CollegiateGeneralNewsUAA Skiers, Past and Present, On What the Team Means to Them

Gavin Kentch Gavin KentchAugust 24, 2020
Erik Bjornsen on his way to second at 2011 NCAAs in Stowe, Vt., while a freshman at UAA.

ANCHORAGE — It’s déjà vu all over again for alumni and supporters of the University of Alaska Anchorage ski team, following the recent announcement that, for the second time in four years, university administration wishes to cut the team for budgetary reasons. A common theme in their current responses is their concern that this time, the cut may stick.

To start with, consider what Adam Verrier wrote on his blog four years ago, in November 2016. Verrier, who skied for the University of Wyoming in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was a member of the 1994 Olympic team for cross-country skiing. He’s also, by this point, the closest thing that the UAA nordic team has to institutional memory – since the last time the team was threatened to be cut, all athletes and both nordic coaches have completely rolled over.

Then, as now, Verrier wrote solely in his personal capacity. Verrier, who describes himself on his blog profile as “The UAA Nordic Team’s crazy uncle,” has never been on the UAA ski team staff; he has instead served as a volunteer assistant coach for many years. He has no official professional affiliation with the school.

All that said, here’s an excerpt from what Verrier wrote four years ago this fall:

Alaska is sometimes referred to as a “resource extraction state”. For centuries, people have been coming from other parts of the world to Alaska to get their paws on something valuable and bring it back “home” with them. The Russians came to fetch animal pelts and furs. Thousands showed up 120 years ago to dig a bunch of gold out of the ground and cart it back to the mainland. Folks came from the Pacific Northwest to catch salmon in Bristol Bay and cut down trees in Southeast. College students from around the USA come for summer jobs in the tourism industry. And Texans and Okies showed up in the ’70’s and ’80’s for oil, and they’re still here. None of these groups have been particularly concerned with building infrastructure and amenities here in Alaska – the things that enrich our lives, our culture, our cities and towns – because their goal has been to amass wealth and take it back “home”.

I see it all the time at my “day job”, flying around the state and appraising the homes of people who are getting their kit together for their migration back “home” after “putting in their time” in Alaska. I frequently sit next to people on airplanes who say things along the lines of, “I figure I’ve got just a few more years up here and then I should have enough saved and I’ll move the family back to ________. I’ve already bought a parcel of land down there. It’s been a good run, but of course there’s nothing to do up here during the miserable winters.”  And I hear the same thing from people selling their homes to move “back home”.  Do you think these people want to pay taxes in Alaska and invest in local amenities like libraries, city parks, elementary education, and the state university system?  Of course not.  They’re extracting resources. They’re extracting wealth. Their priorities lie elsewhere.

The full blog post may be found here. It’s worth your time (and shorter than this fine work, which makes similar points). Verrier’s observations on the historical relationship between Alaska and Outside, and on residents’ views of state spending in a state with no income tax and where residents are literally paid annually just for living here, remain trenchant and applicable today. (More on Verrier later in this article.)

Hailey Swirbul

University of Alaska Anchorage Seawolves skiers Hailey Swirbul (l) and Casey Wright (r), photographed on the UAA campus in Anchorage, Alaska, in October 2016. (Photo: Gavin Kentch)

Four years ago, Hailey Swirbul was 18, a college freshman, recently arrived at UAA from Colorado and living on her own for the first time. She spoke with FasterSkier in October 2016 about the recent announcement that University of Alaska administrators wanted to cut the ski team after the 2016/2017 season. Before the three World Juniors medals, before the three (and counting) national championships, before the four (and counting) World Cup top-30 finishes, Swirbul sat in the Alaska Airlines Center next to teammate Casey Wright and told this reporter, somewhat presciently:

I don’t think we were necessarily singled out. But I can’t understand why they would cut skiing in Alaska. I don’t understand that. And I don’t think they understand why they cut us. I don’t know. … Were we singled out? No. Are we some of the best academic and hard-working people at UAA? Yes. And I don’t think they would purposefully single out those types of people to remove.

I would never wish this upon anyone else, and I can’t say that I would rather have the gymnastics be cut, or the hockey be cut – because this sucks. And I don’t want anyone to go through this.

Fast forward to 2020, and Swirbul is now a professional skier with Alaska Pacific University, or APU, literally just down the street in midtown Anchorage. Over the weekend, she took a break from training to write to FasterSkier as follows:

Well, it sure is frustrating to say the least. I almost feel a preemptive sense of defeat after going through this process a few years back. I’m afraid that the board is going to do it “right” this time – in their eyes, at least.

To those trying to cut the ski team at UAA, only 20 or so lives would be impacted directly. But they aren’t seeing the bigger picture. Cutting teams that actually have a presence on the collegiate circuit, like UAA, opens a gateway to risk losing skiing as a collegiate sport entirely, in my opinion. Less participants, less viewers/fans, less income. I’ve heard rumors that cutting UAA Alpine and Nordic might make the current RMISA system fail due to too few teams competing.

We all know that skiing is already not the most lucrative of sports, but in my view, it is unmatched in non-monetary benefits. Endurance sport instills a work ethic and drive that you don’t find just anywhere. As far as I know, the UAA Ski Team has been one of, if not THE, top team at UAA academically for years!! These hard-working, involved, dedicated people are the kinds of people I want in my community, and those are the kinds of people that skiing brings to Anchorage. I’m bummed about this announcement, but I can’t say I’m surprised after the way it was left a few years ago. I figured this might happen, and I’m ready to do my part to keep skiing at UAA. I just hope it’s enough.

(As Swirbul accurately notes, members of the UAA ski team have historically been strong students as well as strong athletes. At the 2019 NCAA Championships, for example, Swirbul’s former teammate and 2018 Australian Olympian, Casey Wright, won the Elite 90 Award, presented to the skier at NCAAs with the highest grade point average. Following the 2019/2020 ski season, UAA tied for third nationwide in total selections to the National Collegiate All-Academic Ski Team.)

Sadie and Erik Bjornsen

Sadie Maubet Bjornsen is now known as a longtime member of the U.S. Ski Team, and as a student and athlete at APU. But before the national team nominations, the national championships, the two Olympic teams, the World Championships medal, and the 11 World Cup medals, Sadie was a freshman skier for UAA. (And a pretty good one, too; she finished in the top five in five out of eight races her freshman year on the RMISA circuit, including third overall in the classic race at NCAAs.)

Although she spent just one year at UAA before moving over to APU, Sadie continues to place great value on that year as a stepping stone on her path to the national team. Here’s Sadie (at the time just Sadie Bjornsen, no Maubet yet), in an email to FasterSkier from October 2016:

My year as a Seawolf was one of the most important “steps” of my life. I would have never been drawn to AK fresh out of high school, and discovered this incredible state. I see skiing as a big family with many functioning parts. By eliminating one integral part of the ski community, we are cutting off a strong piece of the family!

I have always considered Alaska to be the best training for a cross country skier in the US. We have the perfect environment for training, including early snow in the fall, and late snow in the spring. I now race professionally, and am a student at Alaska Pacific University while racing World Cup. I see APU as providing the very best opportunity in the world for myself, but, I know this level is not designed for everyone. It is important to have options, and varied levels so that skiers can choose where they want to go, and have a path to where they are looking to reach. I would never give back that year of racing NCAA at UAA, a year that taught me so many lessons! It saddens me to know that won’t be available for everyone anymore!

Erik Bjornsen followed a similar path as his older sister, Sadie: grow up in Mazama, Washington, skiing in the Methow; come to Anchorage to ski for UAA; make a national championship podium as a freshman (Erik was second at the 2011 NCAAs); move to APU to pursue professional skiing outside the NCAA context; become a longtime member of the U.S. Ski Team; marry an athletic French person. (Because American nordic skiing is often just one very small family, Erik’s wife, Marine Dusser-Bjornsen, was an athlete at UAA from 2012–2014, and was interim head coach there for the 2019/2020 season. She was named the RMISA Nordic Coach of the Year for last season before amiably moving on from UAA as she and Erik moved back to Washington.) Erik would go on to ski at two Olympics and log dozens of World Cup top-30s before retiring from professional skiing earlier this year.

Erik took time out from his first post-skiing job, working 12-hour days on construction sites in the Methow, to talk with FasterSkier by phone this weekend.

Much like Sadie, Erik talked about the significance of his time at UAA as the start of his adult life. “It’s not only been an important part of my ski career,” Erik said, “but also it’s where I went after high school; it was the first place I lived away from my parents. I definitely made some of my best friends there. Three of my groomsmen, my best man, were guys that I met at UAA. … It’ll always be a big part of my life, the year I spent there. I’m just thankful that I was able to have that opportunity with the team there, and I’m disappointed that other kids won’t have that same opportunity.”

Marine Dusser was named RMISA Nordic Coach of the Year in her first year leading the UAA Seawolves. (Photo: Adam Verrier)

As someone who raced both within the NCAA system, at UAA, and outside of it, at APU and internationally, Erik shared his perspective on the significance of college skiing to American nordic skiing as a whole: “It’s an important part of the whole system that we have here in the U.S. It’s a smaller part, maybe, but it’s an important part. Alaska is one of the strongest cross-country ski regions in the U.S., and having an NCAA program in that region is quite important. APU does a great job with more of the – in Alaska, I think people think of it as more of the elite, more professional team – but it’s important to have an NCAA program in town, that younger, high school athletes that maybe aren’t quite ready to race on the World Cup can go to UAA. The school just came off one of their best years in a while; they have the second-best, nearly the best men’s team in the U.S.”

(As Erik correctly noted, the UAA men were second among men’s nordic teams at the one-off nordic race that was the 2020 NCAA Championships. The UAA women were fourth in the women’s nordic standings.)

Erik continued, “I’ve always been a big supporter of NCAA skiing. I think it’s an important thing to have in the system. Although I didn’t use it for all five years like some others did, I was definitely able to benefit from UAA, and it was an important part of my development to have it there. I think the whole U.S., especially Alaska, is going to really miss having it.”

Finally, Erik noted, “It’s disappointing to see cross-country skiing going in that direction in Anchorage, when it just seems like, in the U.S., everything else is headed in the right direction for cross-country skiing in this nation. So to be losing one pretty important nordic team in the U.S. is disappointing to see, for sure. … I really thought we were kind of past the point of cutting the team. I hadn’t heard this most recent news, but before Marine had finished at UAA, it sounded like it was in a good position. So I was very shocked when I saw the news.”

Adam Verrier

And finally, back to Adam Verrier, the volunteer assistant coach who, though officially unaffiliated with the school, has unofficially been with the program longer than anyone currently on the nordic side of the UAA ski team. Here are Verrier’s thoughts on the current situation, from a recent email to FasterSkier, as drawn from over 30 years’ experience with NCAA skiing:

We went through this in 2016 here at UAA. And during my involvement with NCAA skiing over the past 33 years, I’ve seen this scenario play out at the University of Nevada-Reno, Western State College, Montana State and University of New Mexico. And twice on my own team when I was at University of Wyoming. We got cut at the end of my freshman year, in 1988, but were reinstated about a month later and survived four more years until finally being cut (for good this time) in 1992 at the end of my senior year. So I’m no stranger to this game. As a long-time observer of these kinds of things, it’s been interesting to see how often the team gets reinstated sooner or later.  University of Denver got cut in 1984, but then was reinstated in 1992 when my University of Wyoming team got cut, so most of our team just moved a couple hours’ drive down the road to Denver, and they were immediately successful and have been so ever since. The Montana State team was cut in the mid-1980’s, but their program was reinstated 20 years later and lives on today.

The 2014 UAA alpine and nordic teams on the Kincaid sand dunes in Anchorage. (photo: Adam Verrier)

And many of the teams that didn’t get resurrected as NCAA programs have put together their own kind of ski team or university club racing program, like University of Wyoming and Western State College. It goes to show that there is a community desire for competitive college ski racing programs.  These programs are often the anchor for these college-towns’ winter recreation programs, providing trail grooming and maintenance and local ski events for area residents.

I think the proposal to cut the Ski Team is shortsighted. Not only is Anchorage full of Olympic skiers past, present and (hopefully) future, but it’s also a city in which a significant number of residents regularly commute to work on skis during the winter months. With our interconnected ski trail networks and our groomed multiuse corridors connecting residential neighborhoods to commerce centers like the hospitals, University, and downtown and midtown business districts, this is one of the few places in the USA where skiing is a mode of transportation that residents regularly use for practical purposes like getting to the office in the morning.

Skiing is a practical sport here in Alaska, and a valuable skill to have. It’s important enough that organizations like NANA (Northwest Arctic Native Association) and Skiku have been putting lots of time, money and energy for many years to bring skis and ski instructors to remote villages to teach skiing as a practical skill and a way to get outdoors during the winter. Our Alaska high school ski races put hundreds of kids on the starting line every weekend, and several of our Anchorage high school ski teams have close to a hundred kids on the team. And if you want to sign your youngster up for Junior Nordic, you’d better be quick because the hundreds of available spots fill up super fast every year. Skiing is a really big deal in this state.  And the University of Alaska Ski Team, along with APU, are the elite flagship programs.  Many of America’s most successful World Cup skiers in recent years developed through the UAA program, with some of them moving from UAA directly across the street to APU to continue their post-collegiate ski racing.

I haven’t had a chance yet to look too closely at the details of the proposed cuts or the budget numbers that we’re talking about, but clearly this problem is rolling downhill from the legislature’s choices and decisions regarding the Alaska state budget. This is a state which has sixty-one billion dollars’ worth of savings in the bank, a state which levies no state income tax, not statewide sales tax, no broad-based personal taxes of any kind, and a state which mails a check of around a thousand dollars or so to every resident, every year, just for breathing. But yet, we claim to be “broke” and we claim to be “overtaxed”.

Marine Dusser (l) and Adam Verrier (r) prepare fast skis. (Photo: courtesy Adam Verrier)

The legislature’s decision to cut state funding for the University by $34 million seems to me like poor policy. And the proposed cut of the Ski Team also seems to me like poor policy.  This team has consistently provided a place for Alaska-grown skiers to take their athletic ambitions to the next level, and at the same time has attracted a steady stream of high-achieving, smart people who come to Alaska from other places to be a Seawolf, but wind up getting hooked and staying here for life. And these athletes – both the Alaska-grown ones and the ones who come here from elsewhere – have contributed enormously to the talent pool in the Alaska workforce today. They’ve brought tremendous benefit in their roles as research economists, CFOs of the state’s largest Native-owned corporations, as oilfield geologists, just to name a few specific examples that come immediately to mind.

I would estimate that these high-achievers, who were lured to the state, or were enticed to stay in-state by the Ski Team have contributed far more value to the local economy in terms intellectual capital during their careers here than the cost of the athletic programs which brought them or kept them here in the first place. If one of the University’s goals is to foster intelligent dialogue between people of various experiences and viewpoints, and to provide a rich and fertile environment in which our best brains can develop, then it’s clear that our ski team serves that mission. To propose cutting the team seems to me to be diametrically opposed to this goal.

Next steps

Cathy Sandeen, the UAA Chancellor, will hear public comments at an online town hall from 5-6 p.m. Alaska time this Wednesday, August 26. Zoom information will be published here.

The University of Alaska Board of Regents will hear public testimony from 4-5 p.m. next Monday, August 31, in advance of its upcoming Board meeting on September 10-11 at which it is scheduled to vote on Sandeen’s proposal.

Finally, ski team supporters are encouraging advocates to submit written comments to the Board of Regents at ua-bor@alaska.edu, cc’ing uaa_feedback@alaska.edu.

* * *

This article has been edited to reflect the fact that Adam Verrier competed for the University of Wyoming only in nordic skiing, not in alpine skiing as well.

Gavin Kentch

Gavin Kentch

Gavin Kentch is a lifelong Alaskan. He skis with the Alaska Pacific University Masters team in Anchorage, plays with his two adorable daughters, and occasionally works as a solo attorney. He has a cat named Marit. He was probably on snow this year before you were.

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