FeatureNewsRacingUS Ski TeamWorld CupBalanced to the End, Sadie Maubet Bjornsen Retires (Part I)

Gavin Kentch Gavin KentchMay 12, 2021
Sadie Maubet Bjornsen (left) skis alongside Yana Kirpichenko (RSF) in the 30 k classic in the 2021 World Championships in Oberstdorf. The race closed out Maubet Bjornsen’s international race career. (Photo: NordicFocus)

To classic ski, and to do so well, requires an athlete to perform an almost stupidly large number of tasks at the same time. You have to move two arms, two legs, and two ankles in alternation, in almost infinite variations depending upon the snow, the wax, the course, and your remaining energy. You have to mediate between power and finesse, kick and glide, stimulus and weight transfer. In short, you have to balance a whole lot of things.

If you’re this country’s most beautiful classic skier of the past decade, you’re going to have a pretty darn good sense of balance. If you’re going to train at international levels while also earning multiple degrees… and call into class the morning of your first Olympic race… and earn World Cup podiums in all disciplines… your sense of balance is going to be off the charts.

If you can do all these things, your name is Sadie Maubet Bjornsen, who retired from professional skiing after this year’s World Championships in Oberstdorf. If you’re anyone else, read on for a look at her career, and what she brought to American nordic skiing over the past decade-plus.

* * *

Sadie’s ski career had humble if bucolic beginnings in Washington’s Methow Valley. She skied, of course. The Methow is a pretty good place to do so. She attended an Olympic homecoming parade for neighbor Laura McCabe after Nagano, and realized that the Olympics were something you could do.

But she also ran and biked and played in the woods, and worked on construction sites moving boards around, and in general had an active and, well, balanced childhood. She didn’t rollerski till high school. She trained 250 hours as a high school freshman, up to only 380 as a senior (some high-level American juniors now train twice as much). The humorless application of a rigid and dogmatic training schedule it was not.

“I am not a good ski racer because of what I have done in the past five years, but because of the way I was raised,” Sadie noted in an April phone interview with FasterSkier. (Such a childhood seems pretty well suited to making ski racers; her younger brother, Erik Bjornsen, was also a longtime member of the national ski team.)

Sadie was not unskilled at skiing; she represented the U.S. at World Juniors at Kranj, Slovenia, in 2006, alongside future USST teammates Liz Stephen and Morgan Arritola. But, tellingly, those races in 2006 are the very first FIS races in her profile; she hadn’t been, say, shuttling between U.S. Nationals and RMISA from a young age. Sense of balance, indeed.

Sadie decided to continue skiing in college, heading north to join head coach Trond Flagstad and volunteer assistant coach Adam Verrier on the ski team at the University of Alaska Anchorage in fall 2008. On paper her results were hardly bad – she was third at 2009 NCAA Championships in the 5-kilometer classic race, for example, slightly ahead of Rosie Brennan, Caitlin Patterson, and Sophie Caldwell Hamilton, and her coaches were thrilled for her potential – but things were not going well for her as she began life as a college student. When she moved across the street to Alaska Pacific University, or APU, after the 2008/2009 season, it was as a somewhat broken athlete.

Sadie (bib 17) competes at 2009 NCAA Championships in Rumford, Maine, for UAA. (photo: Trond Flagstad)

“I came in [to APU] kind of as a broken, injured race car,” Sadie recalls. “I could not train for more than 30 minutes and I was not training much, under 500 hours, and somehow [APU head coach Erik] Flora believed in me. I have no idea why; I still wonder that to this day, what gave him the belief because I was not racing well the year that I came here. I had had my worst season ever, I dropped out of college and I had my worst season ever because like I said, I need balance. He took a chance on me, and I remember telling him I wanted to make the World Championships team. And that was certainly a laughable thing to say, but he was totally supportive and he designed a program for this girl who could only train 30 minutes at a time.”

Reader, she made the World Championships team. She made the team for Oslo, in 2011; for Val di Fiemme, in 2013; for Falun, in 2015; for Lahti, in 2017; for Seefeld, in 2019; and for Oberstdorf, in 2021. She also made two Olympic teams in that time, in 2014 and 2018. We’ll have more on her results later, but that’s a heck of a CV for someone who couldn’t train for more than 30 minutes at a stretch two years before her first World Cup podium.

* * *

Sadie, of course, did not know that any of this would come to pass when she toed the line in her first-ever World Cup weekend, a skate sprint and 10 k classic in Drammen, Norway, in February 2011. 1.2 kilometers for the qualifier, go as fast as you can, top 30 athletes make the heats and get to keep on racing. Everyone else goes home.

There were 71 athletes in the field that day. Maiken Caspersen Falla of Norway won qualifying. Kikkan Randall won the final. Sadie, then 21 years old, finished 42nd, nearly two seconds out of qualifying – frankly, in sprint racing, at least a 1.2-kilometer sprint covered in roughly 2:16, that’s not particularly close. Sadie’s name appears nowhere in this website’s contemporary race writeup, not even a half sentence at the end giving a cursory listing of other North Americans who also raced.

Sadie in her inaugural World Cup weekend, in February 2011, in the 10 k classic. (There are no photos of her in the sprint qualifier in the FS database.) This photo was originally captioned, “Sadie Bjornsen (USA) with her sharp classic form.”

Was Sadie surprised that she didn’t make the heats? Oh yes.

“I had a really strong memory from that first one,” she now reminisces. “I remember crossing the line after the sprint and going up to [USST head coach Chris] Grover and saying, ‘There is no way I did not qualify. I think the timing is wrong.’

“I cannot believe how sure I was of myself at that age, because now I look at the young kids and think, Wow, how do they think they can win? That is incredible, I think I missed that! I was not thinking that I was winning, I was just sure that I had qualified. I think there is something to be said about being young, just having so much confidence. After asking him, ‘Did they mess up?’ my next question was, ‘What did I do wrong? Where did I lose that time, because I know I did it perfectly!’ He went on to explain, ‘Oh, well, in this finishing stretch there is a lot of time you can lose,’ and so on. 

“It was a little bit of a learning experience for me. It turns out World Cup skiing is pretty darn fast, I just had no idea.”

Less than a year later, Sadie was standing on the World Cup podium: Sadie Bjornsen and Kikkan Randall, second, team sprint, Düsseldorf, Germany, December 2011. It was the first World Cup team sprint podium in American history. FasterSkier’s race recap was headlined “Americans pull off surprise second,” and expressed sentiments such as, “the American pair, while talented, was going to have to have a good day to make the final.” No insult was intended, it was just a very, very different era in American skiing.

Randall (L) and Bjornsen (R) on the podium in Dusseldorf, Germany, December 2011. Team Sprint World Cup silver. Photo: Kieran Jones

Both athletes, when asked about this race a decade later, independently sound similar notes as they recall this moment: Randall was the seasoned veteran with multiple podiums to her name who knew what she was doing; Sadie was the 22-year-old rookie who had never made the World Cup sprint heats in her life, with a 34th in qualifying on the same course the day before serving as her previous highwater mark through that point in her career.

Here’s Randall, in a recent email to FasterSkier: “One great memory was in 2011 when Sadie and I teamed up for the World Cup team sprint in Düsseldorf. In between the semis and finals Sadie was so nervous she could hardly sit still. I managed to fall asleep for a few minutes and she couldn’t believe I was able to be so calm. Once we got out on the snow, Sadie found her composure and we went on to win the silver medal together for the first ever World Cup team sprint podium result.”

And, in much the same vein, here’s Sadie, earlier this spring: “I would say Kikkan did the brunt of the work in that race but it was like a race car driving race. All I had to do was stay on my feet. Somehow I did that and she had that killer finishing sprint. But it was a great moment.”

(For historical perspective, here’s Sadie’s quote to this website in December 2011, from the race writeup linked above: “It’s the greatest thing to happen so far! It hasn’t even sunk in yet! It helps to have a sprint champion like Kikkan on your team, that’s for sure.”)

Hindsight is, famously, 20/20, and we all know now that both athletes would earn a World Championships medal in this event within their careers, Randall in 2013 and Sadie in 2017 (in each case teaming up with Jessie Diggins). But what was Sadie thinking at the time?

U.S. Ski Team teammates Jessie Diggins (l) and Sadie Bjornsen celebrate their bronze medal in the women’s 6 x 1.3-kilometer classic team sprint at the 2017 Nordic World Championships in Lahti, Finland. (Photo: John Lazenby/Lazenbyphoto.com)

“I definitely did not expect that,” she says now, “and I would say that was a shiny moment before the next three years of near misses. I think it took me about three years to consistently qualify top-30. … I do remember that podium being like, Oh wait! I might actually be good after all! You know, World Cup racing does not make you feel good about yourself when you are never racing top 30. That Düsseldorf podium was definitely the thing that fueled me for the next three years as I went through the tough process of making the steps to being a World Cup racer.”

* * *

This process is tough for any World Cup skier; any athlete competing at this level is working her butt off to excel in a sport where small margins mean medals. But few athletes did this work against such a consistent backdrop of injury and limitations as Sadie dealt with throughout her entire career.

When Sadie was 16 years old, she took an antibiotic, Levaquin, that had been prescribed for a sinus infection. It had enduring and devastating effects: “it had this side effect of permanent damage to your tendons and your ability for your tendons to recover,” as Sadie puts it.

Sadie Bjornsen, of APU and the U.S. Ski Team, during a SkiErg interval workout at her home in Anchorage, Alaska. She didn’t have to do this workout in sandals or some other form of heel-less shoe, as was sometimes the case. (Courtesy photo)

The result was, in Sadie’s words, “continuous injury” for the next 15 years of her life, variously manifesting as, among other things, foot tendonitis and/or elbow tendonitis and/or knee tendonitis – these are sort of important joints and body parts for a pro athlete. Most World Cup skiers spend, in round numbers, 40 percent or more of their average annual training hours running. Some years, Sadie couldn’t run at all. Some years, it was SkiErg, and aqua jogging, and ski walking, or even skipping, sometimes in 30-minute increments or less when that was all that her body could handle, as many times a day as she could manage and her tendons could bear. Sadie estimates that she was able to consistently run for only around a fifth of her competitive career.

It seems slightly dismissive to call all of this “injuries” – an injury is typically something that you come back from, recover from, and move on, maybe even stronger than before. Sadie’s tendinopathy was far more endemic, insidious, ever-present. You don’t have an independent blank in your training log for “overall tendon load,” in which you carefully estimate the strain placed on each of several large tendon groups in the body, with an eye to curtailing or cancelling the next day’s training session if that cumulative load is too high, a decade after a broken bone. You don’t literally drill a hole in the back of your ski boot before a qualifier a decade after a stress fracture. There are injuries, and then there’s continuous injury.

Sadie recovers after the 10 k interval start skate at this year’s World Championships in Oberstdorf. (photo: Modica/NordicFocus.)

Whatever you call it, it would be blithe to dismiss its deleterious effects on Sadie’s career: In a sport defined by physical performance, any limitation on what you can do, physically, is not going to help you, physically. But mentally, or conceptually, or holistically, or on some other facets that help to make up a complete athlete? The entirety of Sadie’s career makes a profound argument that there are some silver linings to be found here.

Here’s Adam Verrier, the longtime UAA volunteer, reflecting on these issues. He doesn’t quite say “talent needs trauma,” a shorthand for the notion that talented potential is often well-served by some form of challenge, but it’s close:

“As I’ve watched Sadie’s athletic career and her academic path, it’s become clear that she really enjoys the process of trying to accomplish a goal that is so challenging that she doesn’t know whether she’ll be able to succeed or not,” Verrier wrote to FasterSkier. “Sadie’s tendon problems have been a constant throughout her entire career, and they’ve hampered her training to the extent that she can’t train in the ‘typical’ way at all.

She’s relegated to lots of aqua-jogging and Ski-erging, and I don’t mean to talk shit about aqua-jogging, but it’s not the typical path to the World Cup ski podium. 

“I’ve sometimes wondered, though, whether Sadie would have done as well as she did if she didn’t have her health problems. I’ve wondered if her chronic tendon issues have put up the roadblock that she’s needed – as a foil – something to fight against. I wonder if her chronic tendon issues are the thing that’s made this whole thing interesting for Sadie and has kept her attention throughout her ski career and has, in fact, enabled her success. I recently asked her about that, and she agreed that perhaps the whole experience would have been less interesting and compelling if she could run a lot and rollerski a lot, like most everybody else.

“Sadie’s a problem solver by nature, and she has the patience and the resolve to take on big goals and try to find a way over, around, or through the roadblocks to reach her ultimate goal. Watching Sadie’s career over the years, the thing that has stood out for me has been her willingness to embrace difficult challenges and go into the fight with one hand tied behind her back.”

Randall, writing separately, observed almost exactly the same thing: “I don’t think I can recall a time when Sadie wasn’t dealing with an injury,” she told FasterSkier. “Yet she never let the injuries be setbacks or excuses. She was always so determined and creative in finding ways to train in alternative ways and she made the adversity into her own magic. Her example helped influence a positive can-do culture on our teams. … Sadie got so good at managing her alternative training and I wonder if it actually gave her an advantage in the long run. Kind of like tying one hand behind your back and then all of the sudden having two hands to work with. It takes incredible mental fortitude and belief, but it has its upsides too. You could say that is Sadie’s super power!”

And, just to complete the trifecta, here’s Sadie herself on this issue: “Things have never been steady, smooth sailing for me. But sometimes that is what created who I was. It actually forced me to make my brain the strongest muscle in my body, and I think we do not always train the brain enough. We think about training our quad muscles or our arm muscles the best, and so something that was a bit of a challenge to me actually created some strength of its own.

Sadie Bjornsen (USST/APU) rollerskiing at Soldier Hollow in Midway, Utah, in 2014, a loop course unlike the one-way uphill climbs on the Anchorage Hillside. (Photo: USSA)

“It definitely was unbelievably frustrating when I am on the tenth injury of the summer, I am having to do my own thing and I cannot come to normal training, and I have to make Flora carry my classic skis in the car because I can only ski for 30 minutes and I will be way out on the Hillside and cannot get back to my car. Often I just felt like a pain in the butt, like why does this keep happening to me? It was something that I always had to work around and I think that it actually made me stronger in the end. Because when I did have the chance to race, it was such a gift, it was never something that I took for granted because I never knew that I was going to actually show up and be able to do it.”

Sadie continues, “A part of being injured all the time is you have to learn to forget it, or not let it hold you back. I would not say I ever truly conquered that, but I made sense of it. I do remember summers where … literally I would not classic ski the whole entire summer. Or, I believe, there was a summer that it was skating. I do remember when you are showing up at Ruka [for the opening World Cup weekend], I had not been able to ski for basically two months before I showed up. I had literally had to hole out the back of my boot. I showed up to the organizers and asked permission to modify my equipment, and my tech just took a knife and made a bolt hole out the back. Then I went out the next day and I won the qual. Nobody believed it, I did not believe it, but I think that fight that keeps you pushing through injuries gives you so much power.”

U.S. Ski Team and Alaska Pacific University teammates Sadie Bjornsen (r) and Kikkan Randall during a ski-walking workout on Gasline in fall 2016. (Photo: courtesy Sadie Bjornsen)

Call it what you will – flexibility, response to adversity, talent needs trauma – but these themes came to a head in summer 2016. Randall had just had a baby, developed diastasis recti during pregnancy, and didn’t get back into running until six or seven months after Breck’s April birth. Sadie was suffering from worse tendinopathy than usual, and couldn’t run. Or classic ski. And so that summer, the two of them ski walked up Gasline, a rolling, five-mile climb at the edge of Anchorage, at least, literally, 100 times. Meet at Glen Alps, stash a car, carpool down to Hillside, ski walk up, drive back down to Hillside. Repeat. Watch out for bears.

“Sadie and I did a bunch of Gasline and alternative training sessions” that summer and fall, Randall recalls. “I remember it being so nice to have those workouts to talk and push each other and feel like we weren’t totally alone and away from the team. It almost didn’t seem like we were missing anything because those workouts were so enjoyable and productive. I appreciated the time to spend one-on-one with Sadie and get to have fantastic conversations, and jokes.”

“We had to come up with something to talk about all 100 days,” reminisces Sadie. “It takes about an hour and 20 minutes to walk up that hill and there are bears along the way so we had to be loud. I remember bonding with her that year like I never had and developing an incredible friendship with her. I think we both went through it that summer because she was coming back from having a kid and you know there are challenges with that. … I think that day after day we believed that it did not matter that it was weird or different or imperfect, we both were bonding together knowing that we could make it happen. … It definitely is a great example of being in an individual sport with a team. I bet we both carried each other a bit that year.”

Sadie Bjornsen (r) tends to her U.S. teammate Jessie Diggins after Diggins outlunged Sweden’s Stina Nilsson (not shown) for the bronze medal in the women’s 6 x 1.3-kilometer classic team sprint on Sunday at the 2017 Nordic World Championships in Lahti, Finland. (Photo: John Lazenby/Lazenbyphoto.com)

After ski walking through summer and fall of 2016, both athletes would medal at World Championships in Lahti in spring 2017 – Randall in the individual skate sprint, Sadie in the classic team sprint, skiing in a technique that she literally had been unable to do all summer.

“When I did have the chance to race,” Sadie says now, “it was such a gift. It was never something that I took for granted because I never knew that I was going to actually show up and be able to do it.”

At the time, a day after the medal in Lahti, Sadie gave an interview to FasterSkier in which, referring to setting the goal of medaling in this event when she couldn’t even classic ski, she said, “If you don’t have those dream goals, then maybe you don’t belong here, because you’re not reaching for the highest level. … Or maybe you’ll never reach this level, because you never put something out there that was really risky and really scary and really intimidating to say, even. And I think that’s really important in making this step, and maybe even a really integral part of our team.”

In part two, coming soon: some not-so-glamorous parts of the World Cup grind; Sadie’s overall career accomplishments; and why she trained for one more year to race for 15 minutes.

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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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