Julia Kern finds herself heading into an Olympic season as one of the veterans for the US women’s cross country ski team. At the age of twenty-three, she’s ready to take on the leadership role left by the retirements of long-time team members Sadie Maubet Bjornsen and Sophie Caldwell Hamilton. After a lackluster season — by her own lofty standards — she has shaken off the disappointment, along with a hamstring injury she picked up last fall, to have one of the best summers of training in her career.
Kern spoke to FasterSkier in late July about where she’s been, how things are going, her philosophy for dealing with adversity, and her new role on the US women’s team.
“So far, the summer has been really good,” said Kern, who completed her degree at Dartmouth this spring with a major in Economics and a minor in Human Centered Design. After graduation and the US Ski Team camp in Bend, Oregon, she rejoined her SMS T2 teammates in Stratton, Vermont.
“We’ve had a really solid group training together most days. And it’s been really fun to work with such an incredible team and group every day.”
Kern has put a special emphasis on improving her double poling this season after working on it on snow in Bend this spring . “We had a few really productive double pole technique sessions there,” Kern said. “I’ve taken what we started doing on snow and have tried to apply it in every training session. The more reps you do, the easier it is to feel that progress. I do feel like my double pole has been better now than in the past, and I want to continue that into the season.”
Matt Whitcomb, Head Coach of the US Ski Team said that “she’s skiing with the best double poling technique that I’ve ever seen her ski with.”
Kern has also made an adjustment to her strength training, saying, “I’ve changed my strength approach a little bit this year. It’s more of a physical therapy, injury prevention approach.”
Kern has been bothered by an injury she picked up last fall. “I don’t know exactly what I did, but I kind of strained my hamstring in November doing some sprints, right before heading over to Europe,” Kern said. “So I’ve been dealing with that. Since it was unfortunate timing right before the season, I couldn’t really heal it up; I just managed it all winter. I kind of had constant pain skiing last year. So this spring, I focused a lot on rehabilitating the injury, working with doctors and PTs, and just have been really consistent with PT to get back to being pain free.”
“Any injuries are concerning of course,” said Whitcomb. “But it seems to be under control. It’s nothing that’s going to prevent her from being successful.”
“For the last three weeks, I have had a pain free stretch for the first time since November,” Kern said. “Now, in the last few days, I’ve started to feel it. Progress is never linear, you take two steps forward, one step back. I would say it’s something that I don’t have to consider in my training anymore, which is really awesome.”
Kern didn’t think that the injury played into last season, which results-wise didn’t go the way she had wished. “I wouldn’t say that was the reason for not having the season I’d hoped for,” she said. “I think I’ve dealt with injuries a lot in the past.”
The hamstring injury did, however, prevent certain types of training. “It limited my ability to do sprint training, especially classic striding and speeds,” Kern said. “I had to be really careful with my reps. I couldn’t do any plyometrics. So I think in that sense, it changed my training a little bit, but I don’t think it affected in the grand scheme my whole entire season. I don’t think it played that huge of a role.”
Whitcomb praised her resiliency and leadership during a challenging season.
“Julia is coming off a season that was disappointing for her,” Whitcomb said. “But even on a disappointing season, an athlete like Julia can still qualify in the top place for sprinters and get 25th in a distance race…so it’s not like it was a disaster. One thing that I find very important to point out with Julia is that with this last season being a huge disappointment for her, you would assume that would be reflected in her general spirit, day to day. When that happens it’s usually almost as if poor days lead to more days when [an athlete doesn’t] perform because it becomes very difficult emotionally to stay focused on how to right the ship. With Julia, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen somebody believe so consistently throughout the season that things are going to turn around. I think that is why currently she’s having one of the best prep seasons that she’s had in a while. It’s because of patience and belief that she’s been able to do that. A lot of athletes put together a bad season and it takes them another season to recover from it because they just can’t turn things around. And Julia just never got stuck in the mud that way.”
Kern also reflected on her handling of the season, and what she’ll take away from it as she moves forward through her career.
“I would say it was a big learning year for me,” said Kern. “Progress isn’t linear from season to season either. I think it was a very challenging year—I never really found my rhythm, never really raced the way I thought I could, and was a bit confused and baffled for a while. But I think I learned a lot with COVID. It just changed what we normally do in ways that weren’t even intentional. It was an accidental learning year, we didn’t travel for training camps and training was really, really consistent. As a result, I never had really big weeks followed by easy weeks. I just had really consistent weeks, and I learned that maybe that isn’t the best way for my body to train.
“I’ve always seen this with injuries, where you have certain situations that force a change in how you normally train or behave. Either you learn from it and say, ‘oh, that worked really well and was unexpected,’ or you learn from it say, ‘okay, that’s not what works well. So, how can I figure out what does work?’ I think that’s important for the learning process. When things change, you have to react and then look back and say, ‘okay, was this a positive thing or negative thing’? And, ‘what can I take away from it?’”
Luckily for Kern, she is familiar with seasons that did not go as expected, and can put this into perspective as still being a valuable part of her overall athletic career.
“I have had seasons where things come around pretty late. I thought, ‘Oh, it’ll come around, it’ll come around,’ and it never did, which was a really hard reality. I never really had races like I wanted. But at the same time, I think it was really cool, because it gave me an opportunity to see how I can contribute to the team in other ways.”
Despite her own struggle, Kern looked outward and found ways to help her team.
“One of my big goals this last year was: how can I be a good teammate, even when my performances are far from what I want them to be? It’s easy to be upbeat, and be a good teammate, when you’re on top of the world and things are going well. But it’s really hard to not be a Debbie Downer when you’re just having a tough season and you don’t know why. Especially with COVID [protocols], we were so isolated in our rooms. We couldn’t even do the natural social things that make being on the road really fun. I just took it as an opportunity. How can I learn from this? How can I learn to deal with disappointment and bad races and still be a good teammate?
“At the World Championships I ended up racing for three minutes—total. And I was like, ‘Well, I’m here, how can I contribute to the team?’ and that meant helping with glide outs with the wax techs on certain races. It was incredibly rewarding to contribute to the team in a different way and help people succeed, collectively. I think I reframed it in a way of ‘okay, even if I’m not performing my best, I’m still growing as an athlete and learning, and I’m also still contributing to this team even if right now my performances aren’t where I want them to be.’”
These actions were visible to her coaches; Whitcomb praised Kern’s selfless role on the team.
“Julia is an incredible leader. We operate a team where we don’t name captains, we don’t like to have one men’s team leader and one women’s team leader. We really like, and request, and encourage everyone to lead in some way. And Julia is just so creative when it comes to the ways in which she leads, and she’s so bought into the idea of building something where everyone is connected and working together. She’s really a productive athlete, not just for herself, but for her teammates. It’s really, really a coach’s dream to get somebody like this.”
With team veterans Sadie Bjornsen-Maubet and Sophie Caldwell announcing their retirement from the team this spring, there is a changing of the guard on the women’s national team and Kern is ready to act as a leader for the new generation.
“It’s crazy to think I went from being the youngest athlete to now being one of the more experienced older athletes on the team,” said Kern. “It’s definitely a transition. But I think it’s also exciting to see the next group of young girls and guys coming up, and I remember when Hailey Swirbul, Katharine Ogden, Hannah Halvorsen, and I were that group when we first joined the team. I just hope to follow in the footsteps of what Sadie and Sophie were able to do for me, and Kikkan [Randall], and Liz [Stephen], and Ida [Sargent did for them]. I mean, they all wanted to share all of their experiences, so that when I came around, I didn’t have to relearn all these tips and tricks about venues or being on the road. I hope I can be that resource to the athletes coming up now, so that they don’t have to have that learning curve. I had the luxury of the older girls teaching me and sharing those experiences, so that when you join the World Cup, you’re not figuring things out, you’re ready to succeed right when you come over.”
Kern commented that the transition of the team as it ushers in a new era will be “interesting”. Considering the ages of the women starting in Period 1 for the first time during the upcoming season, Sophia Laukli will be 21-years-old, Novie McCabe 20, and Sydney Palmer-Leger 19.
“I think that with young people, there comes a different energy, which is really exciting, and a little bit of freshness. When I joined the team, everyone was a seasoned World Cup athlete, so it was very much the same for them every year. Now, there’s going to be a lot more transition of people coming and going. A lot of people will be going to World Cups for the first time, and it’s always exciting to have that. Our team is just pretty open to sharing their experience. There’s a lot to be learned from the younger athletes and older athletes. But yeah, I’m curious to see how the dynamic is. The Bend camp this year was super fun. Everyone’s really engaged with having conversations about the team and beyond. A lot of people are passionate about doing big things collectively.”
Kern is looking ahead to the Olympic season, focused on her individual goals in sprinting and the success of the team as a whole. “I want to be one of the top sprinters and see if I can consistently start making semifinals and finals,” said Kern. “The sprint’s definitely a big goal of mine, and, of course, to be named to the Olympic team, qualify for the Olympic team, and then give it my best at the Olympics if I get to race.
“I’m a huge fan of the team sprint and relay, so if I get named to the Olympic team, fighting for a spot on that team would be an absolute privilege and honor. That’s a big goal of mine that’s motivating, and what’s cool about that too is I train with Jesse [Diggins], Katharine [Ogden], Alayna [Sonnesyn] and Lina [Sutro], and so collectively, I feel like whether we’re training for individual spots or for team results, it’s all one and the same. I think having those team and individual goals is super motivating.”
With an excellent spring and summer of training, Kern is on track.
“I think things are going really well for her right now,” said Whitcomb. “She’s happy and focused and executing some great workouts.”
“I’m just excited for more,” Kern said. “More training camps to come, and excitement for the winter.”
Pasha Kahn writes and coaches in Duluth, Minnesota.