In the fall of 2018, on the heels of a season that included representing Australia at the PyeongChang Olympics, Jessica Yeaton applied to physical therapy programs. What she did not expect as she focused her lens on a new goal is that the 2018-2019 season would include some of the top results of her career, which reinforced the vision that she was not quite ready to fully hang up her skis.
During that season, Yeaton secured her first podiums at U.S. Nationals with a second place finish in the 10-kilometer classic behind Caitlin Patterson, followed a few days later by a 3rd place finish in the 20k freestyle, which was also won by Patterson. (Yeaton’s APU teammate Rosie Frankowski took second.) Later in the season, she earned her first SuperTour win in a 5k skate, and achieved a career best finish at the FIS World Ski Championships in Seefeld, AUT with a 22nd place finish in the 15k skiathlon.
Despite the upward trajectory of her skiing, Yeaton enrolled full time in the physical therapy program at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. Six months later, she won the 2020 American Birkie as a relative dark horse considering infrequent racing and significantly less time on snow than her previous training cycles. Yeaton explained in her post-race interview that she was only able to get on snow a few times a week in her Birkie build up, and that she had been listening to recordings of the lectures and her own notes while driving or training to ensure her training was not cutting into the study hours she needed to log.
Then the pandemic hit, making traveling to races more complex — increasing her risk of exposure not only threatened her own health, but the health of the patients she saw during clinical rotations. The university imposed its own set of quarantine rules, and as parts of New Mexico were severely impacted by COVID outbreaks, Yeaton was primarily restricted to the Albuquerque area. Out of state racing was out of the question.
Between the Birkie in February 2020 and the beginning of the 2021-22 season, she competed in only one FIS race in December 2020 — a 10k skate at Kincaid Park in Anchorage, which happened to coincide with an extended winter break from school. Yeaton took third in this event behind Sadie Maubet Bjornsen and Rosie Frankowski.
Flashforward to fall 2021, Yeaton is on a leave of absence from PT school, delaying her completion of the program by roughly five months, to chase down a spot on the Australian Team in Beijing. She’ll still walk with her cohort in the spring, but is putting off her final three clinical rotations to put on a bib and some skinny skis.
FasterSkier connected with Yeaton on a call in early November shortly after she had returned to Anchorage and plugged back in with her APU Teammates. At the time, Yeaton was making the trek from Anchorage to Hatcher Pass almost daily to take advantage of early-season snow in preparation for the upcoming season.
While Albuquerque may not immediately incite mental imagery of pristine corduroy and crisp classic tracks, Yeaton explained the area has been an excellent place for her to train. The city’s elevation is roughly a mile high, but thanks to a geological anomaly, the nearby Sandia Nordic Center sits atop the “rim of a massive uplifted fault block” at an elevation of over 10,600 feet. While this makes breathing all the more difficult, Yeaton applauded the local ski community’s dedication to keeping these trails well-maintained and was grateful to have access to the venue during her time at UNM.
A silver lining of the pandemic for Yeaton was online classes, which allowed her to make the 45-minute drive from town to the trails four to five times a week, nearly doubling her time on snow the previous season.
“I was able to train super well,” Yeaton explained. “And in the back of my head, I was always focused on this [upcoming] season. I had asked for the time off last winter, so I knew I was going to be taking the leave of absence and could focus on qualifying for the Olympics this year. So I think having that goal just made me better able to not worry about last season, but just stay focused on building base fitness and putting in quality training. Just focusing on the Olympic goal.”
As previously mentioned, Yeaton’s success in the season before she began full-time school included many of her career highlights. She explained that knowing her potential helped her stay hungry, even when she was busy with schoolwork and watching races from afar.
“In the back of my head, I’m like, ‘Man, I want to have a shot at that 30k skate at the Olympics.’ And there are other goals that I still have. So that has made it hard for me to just sit back and be like, ‘Oh, I’m okay not doing the ski season,’ because I do really want to race and I want to see how fast I can ski this year. So that’s played a really big role. I think without some of those results that last season, and without the Birkie, maybe I wouldn’t be so motivated, but it’s been pretty easy to stay motivated to train just because of some of those results.”
Yeaton said that it was easy to stay motivated to take a break from school to rollerski, and she enjoyed getting more into mountain biking on the plentiful trails in the area. She also enjoyed the contrast of the high desert climate compared to what she had grown accustomed to in Anchorage.
“I don’t even check the weather anymore,” she laughed. “I worry about thunderstorms in the afternoon, but you’re never like ‘Oh man. It’s raining out, I don’t really want to go do this workout.’ It’s always a beautiful day, so you’re just like, ‘Of course I want to get out there and train today.’”
Yeaton also enjoyed getting to know the small but very supportive local ski community surrounding Sandia Nordic.
“There’s so many people in Albuquerque that are stoked on cross country skiing, and it was really cool getting to know some of them. They’ve been really welcoming and supportive of me as a skier. I did the virtual Birkie last year [with some other local skiers], and there were people out cheering and one guy brought a bunch of food for us and set up a feed station and things like that. I’ve met a few people that will train for the Birkie [or other marathon races], so I’ve had people to ski with up there… It’s been cool just to see that there is this great community in New Mexico, and it’s sort of hidden.”
Though the training has been good, it can be hard without races to keep a finger on the pulse with fitness relative to your competition. Yeaton had hoped to enter some mountain bike races this summer, but this was prevented by a significant setback in April. While on a mountain biking and camping trip in the Utah desert with her partner, David Norris, Yeaton slipped while navigating her way down an embankment to a creek in crocs. She fractured her pelvis and had to significantly modify her usual training.
“It took a really long time to get back to full training and I didn’t want to rush or risk anything.”
Instead of races, Yeaton tracked her progress using times on Strava segments.
“Which was a little dangerous at first, because if you’re not meeting those segments, you can just be really hard on yourself. But I would use that, really just to see how I’m measuring up against myself.”
She explained that there were only a couple of options for rollerski venues, and she would typically do intervals at the same location. This made it easy to directly compare her results from similar sets of intervals.
Yeaton also found it encouraging and invigorating to rejoin her APU teammates upon her return to Alaska, as she knows these women have been working hard and are in excellent shape.
“I think one thing people on teams forget is that it’s so valuable — even if the point isn’t to measure yourself against each other, you do have that feedback from teammates. I’ve really valued just being here and doing intervals [with the team].”
On one hand, she recognizes that, compared to doing level four on her own, she can tap into a different gear when chasing another skier down. Even if it meant “getting [her] butt totally kicked”, Yeaton recognized her teammates would help elevate her fitness and sharpness before the season began. On the other hand, having respect for the talent and strength of her teammates, she also gained confidence from being able to complete these workouts alongside them.
“All these girls are so fast. And I’m like, ‘Man, if I can keep up with these girls, then that’s a good sign.’”
At the moment, Australia’s quota for the Beijing Olympics is limited to three men and two women. To earn a spot, Yeaton will need to perform well in early-season races that fall during the qualification period, roughly the month of December.
In terms of outlook, Yeaton expressed that she believes she has “a decent shot”; however, she recognizes that a lot can change during the 18 months she has been away from racing.
“I’m hoping it goes well, but I’m definitely nervous, just not having really raced last season.”
She explained that she trusts the quality of the training she has been putting in, but even pros experience self-doubt.
In preparation for the season ahead, she headed to Davos, SUI in late November to begin training with the Australian national team. World Cup support was not available to the team until the third race weekend in Davos, beginning December 11th, but she will be able to use results from nearby Alpen Cup races toward qualification instead.
Yeaton kicked off her season last weekend in Goms, SUI and also plans to race in St. Ulrich am Pillersee, AUT December 18-19th. After that, she will head back to the World Cup to start in the Tour de Ski.
In the opening 10k classic in Goms on December 3rd, Yeaton skied to 8th place. The next day, she took 10th in the 1.3k freestyle sprint, which she followed with a 14th place finish in the 10k skate the following day. In each of these days, Yeaton was the top Australian skier.
From the outside, it looks like Yeaton is well on her way from Albuquerque to Beijing.
Rachel is an endurance sport enthusiast based in the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado. You can find her cruising around on skinny skis, running in the mountains with her pup, or chasing her toddler (born Oct. 2018). Instagram: @bachrunner4646