At fifty-years-old, University of Vermont’s head cross-country ski coach Patrick Weaver is in a sweet spot. Since May 2010, the two-time Olympian has been at the helm in Burlington, Vermont guiding student-athletes on the Eastern Intercollegiate Ski Association (EISA) ski circuit. With a long tenure and accompanying success, Weaver has become a leading voice in New England when discussing reforms in the sport.
As the debate heated up this past September when FasterSkier published an Op-Ed about the potential hazards of ski waxes containing per-fluorocarbons, Weaver took note. According to Weaver during a phone interview in mid-March, he had already been thinking of ways to reform how the community consumed and applied per-fluorinated ski waxes. The Op-Ed for Weaver, and Weaver was not alone, became a tipping point. Some cross-country ski areas like Prospect Mountain implemented a total ban on fluoro wax use. Craftsbury reformed their waxing policies as it began to reevaluate how the use of some ski waxes aligned with their sustainability values.
EISA made its own move; starting this year, the ski league limited the use of fluoros as a speed enhancer at EISA only events. Only non-fluoro (NF) glide waxes were allowed on race day with an un-ironed fluoro liquid, block, or stick top-coat permitted as a final layer during skate events. On classic days, it was NF glide wax only.
Eco-purist waxers might cry foul with the top-coat allowance. It was, however, a step towards creating a more sustainable and healthy work flow for coaches who handle scores of skis on race day.
Below is our extensive interview with Weaver. His responses have been lightly edited for clarity.
FasterSkier: There seems to be a cultural conundrum when it comes to ski waxing — people want and desire fast skis. And wax techs spend upwards of 15-18 hours prepping skis at races like JNs. Do we support the brotherhood/sisterhood of the wax cabin and speed at all cost or try to evolve and do something differently?
Patrick Weaver: I don’t want my skiers to doubt their skis, and just saying that, that is part of the problem. If someone knows that they have a good wax tech, they may not have the fastest skis out there but the skier thinks they have the fastest skis out there. And that makes a difference.
To me, there is a lot of psychological effect behind skis too. Sometimes in fact you just have slow skis. But, if there’s a doubt, I sense that the athlete doubts their skis and they go into the race thinking that and things start going south. And period, they are done. That is a problem for the sport.
FasterSkier: What are your thoughts on the sport and how it might change in regards to time spent waxing?
Patrick Weaver: I was around when the first Cera F came out, a $100 bottle of powder and when it first came out you had to make a decision to buy a vial or not, because on certain days it was really going to make a big difference. And I remember I bought it, 100 bucks, and the first year it never went above 32 degrees for a race and I never used it. And it wasn’t until my second year, I still had it, and I had a warm wet race and I used it.
It kind of evolved from there to just starting to use it more and more. And the companies started making greater temperature ranges of the stuff. It went from when it was above 32 and wet and slushy to routinely applying a little bit of Cera F or Jet Stream. When I got into coaching 13 years ago, I came right from basically doing marathon races, and we already had the choice of a liquid, block or powders.
We would often test all three to determine which one was fastest. And we would burn the powders if that was the fastest, use the liquid if the liquid was fastest, or a block if that was fastest. Then it evolved to you have to put the powder on, and then on top of that you have the liquid or block or maybe you are going to create a slurry.
It just got to this point of you have to put your LF on, your HF on, then your powder on, then your liquid or block, and the amount of time it would take to wax the skis was incredible.
Not only that, you need to test all these other things. I remember when I was, again I am dating myself, when I was in college, I remember, we would wax our own skis. Let me state this, I know sports evolve, but I remember the biggest thing I looked for from my coach was split times and the other coach would take video
We still do split times now if we can get out there…if we have time…but taking video of a race so we can analyze, that never happens. We would never ever be able to do that now. We just don’t have the time. One coach has to be in the wax trailer, and one coach, if they are lucky, can run out and do some splits.
FasterSkier: With that picture painted, what does race morning look like for your team?
Patrick Weaver: On race morning we are wax techs. Oftentimes we have to leave our athletes at the hotel, drive early to the race site so we can set up and start testing wax and applying wax. And we are in a position now, if we don’t have an extra coach or a third or fourth coach, the athletes have to drive themselves to the race venue. I just feel like especially at the college level, we have so much to do, and unfortunately most of our time needs to be tending to the wax and the skis. And we forget that we are the travel agents, making sure athletes are getting fed, we are the transportation. There is so much on our plate. We have to focus so much on the wax and the skis that sometimes I feel like we are not doing the athletes a service and not being coaches — they need coaches too and not just wax techs on the race day.
FasterSkier: The EISA rules seem straightforward: NF wax on the glide zones, with a un-ironed top-coat for skate. Then for classic it is strictly NF in the glide zones. For both techniques, skis are “equalized” or “cleaned” by applying a minimum of two layers of NF glide wax prior to the race (this can include a NF layer of travel wax). So just to be clear, the two layers of NF wax is the pre-race cleaning protocol when it comes to potential fluoros on a ski?
Patrick Weaver: It can be complicated. But yes, that is the protocol. I think some of us were also concerned about a fluoro cleaner containing the PFOA in it. I think we just felt cleaning with two layers of NF would be adequate. I am sure there are some wax companies or tech people out there that say there are still fluoros in those skis, despite the two-layer NF protocol, it still doesn’t matter.
We had to start somewhere and we just felt that it would help even out the skis.
FasterSkier: Is this a similar policy to last year or this something new?
Patrick Weaver: No, all this was new. There were a couple of other proposals floating around that did just ask for all NF wax. But, in practice, it is a little bit hard with the cross pollination idea — if you do go to U.S. Nationals and your fluoroing skis and you come back to an EISA race and you forget to clean your skis, that may happen. People are going to make mistakes and all of a sudden a mistake is going to be an accusation of cheating.
And so, we just felt that the cleaning process would help just even out a ski and also if we did just go pure NF, we felt, especially in a skate race, if you go from a Nationals to an Eastern Cup, or EISA race, you know, back and forth between fluoros and no-fluoros, its a policy to help prevent those mistakes that might be made.
If we are one league and we have no outside people racing in our league, NF is pretty easy. But when you are doing other races, and you do have that cross pollination of wax from race to race, then all of sudden, people are going to make mistakes and they have a fully fluorinated ski at an EISA race — you can lose control of the ski fleet.
Among the EISA folks, we are in an easy league to set something and expect everyone would do it. For probably eight or nine years we have had wax restrictions, not as strong as the one we had this year, but over eight or nine years there have been probably two races where people have kind of scratched their heads and wondered if this team actually did do that or not. But other than that, I have never walked away from a race saying those people cheated other than maybe two times when it seemed kind of suspicious.
FasterSkier: I think it is clear that the rules for waxing are all over the map nationally. Each club region has its own rules. JNs reverts back to what appears to be something like anything goes. Even at the high school level here in Oregon, the State Championship race had guidelines which, as far as I can tell, were a lack of guidelines. For glide I heard only CH, or CH and a topcoat, LF or HF, and a “yeah you can burn fluoros” — four distinct protocols for a high school race. Some kids had their club wax for kick, some had parents wax, some had their overburdened high school crew wax. So, yeah, all over the map. I’m not sure if it is a lack of trust or what, but why, in your opinion, do the EISA rules work in your community?
Patrick Weaver: I don’t know honestly. When we started out, eight or nine years ago, I did ask the league, “why are we doing this every weekend? Why are we dumping fluoros on the skis? At the end of the day, we are putting the same stuff on the skis and we are exhaustively testing and we are exposing ourselves to these chemicals.” My main concern is that we are lifetime coaches, most of us are not just doing this for three or four years. We have coaches that have been coaching for 35 years.
So sure, we are not doing this 12 months out of the year. But our exposure rate is probably higher than the normal person in society. Another argument, like I said before, we are not just wax techs, we are coaches, and we are travel agents, we have a lot on our plate. We are dealing with student-athletes, who are trying to get focused on school more importantly than skiing. I think for the EISA, we have a bunch of people that may realize that we are not trying to make our jobs easier, but that we are just trying to make our jobs a little more sane in the winter.
We may get accused of being just lazy coaches, and that just kind of makes me so angry. In the winter, whether I’m on the road or getting ready to be on the road — I don’t clock in but I see my hours — I am working 70-80 hours a week. For anyone to call us lazy when we are working 70-80 hours a week is maddening. I really do feel that. So I think people are able to look at themselves in the mirror, and this does not apply to all the coaches, they look at themselves in the mirror and see what we are doing to ourselves.
But when you have coaches that are buying into a system like that, it is a lot easier to trust each other. If you have a league with so many outside people involved, I could totally see how all it would take is one parent who feels they want to get their kids the fastest skis out there and it falls apart. That makes me ill too. You are not setting your child up for success. Reality is going to hit at some point and they are not going to have the fastest skis if they are just going to cheat when they are young.
Maybe that kid gets to another league and the skis are going to be even and they are not going to be winning. If you are looking for long term success, it is not reality in my mind.
FasterSkier: I had heard back in September that you were talking about a fluoro ban. I am curious when all this was swirling around in New England, what were the conversations like with your athletes? Were they concerned about ski-speed equity? You know, them being worried about having slow skis?
Patrick Weaver: The conversation I had with the athletes was up front. I told them I did not think this product was safe that we are using, and that we are not using it in a safe manner. We were lucky that we had a new ski room being built for us. We had a construction company come in and they saw what we were using, and they were the ones that were like, “if you are going to be using this, you need downdraft tables with charcoal filters.”
So now, here at the school, we have these tables that work great and get rid of probably 80 to 90 percent of particulate matter in the air. When you are finished waxing you feel clean. But when I initially told the athletes of my concerns, a lot of them were like, “ah it is in everything, it doesn’t matter.” They are at that age, it does not matter. They are invincible, like I was back then.
At the same time, we said we are working on protocols and whenever we need to use fluoros, we are going to be using it. I never said, “hey, I am not using this stuff anymore, I don’t care what your skis are like.” It was like, “we are moving forward, you need fast skis, so when we are allowed to use it we are going to use it. And when this protocol calls for restrictions we are going to go with restrictions.”
Skiers have to make the best of every day. Some days it is going to take you out of the race, some days it is going to help you win the race, and some days it is just all you. Everyday, you have to go 110 percent. Because if you are not going 110 percent whether you have fast or slow skis it doesn’t really matter.
FasterSkier: How did this play out this year? And what does it look like if I walk into the UVM wax room or the wax trailer at a mobile event? How do you folks operate when it comes to using the chemicals?
Patrick Weaver: Not well enough. Our exposure was much much less this year. We probably only powdered for a handful of races, the rest of them we just used the blocks and or liquids, which produces much less particulate matter. I do feel that we were exposed much less. When we do powder we use full face masks, I rarely wax without gloves anymore, and then if we are using a NF wax, it is maybe not a full face mask, but I am using a small respirator or a dust mask. We are constantly trying to protect ourselves. For off-site waxing, we are in a box, it is not a ventilated box. Some teams out there have done a really nice job — they have downdraft tables in their trailers and theirs are so much cleaner than the rest of us. When they brush the particulate goes down and it is filtered.
Whether we are using the potent stuff or just NF, we are dealing with particulate matter and I have been a carpenter before and even when I was a carpenter, you did not want to breath in wood dust.
So if you want to be safe you need to have the budget to build a 30 to 40 thousand wax trailer with a downdraft table. Not every parent has to go out and drag one of those to the races. But if you are going to be a ski coach and do it for many years, it should be something you consider. That makes me a little, not sad, but like “gosh this is what we have to do to make fast skis.”
I do tell my kids it is part of the sport and that there are very few days you will have the slowest skis out there, and very few days you’ll have the fastest skis out there, and most of the days, you are going to have average skis. That is just part of the sport.
FasterSkier: Do the EISA coaches discuss working collectively? Do you have the conversation about collective waxing, being transparent about what you are using, and another team can choose to copy it or not.
Patrick Weaver: We discussed that. Some people are against that. I don’t hate waxing, but it is not my favorite part of the sport. There are a lot of coaches out there that waxing is their way to help their athletes. The better the skis they can produce, the more credibility they have on race day and it helps their athletes be successful.
I would say for those types, that takes their competitive advantage away. If they weren’t able to go out, test, and etc. I think that is the reason some people don’t want that policy. I would be all for it for glide waxing. But we still have classic waxing where we have to be technicians, that is always going to be part of the sport — to get the right kick.
But with glide, I feel even when it is NF, we are waxing with less dangerous stuff -we think – we don’t really know what is in the NF, but we still work very hard, but it doesn’t take as much time. We are still testing, we are still busy at work doing that. I feel a little bit better about using NF, but we have to be safe with it.
On the other hand, there is still the classic wax. I don’t think we can kick wax collectively as easily as you can with skate. But at the same time, I also feel classic wax is this: you get up in the morning, you have two hours to figure it out, and you test it, you put it on your skis, and the athletes go.
Classic skiing involves more coaching. You are talking to your athletes on race morning about their skis. There is direct and open communication between the coach and the athlete on classic days because they are the ones skiing it, and they are the ones if they need more or less kick, they direct it. On a classic day the athlete becomes part of the process because they give you as much feedback as you are giving them.
As for the glide, for the amount of time and energy and layers of wax we apply, there is very little communication, or maybe I am doing something wrong. I never have an athlete after we hand them their race-ready skate skis come running back and say, “no no no I need a little more glide on my tail or whatever.” They just take the skis and go race, and if they are fast they tell us after the race, and if they are slow they tell us after the race.
FasterSkier: You don’t have athletes come up and say “the glide is horrible right now Patrick, what are you using?”
Patrick Weaver: No. They tell us after the race after someone goes by them really fast, or after they pass someone really fast. They don’t know. We wouldn’t either. We think something is fast, we put it on, and we hope it is.
They test their skis, and they say, “I want to use these skis,” and that is the communication we have with them. And then we dump all the stuff on the skis. Then we hand it to them and they race. That is it.
For classic, you learn and you develop this relationship around the athlete and classic skiing and classic waxing. You give them a ski, they go out and test. We have some athletes that every time they will come back and say they need a little bit more, or, “I just need a bump under the toe.” Some come back come back nine times out of ten and say, “yah they are perfect, I am ready to go, don’t touch them.” You get to know your athletes.
It is really hard to wax for someone you don’t know, maybe they are shy, and they don’t want to say they don’t have enough kick. Or maybe the skis are slow, and it takes time to develop that. I like that part of the sport, there is coaching. For the glide, it is just hours and hours and hours and layer after layer after layer and, then “here you go and have a good race,” and that is it.
And you cannot even usually say that because you have a mask on.
FasterSkier: What about the big quivers? That can be tough to manage at the collegiate level. What do you recommend for your athletes in terms of their quiver?
Patrick Weaver: It is an ongoing joke on our team. Perry Thomas, the other coach on our team, my assistant coach here, he handles most of the quivers — he inventories all the skis. We work together, but he is the ski-person. I just send the athletes to him to discuss skis. He knows them the most, but I am always the voice of reason. Perry will come back and say, “they want to test three or four skis,” and I will say, “nope, just bring it down to two.”
I do try to simplify things. With that being said, we are at a high level. In a perfect world they would have a cold ski, a universal ski, and a warm ski both in classic and skate. So that is six pairs and you would need a zero, so seven pairs of skis. Which is still a lot.
But we have athletes that just have a warm and a cold ski, or a hard wax and a klister ski, and a zero, so they are down to five. They do fine. Maybe in some cases they could have had a faster ski, but it is so simple. They might ask, “hey, what skis should I use.” I simply respond, “if it is going to be warm, use your warm ski.” And if it is going to be in between, maybe we will wax both and test and determine the fastest pair.
The simplicity behind that is a relief and the athletes appreciate it too. They are not worried about testing and which skis they should use and having that constant doubt that maybe that other one was faster. The skiers with simple fleets, it is easier, it is so refreshing to say we are just going with this ski that we know is a good ski, and then wax it up and just go for it.
Most of the time they have good skis. I use many friends in the industry for advice on where to go for waxing and for ski selection. I need them to do my job well all the time. When I speak up against this, the way-too-big-quiver, I really do feel for the ski industry and their business model. I am trying to use them for advice, but at the same time I am pushing for fewer skis and less wax and I do feel like I am in an awkward situation with that too.
The question persists: If there are wax restrictions then do people really need this huge fleet of skis? I have had skiers on my team for years, even when we had no wax restrictions and they still had a huge fleet of skis. I don’t understand why all of sudden, everyone needs a huge fleet of skis now that there are wax restrictions. At some level I understand it, but at the same time, that whole argument that fluoros equalize the skis, I just don’t buy into that as much as some other people do I guess.
FasterSkier: Do you envision EISA moving into a full NF only policy with no liquids, no blocks, no sticks?
Patrick Weaver: I do. I mean again, I cannot speak for everybody. But, we talk about this black market where people say, “oh I am just going to go out and buy this wax.” I guess it is not really the black market, it was simply a lot of wax product we have used in the past that you could not get anymore. And I think a lot of us were just managing limited stockpiles of wax, stuff we had purchased in the past, and some of our favorite stuff we could not get anymore. We had to adapt and rely on other stuff.
Every race was a little different — even at big races this year, we were like, “well this is the last time we are going to use this.”
I just don’t think that is a very fair way to move forward. If we cannot import a certain wax into the country, it is not really fair if someone is willing to go over to Europe and buy a whole bunch of wax, and smuggle it back. That is totally wrong. Unless there is an open market and we can still freely buy it, and we all have access to the waxes, I just don’t see an alternative. I just don’t think it is a fair way to operate if we don’t have equal access.
FasterSkier: Would this potential new rule have specific verbiage, like here are the pre-existing waxes that are available commercially to everybody in the U.S., therefore it falls within the waxing rules. If it is NF for example, or a commercially available block, stick, or liquid, then it would be OK?
Patrick Weaver: I would think that is the route we would go. I do think there are enough people in the EISA now that we would just go NF. With that being said too, there are several coaches that are just like, “let’s simplify this and be like X brand, Y brand, and Z brand.” Which I don’t know if that is fair or not, because again we are just going down another rabbit hole, doing the same thing with different stuff.
There are some people that ask why are we doing this, why have restrictions? Your very first question, about entering this brotherhood or sisterhood community, and the idea that well we are ski coaches, this is what we do, we have got to do it, we have to be up to one o’clock waxing skis, this is what we do.
This is not what we need to do.
This is going to be a bottom up process. We don’t want to use this “forever particle,” the fluoros, with precaution. Even if it is not harming us, what right do we have to use this? I feel even if we do move away from fluoros one-hundred-percent, in the long run, the sport is still going to be a great sport.
Jason lives in Bend, Ore., and can often be seen chasing his two boys around town. He’s a self-proclaimed audio geek. That all started back in the early 1990s when he convinced a naive public radio editor he should report a story from Alaska’s, Ruth Gorge. Now, Jason’s common companion is his field-recording gear.