Elite Programs Ramp Up for Modified Training

Jason AlbertMay 20, 2020
From left, APU athletes Rosie Frankowski, Sadie Bjornsen, Hailey Swirbul, Becca Rorabaugh, and Caroline Brisbois maintain a healthy distance while skiing at Hatcher Pass on May 13, 2020. (photo credit: ?)
From left, APU athletes Rosie Frankowski, Sadie Bjornsen, Hailey Swirbul, Becca Rorabaugh, and Caroline Brisbois demonstrate a healthy distance while skiing at Hatcher Pass on May 13, 2020. (Photo: Courtesy Sadie Bjornsen)

Although the training cycle has officially begun, it decidedly has a different vibe and look. Adding some complexity to our short-term new normal are a crosshatch of state, county, and city regulations as it relates to mitigating the community spread of Covid-19. The core question elite cross-country ski programs are asking is this: How can we most responsibly promote safe and effective training for their athletes? 

(The United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC) has released a document titled Return to Training Considerations Post-COVID-19  This document provides useful information for organizations reopening.)

FasterSkier reached out to four programs in the U.S. — the Craftsbury Green Racing Project (CGRP), Stratton Mountain School’s SMS T2 team, SVSEF’s Gold Team, and Alaska Pacific University Nordic Ski Center’s Elite Team to gauge how athletes can train within the context of their regional social distancing guidelines. The answers are complex. And as each respondent stated, no one single person or group has all the right answers other than to stay informed and err on the side of safety. 

Craftsbury Green Racing Project

Head CGRP coach Pepa Miloucheva responded to our query. Craftsbury’s team is located in Northeastern Vermont, a rural and isolated region. When Miloucheva responded on May 8, the Craftsbury Outdoor Center remained closed to the public. Along with key staff, those GRP athletes and coaches that live on campus year-round continued to be in residence. This group includes coaches and athletes from the ski, biathlon, and rowing teams. 

“Most of us that didn’t go anywhere this spring have been in strict isolation since March — no store trips or anywhere else. Skiers and biathletes live in the same house, their food is ordered through the center, athletes cook in the house and do train together, but still try not to be in more than 2-3 people groups,” explained Miloucheva.

Several athletes were home with their families. Among them were Akeo Maifled-Carucci and Caitlin Patterson — both had been with their respective families in Bozeman, Montana. They returned to Craftsbury in mid-May. Miloucheva wrote that returning athletes will be quarantined for two weeks before they are allowed to move into team housing and join group practices.

“We do not share any buildings use with the rest of the center staff and if any work-related interactions are only by keeping a safe distance, wearing masks, and following all safety rules and regulations. This said, honestly we don’t have much of those really, we pretty much just interact between ourselves right now.”

Gold Team

Sun Valley and surrounding Blaine County, Idaho were early Covid-19 hot spots. Since early March, community members there have been acutely aware of grim realities of community spread. Since then, the caseload has leveled off. 

According to Chris Mallory, Gold Team head coach, his core unit of skiers have not had group training sessions for the past two months. However, with the canceled racing in March, Mallory said several of his athletes extended their on-snow training north of their home base in town. Like many adapting to the modified season, high volume was the trend for March and April training.

“It was unfortunate the race season got cut short, but it allowed for two months of big volume to finish out the season,” Mallory emailed. “So we’re starting up training a little later than normal this year and for now, coaches are directing workouts remotely. We’re looking to get programming going closer to normal in June, but some things will be structured differently.”

Mallory explained that training group size will be kept below 10 athletes and the norm of committing in a team van will be held off for the near future. 

“So we won’t have big cross-team training sessions for a while, unfortunately. We’ll also pick training locations such as Trailheads which are off the beaten path or sections of the bike path which see less traffic for rollerskiing, so physical distancing can be easier to achieve.  We might have a partner gym opening up in a week which will allow for some strength training to occur for our Gold Team, but we’re also putting some effort into creating an outdoor strength area outside the Lake Creek ski hut as well.” 


SMST2 skier Ian Torchia on a recent VT. ride. (Photo: Courtesy Ian Torchia)

Nestled in southern Vermont, the Stratton Mountain School offers an idyllic campus for the SMST2 team. This spring, as the pandemic and its accompanying restrictions unfolded, the state-mandated that both residents and non-residents traveling into Vermont must self-quarantine for 14 days. That rule was recently extended until June 15.

Some SMST2 athletes are currently out of state, while others, like Ian Torchia, have remained in the Stratton area since the end of the season. Ben Ogden and new SMST2 skier Bill Harmeyer returned to their Vermont homes to remotely finish out the academic year at the University of Vermont.  

“Initially we were thinking where do you want to be for a two-week self-quarantine,” Patrick O’Brien, SMST2’s head coach said in a call. “Thankfully we also thought about where do people want to be for an extended period of time this spring. And many people already had plans in place — knowing we may be in this for a longer period of time than we were thinking at the beginning of March.”

As June approaches, O’Brien explained that he too has begun defining how training will look, and how to best integrate athletes into specific training groups. 

“First and foremost in my mind is what can we legally do, what can we responsibly do, and what are the creative solutions that we can come up with? And understanding again that no one here has a crystal ball; we can look at models, we can look at forecasts, we can monitor the situation but it is going to be a moving target,” said O’Brien. “So really what we are trying to do is find a balance. We are trying to be fully compliant and very safe and cautious and also monitor the situation locally.”

Harmeyer, who had been self-quarantined in Burlington, drove to Stratton recently to begin his full-time training. Due to his limited exposure while in Burlington, he was allowed to integrate with a small training group. Ben Saxton, on the other hand, recently flew back to Vermont from the Midwest. According to O’Brien, he is self-quarantining for the required 14 day period.

For the time being, O’Brien envisions training groups organized around pods – another word he used interchangeably for families. Athletes living together will be considered training pods where they are able to be in close proximity to one another. O’Brien acknowledged this arrangement will be closely monitored and reassessed. 

“We need to track and see what seems responsible for group training, but again we want to make sure people are safe and healthy and if we operate in these small groups, and everyone in that group is a ‘family member’, then we know that they are OK to go out and do stuff together. What we want to do is be creative in our approach to these challenges, but really we want to be reasonable.”

Although Vermont’s shelter-in-place order was extended to June 15, it currently allows for outdoor exercise.

“Every challenge presents an opportunity,” O’Brien said. “We are not going to jump on a plane and go to a bunch of different training camps. That doesn’t prevent us from having high-quality training locally. It presents an opportunity. And reaffirms a model of working together and training together.”

Alaska Pacific University Nordic Ski Center

Anchorage is typically a very good place to be a cross-country skier. While so much else has changed in the world this spring, this fact has remained a reassuring constant for the athletes of the Alaska Pacific University Nordic Ski Center (APUNSC) Elite Team, as well as the greater Anchorage ski community. There was seasonal weather, both snow and cold, in the second half of this winter, leading to a sea-level snowpack that lingered well into April. Trail grooming is performed by a nonprofit group, Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage, that relies on voluntary donations rather than mandatory trail passes while grooming on public land, so grooming continued unabated through March and into late April. And public health-wise, Alaska’s isolation, coupled with a relatively aggressive early response, has led to, so far, consistently low COVID-19 numbers throughout the state, currently the lowest gross numbers of any state and the third-lowest per-capita infection rate behind Hawaii and Montana.

Hailey Swirbul (APU/USST) skis at Hatcher Pass on May 13, 2020. (photo credit: ?)
Hailey Swirbul (APU/USST) skis at Hatcher Pass on May 13, 2020. (photo credit: Sadie Bjornsen)

Put it all together, and APU athletes were enjoying groomed skiing at sea level through April 23, with world-class crust skiing coming on line around the time the in-town ski season was winding to a close. (Any April training happened unofficially and in smaller groups, in deference to both the overall training schedule and health mandates in effect at that time. Although a group of four APU athletes did hunker down together in the APU Ski House starting in mid-March, forming a de facto family unit and training group in which half the people were a member of the U.S. Ski Team.) A 75-minute drive away, fellow nonprofit Mat-Su Ski Club has been grooming the trails at Independence Mine, in the Hatcher Pass area, since last October 5… and with a snowpack that currently measures around four feet, is still going. It’s hard to prove a negative, but APU skiers currently enjoy ready access to what are likely the only groomed nordic trails on the entire continent right now.

Here’s Erik Flora – longtime Alaska Pacific University Nordic Ski Center head coach, sometime trail groomer, and consistently an archetypal do-it-all coach – with a recent email giving an official update on the APU Elite Team:

We have learned that the logistics of keeping our athletes safe while following COVID-19 state mandates has been at the forefront of the APUNSC program. Our core is based around health and wellness, and the safety of our program members is our top priority at all times, similar to other ski communities. APUNSC has had an advantage of having trails and snow on the mountains minutes from our doors to continue training, even in times of quarantine.

“Nordic Ski Center Elite training program began on May 1. We were fortunate that State of Alaska quarantine and social distancing mandates began to lessen at the beginning of May, allowing the Elite Team to be able to begin training in smaller groups outside in the mountains. The Elite team wore face mask or buffs and kept the mandated 6-10 ft separation while outdoors. 

“At first, groups of 20 were allowed to hit the trails with a mandated 6-10 feet of separation for active workout sessions. We wore masks when training and avoided crowded parking lots and trailheads where we could. 

“Once phase 2 [of state health mandates] hit a week ago, it allowed now the entire Elite Team to be able to head into the mountains to train and ski. Hatcher Pass has been an area where Crust Skiing is at its best with longer days and blazing sunshine. The grooming has been incredible thanks to the work of Nordic Ski Club of Anchorage and the Mat-Su Ski club. The Elite athletes still uphold the 6-10 ft separation when training. The athletes are happy to be together as a team again, and with that comes the responsibility to treat allowances with respect and not take it for granted. We are living and training as athletes in a time where our community could fall back to strict quarantine.  

“We’ve stayed away from indoor training as a team in gyms, as not only is the safety of our team top priority, but the team has excelled in their own in-home conditioning and in getting outside to hit the trails. Only if necessary, for some athletes rehabbing, will we recommend using an indoor gym for conditioning and training.  

“APU Nordic Ski Center typically runs 3 elite training camps [each summer] on Eagle Glacier at the Thomas Training Facility outside of Girdwood, Alaska. We will revisit whether Glacier camps will resume based on the climate of COVID-19 Adjustments.”

(For any Outside readers salivating over the prospect of May skiing and thinking of booking a cheap plane ticket north, please note that a 14-day quarantine requirement remains in effect for anyone traveling into Alaska from out of state, and that Alaska State Parks is likely to plow the road up to Independence Mine in early June.)

Jason Albert

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.

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