playing their role from massage therapist to waxer to club volunteer, club fundraiser, NNF fundraiser, youth coach to parents and friends, to athletes who were not chosen to race but still played their role as teammate… Today’s race is not a culmination, it is just another race and as long as there is still snow, the framework for more great races is in place. There is more to come.

Q: Which specific moment in the race did you think was most impressive?

Jessie Diggins as a junior training at Soldier Hollow in Midway, Utah. (Photo: Pete Vordenberg)

Chandra: Kikkan, despite her injuries in the lead-up to the games, hanging with Marit and Charlotte and making it look like no problem and Jessie keeping calm cool and collected on the skittery downhill and then pumping out huge power in the finishing one-skate. Sorry, that’s not one thing!

Nancy: Again, I agree with Chandra that Kikkan notched her game up to match Marit and Charlotte’s and made it look easy. And The Moment for me was when Jessie gave those 3-4 hard skates to give her the momentum that would ultimately send her past Stina at the finish line.

Holly: I don’t really believe in perfection but almost every once of this race was perfect and thank goodness, there were NO BROKEN POLES this time! (Thanks Diggy!) For five and a half laps it is all about staying in contact but when that is accomplished it is all about the finishing tactics and kick. There are so many things that could wrong is this situation but Jess set up her slingshot perfectly and her kick was world class. As the saying goes, it takes two to tango!

Pete: Every moment presents a challenge and an opportunity.  Each exchange is both a challenge to get through safely and also an opportunity to gain a few meters.  Every slick downhill presents the same challenge/opportunity.  Each opening you see in the pack and can squeeze through could end in a fall, a broken pole or a great move up, and of course every uphill gives you the test of fitness and grit that makes our sport so hard and so cool.  It was so fun to see all challenges met and opportunities capitalized on.

Q: Should casual ski fans be surprised by this result or was it only a matter of time?

Chandra: Be surprised and amazed! There’s quite a bit of luck involved in the Olympics! No matter how prepared or amazing people are it’s truly insane how much each micro-moment is weighted and placing a ski an inch to the left or right could cause a trip and effect things.

Nancy: I actually don’t think casual fans really expected the gold medal outcome. I was out skiing today at our local area and everyone I saw stopped me and wanted to talk about it. Those who follow World Cup skiing closely could see how the possibilities were shaping up.

Holly: Casual ski fans are surprised. Hard core ski fans should not be surprised. My suite mate at work today told me he was surprised and I found my hackles up, (AK moose reference) ….. I was actually offended. Kikkan and Jessie have done it before and the USA arguably has the best sprint team in the world. It’s sport so anything can happen but this is the outcome I knew was possible.

Pete: Are there casual ski fans?  I thought either you don’t even know about skiing or like all of us, you bleed for it.  If you have paid attention you should know we are contenders, and can no longer enjoy the status of underdog.

Though we have come far, it is still important to celebrate small successes and not just Gold, Silver and Bronze.  Even if as a country we don’t celebrate a top 30 any more, for developing athletes a top 30 on the World Cup is really something to celebrate, as is a great training session, a single great interval workout up your local hill is a success, a long run in the woods is a joy in itself as well as a step forward.  Those daily successes are the steps toward medals and there will always be more steps than medals.

Q: What does this mean for the US ski team’s status internationally?

Kikkan Randall (l) and Jessie Diggins listening to the U.S. national anthem after being awarded their gold medals from the freestyle team sprint at Thursday night’s Olympic medal ceremony in PyeongChang, South Korea. (Photo: FlyingPointRoad)

Chandra: I have never seen the ENTIRE field hug the winner. This team is so open, friendly, inspiring and well-loved. They are great people first and foremost, and that goes for the women’s team, men’s team, coaches, techs and support staff.

Nancy: RESPECT. I think the U.S. women have been getting noticed more and more the last several years, especially now that the team has so much depth. In addition to the successes of Kikkan, Jessie, and Sophie, Sadie has turned heads with her consistent results, and now Ida and Rosie are making their way into the top 20 in the world. It is apparent that even the toughest competitors out there genuinely like the American girls. Even without the gold medal, I would say that the American women have been accepted as challengers on any race day. And at the same time, they are friends with everyone. Watching every competitor congratulate Kikkan and Jessie after their win was just as satisfying as watching the race for me.

Holly: I would echo what Chandra said – if the skiers from other countries couldn’t win they were happy that we did. I’ve never seen so many genuine smiles or congratulatory hugs at a finish line. It was same in 2012 when we had our first relay podium. Our competitors were genuinely happy for us and as Marit Bjorgen said, it is “healthy for the sport.” Also of note would be the sportsmanship that Kik and Diggs displayed on the venue podium. Past races winners have been happy but remained on their podium block. In contrast, Kikkan and Jessie hugged their competitors to the right and to the left. I have witnessed our team spearhead a cultural shift on the entire World Cup. I think people have realized that we can be competitive as hell but be friends once the races are over.  We have lead by example that you can be fun AND successful at the same time!

Q: What does this mean for the development of cross-country skiing in the U.S.?

Chandra: Get ready for the inspirational boost to our sport to last several hundred years, I reckon!

Holly: I think this is a watershed moment. The floodgates are open, the Olympic glass ceiling is shattered. This might be the “first – historic” medal but I expect more to come. We have some promising juniors in the pipeline and they should hold their heads high at international races. They are part of team USA and we mean business! Watch out world.

Nancy: I have seen huge leaps and bounds in the development of our sport since I was a racer back in the 70’s-90’s. There was no national picture to junior development, our international results were sporadic, and it seemed like there was no pipeline to success. I began coaching juniors soon after I retired in 1993, and shortly thereafter, I began to see some direction. The groundwork was being laid in the form of USST outreach to regional coaches. Coaches were becoming educated, regional camps started happening, and there was a whole lot of sharing of ideas across the country. Junior competition showed just how many kids were benefiting from the better system. I watched Sophie and Kikkan race at JN’s and was impressed by their technique and speed; I knew that this was the beginning of a better U.S. SkiTeam. With all the REG and U-16 camps, support from the NNF, strong clubs, and better coaches education, we have created a base of competitive skiers who grew up in this improved system. We have had success on the World Cup, at World Championships, and now a gold medal. The gold medal is going to stimulate our base of junior skiers to even more success. Seeing Jessie and Kikkan win that medal is BELIEVING that it is possible.

Pete: It means we are on a good path.  But it doesn’t mean we can relax.  If we want to win, and win even more frequently then the work, the innovation and collaboration, the learning, and failing and trying again must be on-going.

I would actually love to hear some history on how US Skiing entered that long period of drought after the Koch era.  I think there could be some important lessons for us to keep in mind as we move forward from here.

If this success shows us anything it is a matter of working together across the entire country, pulling people together and working hard toward a shared goal.  Maintaining, even improving on the positive and cohesive team and US xc community atmosphere supports this.  Positive and solution-oriented work, action and words are the path to success.

One more specific thing is that I would like to see some of these women assume regional and national team leadership roles.  For me this is the next step to build on our success.

***

Thank you to everyone who participated in this conversation. 

Kikkan Randall (l) and Jessie Diggins after winning a historic gold for the U.S. in the women’s freestyle team sprint at the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. (Photo: FlyingPointRoad)

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