FeatureNewsSadie Maubet Bjornsen Retires: Career Highlights and the Final Race (Part II)

Gavin Kentch Gavin KentchMay 17, 2021
Sadie finishes third in the women’s 10-kilometer freestyle pursuit at 2018 World Cup Finals in Falun, Sweden. (Photo: Fischer/NordicFocus)

Part I of this article examined Sadie Maubet Bjornsen’s childhood, World Cup debut, and the injuries that she overcame along the way. This article, Part II, starts with a frank look at some of the challenges of being an American World Cup skier, then discusses her overall career highlights, her final World Championships earlier this year, and what comes next.

In addition to the injuries, there are some challenges to life on the World Cup circuit, particularly as an American away from home for so long. Sadie is clear-eyed about these drawbacks, reflecting, “World Cup racing has its shine, but certainly there are things that are really tough. For me the toughest thing was always being away from home for that long, and then when things were more serious with Jo it was being away from him for that long. I would say, I managed the pressure of feeling like I needed to do well by having school. I think that was such a savior for me through the process. I think I never got too terribly wrapped up in doing perfect racing. I think the other thing that was really important for me was I developed some close friendships with my teammates. We had some things to talk about aside from ski racing. I think having these partnerships with people you are racing with makes you think about things aside from ski racing and having the capacity to laugh and not having everything result focused.”

APU teammates Sadie Maubet Bjornsen and Rosie Frankowski chat trailside during a training day before World Cup races in Lillehammer Norway in December, 2019. (Photo: NordicFocus)

There are also challenges to being an aspiring American junior skier in 2021, and to seeing the levels of performance that have become seemingly routine – as a ski nation, we’ve come a long way from the early-Randall period, when a single top-30 result would cause the FasterSkier comments section to fill up with jubilant congratulations. While this is hardly the fault of any current World Cup athlete, the rousing American success can make it daunting for juniors trying to keep up. Sadie is asked what she would say to a hypothetical American junior following pro skiers on social media, and thinking to herself something like, “If I’m not training 700 hours a year at age 17 or I’m not on a World Juniors relay podium team by age 18, I’m a complete failure; that’s what it takes to be successful on the national team these days.”

Sadie has thoughts on this: “I think there will always be a standard to compare yourself to. I think that is how the world works, and the more things go on social media, the more visual that standard is. I think that is going to be our biggest challenge going forward. When I was younger, I did not even know who World Cup athletes were; I did not watch the World Cup. I hardly knew what cross-country skiing was, so I had a really soft entrance into what I wanted to accomplish. I think that before people go too far, I think they have to work on the true goal-setting process. And that sounds funny, but it is as simple as, ‘Okay, I want to get better next year. I am training 450 hours right now.’ Well, of course you are not going to train 800 hours next year. Instead, you need to take the time to identify, Where am I, where do I want to go. You need to be sure you are not just skipping that whole process and just using a standard to compare yourself to.

“I think really working on the goal-setting process from a young age and identifying yourself as an individual is really important, because we will always be comparing ourselves to some standard like, ‘Do you I have a six pack, I do not have a six pack at all, everyone seems to.’ You know what, not everyone is going to have a six pack. Or, ‘Everyone seems to be training at 800 hours, but I take 400.’ Again, not everyone does that, not everyone can. I think that we just have to be – as a junior you just have to recognize that not everyone is the same and you are never going to escape the comparison game. But that is what is going to help you create your own path, is being able to identify your strengths and your goals. I think that is such a necessary part that can be easy to skip when all you think about is where you want to go.”

* * *

Sadie’s words are wise, but this is a retirement article, so we’re going to move on to where she ended up going: to the top of the sport, or very close to it. She was on the U.S. Olympic team in 2014 and 2018, and all six American World Championships teams from Oslo in 2011 through Oberstdorf in 2021.

Sadie Bjornsen skis the second classic leg in the women’s 4 x5 k relay at the Sochi Olympics in 2014.

Sadie was on American relay teams 14 times in senior-level international competition, half of them at the Olympics or World Championships. There have been five times in, well, ever that the U.S. women notched a podium finish in a World Cup relay; Sadie was on the team for four of them. Each time, she skied the second classic leg, historically where each nation places its strongest classic skier in an attempt to string out the field. She filled the same role in two Olympic relays and three World Championships (2017–21), too, after skiing the scramble leg in 2013 and 2015.

And while Sadie won her World Champs medal in the classic team sprint, at Lahti in 2017, she was the first alternate for the epochal skate team sprint, at Pyeongchang in 2018, winning universal praise from her coaches and teammates alike for the poise and magnanimity with which she handled being, in effect, the first person left off this team. (Her blog post about this moment is better written and more insightful than anything in this article: “A small piece deep inside my heart crumbled at the same time, knowing that I had missed such an amazing opportunity,” Sadie wrote after the fact, while also lauding the team and its accomplishments with surpassing grace.) She would later team up with Rosie Brennan for the skate team sprint in Oberstdorf this March, coming one ill-timed “that’s sprint racing” final-leg tangle away from contending for a medal there as well.

Sadie Maubet Bjornsen in her yellow World Cup leader’s bib and her new wax tech, Per Erik Bjornstad of Norway, in November 2019.

Oh, and she was also the first American woman ever to wear the yellow overall World Cup leader’s bib, early in the 2019/2020 season, followed this past season by first Brennan and then Diggins, marking a moment when she literally did reach the top of her sport. (Other moments: the four separate times that she posted the fastest time in a World Cup sprint qualification, two in sprint and classic.) She earned the yellow bib by placing third in a sprint and fourth in a 10 k on successive days in Ruka. And she ranked 16th or higher in the overall World Cup standings for five consecutive years, often slightly higher in sprint than in distance but with strong results in both disciplines.

table: Gavin Kentch for FasterSkier

As this (partial) palmarès shows, Sadie is an exceptionally well-rounded athlete – balanced, even. In fact, she was the first American ever to post a podium finish in all four World Cup disciplines (classic sprint, freestyle sprint, classic distance, freestyle distance) and is still one of only two to do so, with Diggins being the other. (Diggins got there first if you count a “time of day podium” in a pursuit race as a standalone classic distance podium, which most people probably would not.) She retires as the second most well-rounded or broadly competitive American skier ever, after only Diggins.

This “career slam” was a longtime goal for Sadie.

“Since I was a young girl I always used to get so frustrated when somebody would tell me that I was just a sprinter,” Sadie notes, “or I was just a distance skier, or anything like that. I hated being identified by something; I wanted to be the person that could do it all. As I progressed and made the national team, I remember there being this talk about this classic deficit, and when will Americans have ‘real’ classic skiers. That used to make me so mad because I did not feel like we had any classic skier specialists, I thought we were all just skiers! So there are always these little motivators that push me to keep improving all elements in my skiing and it has been something that has been a personal goal.

Sadie racing in the FIS Ski Tour 2020 in Trondheim, Norway. (Photo: NordicFocus)

“It is hard to be the first to do something on our team, because everyone is so darn good. It feels like they have kind of reached a level already before you. So that was kind of my own personal thing, that was going to be my goal. I did not really feel like it was specifically anybody else’s at the time. That was going to be my thing, to be the one who was going to do everything. I could be ready to be on the podium on any given day, I could be on the relay on any given distance or any given position, and so I started slowly working towards that mission. Part of doing it – I can’t remember what came first, getting the yellow jersey or when I got that sprint podium, because that completed the cycle; I can’t remember what it was. But for both of those moments, the achievement I felt was so huge because I knew it was the thing I had been working on. So it definitely gave me a lot of happiness just knowing there was no limit to what I could do. It could be any given day, any given race, so that is actually my greatest achievement is accomplishing that.”

Finally, here’s longtime USST coach Matt Whitcomb on what Sadie brought to the starting line on race day: “I’m feeling grateful for Sadie’s commitment to a long career with the team, but this retirement hurts a lot. The first time I met her was in 2007 at World Juniors in Tarvisio, Italy, so my entire existence with the U.S. ski team has had Sadie as a part of it. She’s one of those athletes that keeps coaches coming back every year. Her style of racing is an inspiration to watch; she can really hurt herself. Coaches and scientists talk a lot about the importance of athletic talent, but they don’t talk enough about the importance of being willing to access that 100% effort. Anyone has that choice, but it’s not so easy. I’ve never heard Sadie say, ‘I think I could’ve gone a little harder.’ If she’s on the starting line, she’s there to give it. As I look back on her career, I know she could not have tried harder. She did her best, and that deserves a standing ovation.”

This undated, uncredited photo is the oldest image of Sadie in the current FasterSkier image library. It seems to be from the 5 k classic at 2008 World Juniors in Italy. Sadie placed 24th in the interval-start race, 59.7 seconds behind winner Therese Johaug.

* * *

However, not all goals come true – as a wise person named Sadie Maubet Bjornsen once said, sometimes you have to announce a goal that is “really risky and really scary and really intimidating to say.”

And so, as Sadie recently wrote on Instagram, hearkening back to summer 2020 and her decision to dedicate herself to one more year of training, “Last summer I danced between hanging up my skis, or continuing on. There was one last goal I wanted to accomplish not just for myself, but for the team that taught me what it meant to dream bigger than big. This goal was an Olympic/World Championship 4×5 podium. I knew in my heart we were forming into the strongest relay team we had ever had, and I felt the need to lay it all on the line for my team in @oberstdorf2021.”

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: courtesy Sadie Bjornsen)
Sadie training at Hatcher Pass in Alaska (with, from left, APU teammates Rosie Frankowski, Sadie, Hailey Swirbul, Becca Rorabaugh, and Caroline Brisbois) in May 2020, Covid-era social distancing in effect. (photo credit: courtesy Sadie Bjornsen)

Sadie continued on for one more year, one more season of intervals in the sun and ODs in the rain and logging her total tendon load following each workout. She stayed in Alaska in the summer while the world shut down for Covid. She was on snow early in the fall. She skied a ton. She trained hard. She stayed home in Anchorage through all of World Cup Period I, all of Period II (Tour de Ski), and the first half of Period III to better peak for World Champs. She donned a mask and flew over to Europe in mid-January, after doing just one citizens race and two Anchorage FIS races that winter, and promptly placed 10th in her first World Cup race in nearly a year – despite having abstained from hard intensity for the previous five weeks while nursing a back injury. She would finish 15th, 15th, and 4th in her next three World Cup races, then 11th in her first race at World Champs. All the pieces were in place.

When race day dawned in Oberstdorf, it was the 15th, and final, international relay of Sadie’s career. While there was, technically, one race remaining at World Champs, the 30 k classic two days later, her teammates knew that this was the race she had stayed in the sport for. As she had told them the previous summer, “I am staying one more year with ski racing and this is why.”

Put another way, Sadie had literally dedicated one year of her life to ski for less than 15 minutes – one last classic leg on one last relay team, “for the team that taught me what it meant to dream bigger than big.” Try not to get goosebumps while you read that.

Her teammates were not unappreciative of her dedication. Their mindset going out to the start line, Sadie recalls, was, “okay, if we can see when we tagged each other, we know we did not give enough.” She adds, “We all knew how invested we were and I really felt like that was the strongest ski race we had ever had, and the most ready we had ever been.”

Sadie Maubet Bjornsen (far right, green bib 5) is tagged by Hailey Swirbul in the women’s 4x5km relay in Oberstdorf. (photo: Modica/NordicFocus)

After a year of preparation, Sadie’s relay leg – the second classic leg, one last time – took her 14 minutes and 40.5 seconds. She took the handoff from Hailey Swirbul in eighth after the chaos of the scramble leg, 13 seconds out of third. Halfway through her 5-kilometer leg, she was still 11 seconds off the podium. Less than a kilometer later, she had moved the Americans up into third. She would tag off in fourth, 0.3 seconds out of third, having done precisely what she needed to do to help her team. 

If you watch the replay, it is very plausible to conclude that Sadie could not indeed see by the end of her leg.

If you’re reading this website, you probably know what happened next: Sadie tagged off to Rosie Brennan for leg three; Brennan pushed hard but was unable to drop anyone around her, tagging off to Diggins in a virtual tie for third; Diggins took off for her anchor leg alongside Finnish anchor Krista Pärmäkoski; Diggins skied her heart out; it wasn’t quite enough; Finland took the bronze, with the U.S. 0.8 seconds back in fourth. It was the American women’s, and Sadie’s, fourth fourth-place finish in the last five World Championship relays. Between the relay and the team sprint, Sadie would leave Oberstdorf a combined 3.17 seconds out of taking home two medals and realizing this whimsical GIF after a year of training.

Sadie digging deep on leg two of the 4 x 5 k relay. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Sadie has no regrets: “We wanted to go to the point where we could not even see where we were going anymore,” she reflected on the relay after the season ended. “I think we literally did that. There were no regrets with that day. … It’s just an achievement in itself to know that there are no regrets. Of course you feel different when you also get the medal but I am so glad I came back for another year. This just felt different than any of the other relays I have been part of so it was certainly worth it.” Sometimes you have to set dream goals that scare you.

* * *

Sadie spent her ski career setting results goals, but she also spent it pursuing a rigorous course of study. She earned two degrees – not a double major, but two separate B.A. degrees – from Alaska Pacific University (the school, not the eponymous domestic ski club), in accounting and nonprofit management. She has embarked on coursework for her M.B.A. She has passed the first of four sections of the fiendishly difficult Uniform CPA Examination to become a certified public accountant, and sat for the second section last weekend.

She studied in the team van by headlamp while driving to and from Hatcher Pass for early-season skiing. She attended class remotely from all around the world, years before “Zoom” became a part of everyone’s lexicon. The former NCAA athlete did, in fact, go pro in sports, but she ably laid the groundwork to go pro in something other than sports now that her ski career is over.

To hear Sadie tell it, these academic demands helped, rather than hindered, her ski career. She explicitly says that doing both at the same time helped her to stay in “a perfect balance”: “When I was trying to do the best that I could in school, when you have the personality that you’re just, like, a bit of a perfectionist, it’s easy to kind of get out of balance. So for me, with ski racing, it was easy to try to perfect every single thing. And when it couldn’t happen, I would really struggle. And so school always provided that balance for skiing, and skiing provided that balance for school. And so I never looked at it that I was like, doing either of them imperfectly. I was just in a perfect balance of challenging myself both physically and mentally. So I think that it just took the pressure down enough to do both of them really well.”

Sadie Maubet Bjornsen (left) and Rosie Brennan (right) stride in sync during the 2020 Tour de Ski in Toblach, Italy. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Balance sometimes comes at a cost. The World Cup end-of-season celebration, notorious as the first time in months when a group of the most highly disciplined athletes on earth can finally let their hair down? She pre-gamed for that by signing on to class. The morning of her first ever Olympic race? Class was at 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. Alaska time the night before, which was 5:30 to 7:30 a.m. Sochi time. Sadie, who woke up early to attend the class, appreciated the timing, as only someone who has negotiated balky European wifi for a decade can: “That was great, because that’s before anybody wakes up and breaks the internet or shuts you down.”

“That is what makes things so rewarding,” Sadie reflects on the school–skiing balancing act, “is working really hard at them and giving up things for them. Again, it was something that worked really well for me to do them together.”

Verrier, the UAA volunteer coach and longtime friend, makes similar observations.

“Sadie said something to me recently that I’ve been thinking about a lot,” Verrier wrote to FasterSkier this spring. “She told me that the most unpleasant and darkest time in her ski career was when she decided to put everything else aside and focus solely on being a professional ski racer. That approach just didn’t work for her at all. She found that she actually needed something else – her academic studies – to keep the skiing from becoming too ‘heavy.’ When she recently started working toward becoming a CPA, while still ski racing, she immediately felt much ‘lighter’ – and more successful. When I think back to when I was first getting to know Sadie at UAA, it all starts to come together and make a lot of sense to me. I don’t think she’s ever been one who thrives best with a singular focus. I think Sadie’s at her best in more complex environments. Whether it’s focusing on academics and athletics at the same time, or having chronic health issues thrown up in front of her skiing goals, I think Sadie’s most at home when there’s more than one thing going on at a time. And I don’t think I realized that about Sadie when she was a freshman at UAA. And maybe she didn’t either.”

Another consistently strong performance by Sadie Maubet Bjornsen (9th) at the 10-kilometer skate race in Davos, Switzerland, in December 2019. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Everyone needs to figure out the version of balance that works well for their lives. For Sadie, this ultimately involved earning multiple degrees and studying for one of the most difficult professional licensing exams out there. Here’s Verrier again: “Now that she’s shifting her focus to a career in accounting, she recently told me she’s totally loving the challenge of being the ‘minnow’ again, instead of the ‘shark.’ And when she says it, you can see her eyes light up and you know she’s enjoying starting something new that she feels she’s not very good at yet.”

* * *

So, what’s next? For the immediate future, prepping for the CPA exam is pretty much a full-time job. Sadie passed one section, out of four, this spring, and just sat for the second section. Eventually, she will have passed all of Auditing and Attestation, Business Environment and Concepts, Financial Accounting and Reporting, and Regulation, and will be qualified to work in any of a broad range of fields, from assurance and attestation services to forensic accounting to regulatory compliance.

She has already started a business, Bjornsen Bookkeeping, and is providing simple accounting services on the side in addition to studying. She is also transitioning to a life in which she has to specifically carve out time to exercise outdoors, as opposed to automatically doing so twice daily for her job. “Being physically active used to be my job, so it was easy,” she recently wrote on Instagram in a post advocating for physical activity through local group Healthy Futures. “In the past month I have learned how easily a busy day doesn’t include activity… and it makes me feel horrible!”

Sadie plans to stay in Alaska for the time being; it is a good place to be active outside. “I do plan on staying in Anchorage and staying involved in this community despite the fact that I am done racing as a professional athlete,” she says. “I found it really inspiring this winter that Holly Brooks is still racing. She is not the Olympic athlete that she was six years ago, but she is still out there enjoying the process and racing with no shame and I found that so inspiring this winter. I also hope that I can stay involved without having such a high standard as I would have had as a professional athlete.”

Sadie Maubet Bjornsen at a Healthy Futures community event, ca. 2017 (photo: Instagram/Anchorage Salmon Run)

An Anchorage citizens race can often boast five former Olympians in the field; Sadie may make it six. She may also continue to lend her presence to the various outreach groups and activities – Fast and Female, Healthy Futures, Tuesday Night Races – that have ensured that hundreds of kids in Anchorage already have a signed Sadie poster on their walls, or have had her lead warmups before their race.

And finally, speaking of kids, when Sadie spoke with FasterSkier for a 2016 profile, she answered the “where do you see yourself in five years” question with, “Anywhere in the world, hopefully starting a family.” It’s now five years later. While Sadie and Jo’s personal life is their own and this is emphatically not intended as a birth announcement, it seems safe to say that, should children indeed be in the picture some time soon, Sadie is well qualified to take on the prodigious balancing act that is modern motherhood.

* * *

Disclaimer: Anchorage is a small town, and Sadie and I are both affiliated with the same club program, Alaska Pacific University Nordic Ski Center. Over the years, Sadie has signed multiple posters for my children (okay, also for me as well); I have trained with her a handful of times in APUNSC program-wide bounding sessions; and my wife and I are currently hiring her husband to do light handyman work at our house. If you conclude from all of this that I cannot be completely unbiased toward her, that is, frankly, correct. However, I promise that anyone on the FasterSkier team, let alone anyone involved in American skiing over the past fifteen years, would speak of Sadie in roughly the same glowing terms that I have done here. That does not mean that this article is unbiased; it does suggest that it is representative.

* * *

Further reading (if this wasn’t enough):

Anchorage Daily News: This January, local photojournalist Marc Lester wrote and photographed a superb photo essay on Sadie’s approach to what she knew at the time was her final season of World Cup skiing

Alaska Public Media: Earlier this winter, Sadie spoke with Adam Verrier for local public radio show Outdoor Explorer, pairing with UAA/USST skier JC Schoonmaker in an hour-long episode entitled “Starting and ending World Cup ski careers”

Nordic Nation: Sadie spoke with Jason Albert for the FasterSkier podcast in 2018 about the “Sadie System,” the approach she took to managing tendon load and overall life balance alongside of competing as a professional skier

U.S. Ski & Snowboard: Sadie spoke with Tom Horrocks immediately after this season for an interview that is a far shorter version of this article and that provides a fine complement to some topics discussed here

NBC New York, “Sadie Bjornsen and Jessie Diggins explain cross-country skiing with Legos”: A delightful two-minute video that is precisely what the title promises. Plus, your chance to see Sadie enact a finish-line lunge using Lego characters.

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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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