It wasn’t until recently that Erika Flowers learned the meaning of her middle name. At the time of her birth, her father had been cutting around Montana’s mountain slopes on Elan alpine skis. Though the brand’s company is based out of Slovenia, the definition of élan, according to Webster’s dictionary, is a vigorous spirit or enthusiasm.
Whether Flower’s father, Pat, had researched the word’s meaning or whether the name had simply struck him, the skis were his muse. Erika became Erika Élan.
“He just happened to be skiing on that brand, and I think he liked the sound of it,” Flowers said during a recent phone interview from her hometown of Bozeman, Montana. “So he and my mom named me Erika Élan Flowers.”
For anyone familiar with Flowers, long, stick-straight, blond hair often bouncing around in a high ponytail and glacial blue eyes are idiosyncratic to the 28 year old. So is an intense verve, or élan.
“I actually never knew it had any meaning (beyond just being a ski brand) until this winter when I randomly came across it in an article and looked up the definition,” Flowers wrote in an email. “That said, I think it describes how I try to approach life in general.”
While many nordic skiers dream about racing against the all-stars of Norway, Sweden and other powerhouse ski nations, not everyone gets the chance to do so year after year.
A former University of Utah skier, Kevin Bolger, now 25, managed to make his way onto the international ski scene this past March, sprinting to 11th place in his debut World Cup race in Lahti, Finland. Two weekends later, Bolger claimed another top 30 at the World Cup Finals in Falun, Sweden.
His breakthrough came after less than a year of training with the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF) Gold Team; Bolger graduated from Utah in May of 2017.
The timing was impeccable. Just as Bolger was working toward a spot at the World Cup level, two U.S. veterans stepped away from the circuit. Flowers’s husband, Andy Newell announced this spring that he would pursue new career adventures and train apart from the U.S. Ski Team (USST), and Noah Hoffman officially retired from ski racing in March.
By the end of May, Bolger had earned a nomination to the USST B-Team.
In an email to FasterSkier this spring, Bolger himself concluded that his transition to World Cup racing “couldn’t have been written any better.”
Making it onto the women’s World Cup circuit as an American, at least for the past six years, has been more complicated. It’s even harder to make the USST. Since 2010, a number of strong names — like Sadie Bjornsen, Jessie Diggins, Ida Sargent, and Sophie Caldwell — have been added to the team, while few women have left.
Aside from the retirements of Kikkan Randall and Liz Stephen this spring, Holly Brooks was the only other woman to retire from the team in the past six years. Brooks left in 2014.
Rosie Brennan was first nominated to the USST in high school before being renominated in 2015, and had been on the team ever since, but was not renamed for the upcoming season.
In short, a roster of seven women (not including the development team) has been fairly standard to the USST for close to a decade.
Outside the national team, the U.S. domestic women’s field also witnessed a surge in talent and depth over the last six years. From 2012 to 2018 alone, at least 10 non-national-team women worked their way to the World Cup race scene, including Caitlin Patterson, Kaitlynn Miller and Liz Guiney of the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, Chelsea Holmes, Becca Rorabaugh and Rosie Frankowski of Alaska Pacific University, Caitlin Gregg of Team Gregg (when she wasn’t on the national team in 2015), Jennie Bender of the Bridger Ski Foundation, and Anne Hart of the Stratton Mountain School.
Any skier pushing to make a break would have a number of strong names to work around. But for Flowers, racing World Cups was a long-term goal, as was making skiing a sustainable profession for herself. She could spend hours sifting over rosters and names, but the only way to confirm anything was to try it out for herself.
After graduating from Dartmouth in 2012, Flowers regularly finished in the top 10 of the overall SuperTour standings. She, too, earned a few World Cup starts. Flowers completed in all three races at 2017 World Cup Finals in Québec City, Québec, with a best result of 48th in the skate sprint.
In the end-of-year SuperTour standings, her ranking also saw a steep jump. From 2013 to 2014, she went from 32nd to fifth overall and was fifth again in 2015. The next season, she finished seventh overall and was fifth again in 2017. She capped off this season with her best finish to date, earning fourth.
Still, the sought-after World Cup starts remained elusive. As she developed, the USST also gained steam. Any progression she made also seemed to be matched by the cohort of American skiers she had be racing against since her departure from Dartmouth.
So why did she, summer after summer, push through intervals on rollerskis? Why spend each winter traveling to competitions, as Flowers put it, “living out of a bag”? Why did she continue to ski race year after year?
Flowers was five years old when she first learned that her mother had breast cancer. Four years after her mother’s diagnosis, the family moved from Missoula to Bozeman. There, Flowers and her younger sister, Natalie, joined the Bridger Ski Foundation (BSF) cross-country youth program.
The BSF community provided a niche for the Flowers siblings. The cancer treatments their mother was receiving also showed promise. Following her diagnosis and treatments in 1995, Hedvig Rappe-Flowers, Erika’s mom, was cancer-free for more than five years, according to an article by the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.
But the cancer returned. Rappe-Flowers, a native of Sweden, encouraged her daughters to keep skiing. Do what made them happy. Both of them did.
“My mom passed away from breast cancer when I was 17 which gave me a strong appreciation for how precious and valuable each day is and I know that I don’t want to waste one of them,” Flowers wrote in an email. “I think that’s another reason I probably decided to ski race for as long as I did — it was my first love and for all I know I could find out I have breast cancer tomorrow.
“What I do know is that I spent the last 16 years of my life doing something I absolutely loved!” she continued. “I think that has been on my mind a lot these days, especially given Kikkan’s recent diagnosis.”
Randall was diagnosed with breast cancer last month.
“Kikkan’s a tough cookie though and I have no doubt she will tackle cancer the same way she has her many other challenges in skiing and in life — with equal parts fierce tenacity, bravery and grace,” Flowers added.
While joining Randall in skiing’s elite racing ranks was certainly a goal, it wasn’t the only reason Flowers skied. Nor did she ski in her mother’s name — though Hedvig did instill in her daughters an enthusiasm for nordic sport and a steely resolve in all that they chose to do.
“At her memorial service, one of the songs we played was ‘Hard Headed Woman’ — that really kind of describes her,” Flowers said. “She wouldn’t take no from anyone and believed so strongly in the idea that you could do anything you set your mind to.”
The mercurial sport of cross-country ski racing had taken its hold. And Flowers was not about to let go.
Racing brought numerous challenges. Days when her body felt great, but the wax was too slow. Times when foul weather hit midway through a competition, slowing the course.
“Those variables can be extremely frustrating when they don’t go your way,” Flowers wrote.
Frustrating, but simultaneously motivating, in its own way.
“When everything does come together, it’s the most exhilarating and addicting feeling in the world!” she noted. “I think I always thrived on the challenge of it all.”
Four years ago, Flowers even gave biathlon a shot, traveling to Lake Placid, N.Y., for a US Biathlon talent camp. While she showed promise, Flowers ultimately stuck with cross-country.
Skiing had deeper roots than racing and results for Flowers. It was a family affair (she credits her mother with having taught her how to skate ski). It was how she met most of her closest friends. It was also how she met her husband, Newell, whom she married last year.
“The people, the fact that every day my job is to go outside and work on getting better at something I love, the travel, and the challenge and unpredictability of professional sport,” Flowers wrote of what had kept her ski racing into her late twenties. “Lastly the support of countless friends, sponsors and supporters is one of the most important things that kept me involved for so long. Had I not had that level of support I would not have been able to race for as long as I did or reach the levels of success I did.”
At the root of Erika’s lifelong élan was, and still is, skiing.
About a year and a half shy of her 30th birthday, Flowers is back where it all started. She and her husband and former Stratton Mountain School (SMS) teammate, Newell, packed up a U-Haul this spring and drove from Vermont to Bozeman. Back in her hometown, Flowers competed in the 20-mile Ed Anacker Bridger Ridge Run in June. She still trains, most often with Newell, and unabashedly states that yes, she still rollerskis.
Since leaving Stratton, she does not currently have a formative training plan or program. Prior to moving, Flowers explored every “decision matrix possible” and spoke with numerous athletes and non-athletes alike about what she should do next. In the end, taking a step back from skiing seemed best.
“It wasn’t that I was sick of the lifestyle or anything like that,” Flowers explained. “I think it was more I’ve been doing it for long enough to recognize that my improvement curve is not what it needs to be in order to ultimately be able to make skiing into something that’s sustainable; something that can help me achieve some of the other goals I have in life, whether that’s getting a house or sitting on the board of a company.
“I think that’s also what made it so hard,” she continued. “In some ways it’s walking away from something I absolutely love to start at the bottom of another passion.”
Skiing has opened up a few other professional outlets for Flowers to pursue. She unofficially began social-media work for the National Nordic Foundation and USST this spring. She also is an athlete ambassador for the Women’s Sports Foundation. Her ties to nordic skiing becoming ever more intricate.
“Some people want to go all in for X number of years and retire and never look at a pair of rollerskis or race skis again,” Flowers reflected. “But to me, the word ‘retire’ sounds like something reserved for people in their late 60s, early 70s … maybe that’s why I haven’t used that word, it just doesn’t fit.
“I think for me, it’s more deciding to take a step back from pursuing racing full time and looking at opportunities to pursue something else more fully,” she said.
The change of pace is in no way preventing her from getting outside. With Newell still planning on ski racing, just not full time on the World Cup, she’s still plenty invested in the nordic world.
“From my end I just try to be supportive no matter what,” Newell said on the phone. “I think she’s been training so much and so well … she can take this year and try something new, even take a few months and try something new, and it would still be be pretty easy for her to jump into some races and make a comeback. Because I can tell you from my perspective, as her husband and as somebody that trains with her on a regular basis, she’s not slowing down even though she has other goals outside of skiing.”
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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.