By: Paige Elliott
The call to action is clear: Nordic skiing needs more women coaches. From the launch of the Women’s Ski Coaching Association to former U.S. Ski Team coach Pete Vordenberg’s editorial on FasterSkier to Dr. Nicole LaVoi’s keynote presentation at U.S. Ski & Snowboard annual National Cross Country Coaches Symposium, gender equality has been at the forefront of recent conversation in the Nordic community.
I believe in this mission and therefore want to highlight a program that is doing an exemplary job of developing, advancing, and retaining female coaches, yet has been largely absent from the conversation. That program is U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing (USPN).
When asked why he thought female coaches are so scarce in the Nordic world, John Farra, the former director of USPN, answered, “My theory would be that women are not encouraged as often or aren’t provided as many opportunities to take leadership roles in the Nordic space.”
This thought is consistent with research conducted by Dr. Nicole LaVoi and the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota. Even without the research, plenty of women coaches can provide anecdotal evidence regarding the frustration of their experiences trying to break into a typically male-dominated field.
“How many women have stopped coaching because they don’t feel valued, or are not given opportunities to advance?” said Eileen Carey, current director of USPN. “If more women had better experiences coaching, we’d probably have more women coaches.”
This is why I was surprised when USPN invited me to test skis with the glide wax department at the Paralympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea in 2018. I had been coaching juniors with Durango Nordic Ski Club for five years, but was new to para-Nordic skiing and international level competition. USPN gave me the opportunity to learn.
One of the first things I noticed upon arriving in South Korea was that for the first time in my coaching experience, I wasn’t outnumbered by men. Of the 14 coaches and support staff members, seven were men and seven were women. Furthermore, the women, who included powerhouses like Carey, Kristina Trygstad-Saari, and BethAnn Chamberlain, were far from statistical tokens. (Chamberlain was just recognized by the USOPC as the Developmental Coach of the Year.)
“[John Farra and I] made the decision on how we wanted to build our staff based on who was really competent and who was good in a team environment,” said Carey. “We chose who was best for the job, and that happened to be half women.”
In PyeongChang, USPN won a total of 16 medals, a tremendous increase from the three garnered during the 2014 Paralympics in Sochi, Russia. The 16 medals were comprised of six gold, seven silver, and three bronze and accounted for nearly half of the 36 medals won by Team USA at the Paralympics. Farra credits a large part of this immense success to Carey, who was head coach of the program at the time.
“What we experienced in Korea was this perfect symphony of human beings coming together with a purpose, without egos,” said Farra. “It was an unbelievable experience to be around so many passionate, powerful people who executed their roles so well. That was orchestrated by Eileen and her style of leadership.”
Another key member of the half female coaching staff is Chamberlain, who serves as the emerging athlete coach. She utilizes her trademark enthusiasm and approachability to coordinate with clubs nationwide to identify, recruit, and develop emerging athletes.
“BethAnn is ideally suited for this line of work,” said Farra. “Her intensity, her passion, she’s just incredible for wrapping people in and getting them fired up.
Chamberlain, who had a 15-year career as a professional biathlete before she started coaching, also offers USPN a fount of technical knowledge regarding all things skiing and shooting.
“She has an extensive background in biathlon, so when athletes are new, they get a pretty thorough introduction to the sport,” said Gary Colliander, USPN’s biathlon coach. “She’s also very easy to work with, so this develops a great opportunity for other coaches to learn from her as well.”
When I asked Chamberlain, who also has experience coaching for non-adaptive programs such as Boulder Nordic Junior Racing Team and the Loppet Ski Club, what her favorite aspect of working with USPN is, she referenced the out of the box thinking required to coach adaptive skiing.
“The goal is the same as it is in non-adaptive skiing and biathlon, to ski fast and hit targets, but your approach to get there is a little different,” Chamberlain said. “Just because a standing skier skis with two poles, is that really the way someone with one pole should ski? We don’t know all the answers. We don’t know a lot of the answers. So that forces us to be a little more open-minded, to consider other possible ideas and solutions.”
In fact, throughout my conversations with various individuals associated with USPN, this ability to consistently consider alternatives emerged as the number one hallmark of an effective coach.
Farra described Carey as, “hands down the best coach that I’ve worked with” specifically because she is, “someone who asks more questions than has answers.”
“She is always asking why? Why are we doing it this way? Why can’t we do it that way?” said Farra. “And by asking so many questions, she evolved from someone with former racing experience and some touchpoints with coaching to a large driver of the team’s success.”
Nick Michaud, a USPN development team coach, cited “the courage to say I don’t know” as one of the most important things he’s learned from both working with Carey and the team.
“To see someone like Eileen, who has been doing this a long time and is at the top of her game, admit ‘I’m not sure’ when I ask a question, and then for us to go figure it out, is such a cool process,” said Michaud.
“Being able to do that helps puts some autonomy on the athletes, it opens the door for a lot more learning, and it makes a more collaborative process. I think the moment you start assuming things or think you know everything, that’s when the growth and development stops.”
Obviously, inquisitiveness and humility are not qualities specific to gender. I do not think it’s a coincidence, though, that an organization that has grown and improved and succeeded by consistently asking what it can do differently exemplifies equity.
At the introductory level, USPN strives to present opportunities for individuals to explore things they might not have otherwise thought possible. As athletes advance, USPN provides a framework for progression through the sport, which includes access to a range of highly-qualified professionals and resources. Assistant coach Trygstad-Saari handles initial communication with athletes, manages the logistics of the program, and in conjunction with Chamberlain, stokes enthusiasm. Michaud keeps a pulse on all groups and serves as a bridge for developing athletes who may be potential medalists.
At the elite level, athletes work with head coach Martin Benes and biathlon coach Colliander. They are also connected with a network of specialists within the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC), such as a strength coach, a sports psychologist, and a nutritionist.
This is all of course facilitated by Carey, whose staff and athletes can’t say enough good things about her efficiency, expertise, and color-coded spreadsheets.
“I’ve been really impressed with the caliber of coaching I’ve had in my eight years with the team,” said Dan Cnossen, an athlete on USPN’s National Team. Cnossen is a former Navy SEAL and a six-time Paralympic medalist. “They really consider and respond to athlete feedback. Tapping into the USOPC’s resources is also adding a lot of depth to the organization. The team is just getting better and better.”
The more I learn about how USPN develops Paralympic athletes, the more I realize how similar this process is to the way Nordic skiing should be developing female coaches. USPN removes barriers and provides opportunities for a minority population. This is analogous to presenting coaching as a viable career option to women and providing opportunities to pursue it.
Furthermore, USPN’s versatile approach and superlative support system allows athletes to not only explore skiing, but excel at it. Similarly, female coaches need professional development opportunities and a network of peers and allies, such as the WSCA, to thrive and advance in a traditionally male-dominated field.
What goes into creating successful athletes, coaches, and programs is vast and complex. Female leadership and gender equality may only be one piece of the puzzle, but I do believe it plays a powerful role. U.S. Paralympics Nordic provides a promising example for both the future of women’s ski coaching and promoting overall diversity in the sport.
As Michaud put it, “Hopefully we’re showing that we can mix up the way things are and be really good at winning medals.”
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