Sten Fjeldheim, the cross-country ski coach at Northern Michigan University announced his retirement on March 30th. He coached and mentored at the school for 35 years. This piece from The Mining Journal speaks to Fjeldheim’s legacy and the many accolades NMU skiers achieved under his tutelage. Below are thoughts about Fjeldheim from former NMU skier, U.S. Ski Team athlete and Head Coach, Peter Vordenberg. According to a NMU press release, Fjeldheim had this to say about Vordenberg’s 1993 individual NCAA National Championship: “Of course Peter Vordenberg winning the NCAA National Championship in 1993 I’ll never forget. We had just moved into the NCAA in 1992 and to have a national champion a year later was really exciting.”
Sten is a pure jolt of electric fire. He is energy.
Sten has spent decades electro charging hundreds and hundreds of ski racers. Electricity doesn’t pass from one to another without a jolt, without that shock, that zap, that spark. Electricity doesn’t amble, it jumps. Zip!
It crackles. It singes, burns, ignites.
Get shocked, and you can taste it, smell your own hair on fire. Sten is fury and passion and joy and love. Sten Fjeldheim can drive without looking.
In my day he could beat almost everyone on the team and most of the rest of the racers in the U.S. too. At Senior Nationals back in the early ‘90’s, I recall Sten waxing team skis late into the night, kick waxing in the morning, shepherding the team on course to race and then pulling his own bib on. I want to say he was top-10. I’m certain he then drove the van back to the hotel without looking at the road once, telling outrageous stories the whole way. That’s how I remember it.
The vein. That’s what we called it when Sten got mad. He was balding in that Scandinavian sort of way; blond hair pulling back off his forehead but still flowing behind. The vein descended as a zig-zag lightning bolt from upper temple to down near his eye. Seeing that vein bulge out was not a good thing.
Fire heats, and fire burns.
The vein meant you were about to get burned. Sometimes that fire got you out the door, lit a fire under your butt, as the saying goes. And as the saying goes, Sten’s passion for skiing spread like wildfire. Sten is the ignition point. From there the whole team catches it, passes it, from one to the next until the whole team is on fire. That’s how a team gets hot. That’s how a team gets on fire. You need someone to light it and fan the flames, and that someone is Sten.
I don’t have any facts. Which is something that wouldn’t slow Sten down either. So here it goes. I am pretty sure the NMU Wildcats have won more NCAA cross-country ski titles than any other team. I mean cross-country only, rather than combined with alpine. And what about homegrown NCAA champions? I mean American kids – has anyone coached more American kids to NCAA titles? I doubt it.
I’m not going to count. Electricity doesn’t stop to count.
I can’t imagine Sten not coaching. What does electricity do when it stops moving? Static electricity doesn’t stay static for long, get close enough and Zang! I’m not getting anywhere near the U.P. if Sten is retired.
I never saw Sten sit still. I’m really trying hard to remember a single time. I can’t. I’ve never seen it. Most of my memories of Sten are out skiing, running or rollerskiing. Some of the best times of my life, running through those vibrant colors of a U.P fall with Sten and my teammates, everything on fire, exhilarating, vibrating, charging down those sandy trails through the woods.
And come winter flying along the trails up and over those punchy Midwestern hills just knowing we were on the right track to success. Just knowing it. I recognize that now as what people call faith. It was something you felt, something you just knew.
Sten could have been a preacher. Fire and brimstone style, getting the whole congregation speaking in tongues, believing in themselves as ski racers, leading us to some kind of ecstatic snake worship type thing. Yes, he could have been a snake oil salesman too.
It’s hard not to believe in something when it’s backed by pure electric fire. I’m talking about passion. Sten loves skiing so much you fall into it too. Maybe not everyone did. But, I was in the front row, waving my hat in the air, shouting amen, hallelujah and praise be.
But it wasn’t really like that. Sten wasn’t preaching so much as living it with you. We trained together, dreamed together. He pulled you in with him, didn’t stay up above. That’s for sure.
If there was a fight, Sten was in the middle of it. He is a human and all the humans I know come in somewhere less than perfect, Sten included. Me included too, and same with you. Imperfection never stopped any preacher from preaching. I promise you that, and Sten isn’t a preacher, just a guy who really, really loves ski racing and is a genius for sharing that passion. And it was more than a passion for ski racing it was a belief in you. He believed you could do it so much you started to believe it too and before long you just knew it.
I came to NMU in fall of ’91 never having made the Jr. World Team. By winter of ’92, I was on the Olympic team. In ’93 I won the NCAA championship for the Wildcats. It was the first of many for NMU skiing. I’m proud of that.
I like to think I added to the intensity of the fire, stoked the flames up a little higher. Later, I certainly brought some of that Fjeldheim intensity to my own coaching with the National Team and again I’m proud of that. I like to think I helped bring the flames up higher there too. I owe much of that fire to Sten. I carried it with me for many years. That’s what I wanted to do. If there is one thing I learned from Sten it is this: If something is going to happen, you have to want it to happen first and want it bad.
“You have to want it!” – Sten Fjeldheim.
Thank you Sten. U.S cross-country skiing owes you much. I sure do.