As the largest NCAA circuit in the nation prepares for a return to a full schedule, anticipation, anxiety, and lessons from a pandemic year abound in New England.
Carnival, as a noun, has perhaps had its moment. We’ve been building towards ennui, not excitement, for nearly two years now. Maybe it’s time to dispel the anticipation, let the moment fade, and let “Carnival” go along with it.
But then again, calling a collegiate race circuit a “carnival” has always been a bit old-timey. One of those New England-isms – like calling your town park a “common.” My alma mater Colby College hasn’t had a winter carnival, festival, ball, or snow sculpture on its grounds in years. Those memories are confined to dusty old photographs hung in student unions throughout New England — all distractions from another time. Nonetheless, in January eleven New England schools will gather at Colby to start the NCAA collegiate racing season, and it will be all jubilation, camaraderie, and competition. There will be the return of the possibility to mark time by the traces of human emotion that linger on in memories, rather than case counts and travel restrictions.
All-too-well then, that Colby will still call it a Carnival.
The Eastern Intercollegiate Skiing Association (EISA) Carnival circuit is set to return to a full calendar on January 14th-15th, 2022 after a season that saw heavy modifications in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. With it comes lessons learned, appreciation, and excitement from both athletes and coaches across New England.
The 2021 Carnival Circuit
The EISA last year could, at its best, be described as disjointed. Each team was subject to individual state COVID-19 policies — in a region with a lot of states — on top of their own institutional policies. Vermont teams couldn’t travel outside their state for competition due to state restrictions. Colby couldn’t travel out of Maine per school policy. Many of Harvard and Bowdoin’s skiers weren’t on campus at all for the fall or spring semester. Some skiers were being tested daily, others twice a week. The means and ends were shifting constantly.
Athletes responded in different ways. Some pressed on with their education and their athletic career. Some re-evaluated and decided that enjoyment in skiing could be found elsewhere. Others chose to compete in their home regions towards skiing goals separate from the NCAA ranks.
For one, Foss Kerker, who is serving as Colby College’s team captain this year and will graduate in January, the missed season was serendipitous. A shoulder injury left him unable to race what was set to be his senior year, and so he decided to focus on recovering, training, and looking forward to this season. After taking the semester off, he returns this year feeling renewed, saying in an interview with FasterSkier that “On the whole, I am more grateful for skiing and ski racing. Not being able to ski or race last winter has made me refreshed and just excited to get out and race in the fun and competitive environment of the EISA, whatever the results might be.”
Gratitude for Skiing and Ski Racing
Kerker extends this newfound sense of gratitude to how he is helping prepare the Colby team to race. It has been an anecdote to the quick and rapid changes precipitated by the pandemic in skiing, in the world, and in life. As Kerker reflected:
“[Coach] Tracey has talked a lot about this recently – not knowing what is going to happen with schedules, conditions, or travel was something that was really hard to deal with before. That has sort of become the default now and being able to go with the flow and continue to perform is something that is only going to help us in the long run.”
Colby head coach Tracey Cote also touched on how the return of the traditional run-up to the EISA carnival season has helped her team build off of the flexibility that was required in training last season, saying in a response to the author via text that “I’m really excited about my team as we’re off to great start with our Canada training camp and the first Eastern Cups on our home course at Quarry Road.”
As other coaches look back at their own takeaways from last year, the lessons all point back to a re-centering of their roles around the joy of skiing.
Becky Woods, head coach at Bates College in Lewiston, ME, said her team now has a sense of how “important [it is] to embrace opportunities when they are put in front of you, and we see this season as a great big opportunity to come together, race fast and have fun on skis!” While Molly Peters, head coach at St. Michael’s College in Burlington, VT stated that “we appreciate every day we can practice and every opportunity we can race!”
Peters also added that this re-found joy has seeped into her team’s race preparations. “The team spent a lot of time backcountry skiing and having fun on skis last year. We will definitely keep these fun days this winter to take a step back and remember what it’s all about. Fun!”
In a way then, the year off from the carnival circuit looks only to have added to its carnival spirit. With that sense of joy, the EISA looks ready to maintain its traditions and do as its skiers have always done, make the sport fresh and exciting.
A New Field with New Faces
That strong spirit though, is accompanied by a sense of anxiety. This is, after all, a different group of skiers than the one that finished the last full EISA carnival at Middlebury in February of 2020.
As Williams College Assistant Coach Annika Martell responded to the question, “How do you think the carnival circuit will look differently this year than it did before the pandemic?”:
“Besides half the field being new to the eastern racing circuit?!? There will be a lot of new faces for sure!”
She has a point.
Martell is uniquely positioned in the EISA. She finished the last full Carnival in 2020 as an athlete with Colby, and now will start the first full Carnival in 2022 as a coach with Williams.
Two classes of graduates since the pandemic began, along with athletes like Kerker who have remained on the circuit longer than the traditional four years, mean a shakeup in who is on the circuit, and how familiar they are with one another.
Martell thinks that while this doesn’t change the way that athletes have prepared themselves for the season – the training hours are still high, the periodization the same – but it does change how an athlete might evaluate their performances.
“I’m excited because all sense of expectations have been dismantled with two new class years and a year of not being able to really race each other,” Martell said.
That lack of preconceived order in the field – which individuals and which teams fall where – provides opportunity, but also a unique variable. As Bates coach Becky Woods stated, “[This] brings some challenges as we’ll really have to evaluate performances from a new perspective. Relying on past results is not a method we can really use this year because so many had to take time away from racing.”
That leaves the forecasted results nearer to an unknown than they have been in past seasons. Without continuity comes a chance for individuals to reach with tenacity, grit, and discipline for top placings, without the hesitation that might come from lining up next to more experience collegiate racers whose resume’s have been followed. This combination promises to introduce new characters into the mix of the top collegiate ranks.
Still Not “Normal”
Of course, amidst overcoming many of the obstacles the pandemic has presented looms the reality that we haven’t yet overcome it. The EISA returns not because COVID is gone, but because the organization has been able to put into place substantial measures to control the spread of the virus while engaging in competition.
Martell reflected on this, pointing out that some of the energies that add vibrance to the Carnival circuit will still have to be subdued.
“Prior to the pandemic, I think there was a lot of organic inter-team bonding,” Martell explained. “Athletes had their home, region and team friends that all got to socialize in a unique way that other sports don’t experience. But out of an abundance of caution and in order to keep everyone safe and healthy, there may be slightly less mask-less mingling than previous years.”
That will leave a Carnival with its core intact, but with less of the frills that tend to animate the EISA from week-to-week.
The energies will still be there in some form. There will still be the warmth of seeing friends from far-and-wide all together in the New England woods, the glimpse at the future of US skiing that the top-end of the Carnival circuit consistently provides year-after-year, and of course, the good ol’ fashioned collegial competition whose atmosphere can be best described as, well, collegial.
They may come attached to signs of the time though. Masks to keep each other safe, shouts from slightly further off the v-boards along the sides of the trail, and Carni Crushes (an annual Valentine’s Day tradition whose details will be left fuzzy here) that this year will no doubt include a couple of really bad puns regarding something about social distancing.
All of those involved, especially those that have spent the most time on the EISA carnival circuit — the coaches — are adjusting to this world in a way that will keep the timeless camaraderie of the circuit alive. As Becky Woods says, “Health and safety first. Always. We certainly focused on that in the past but it has taken on a new level of urgency.”
The best summary though, of what has carried the Carnival Circuit through the pandemic and into its return this year may come from the coach on the EISA Circuit who’s had to transition and grow along with it. Martell ended her reflections by saying that she “[feels] well-equipped to empathize and connect to athletes and what they have been dealing with over the last few years.”
And what we’ve all been dealing with. It’s a poignant message that anticipates the jubilee — the Carnival — that ski racing brings.
For full details on the upcoming EISA Carnival Season visit: https://www.eisaskiing.org/
Ben Theyerl was born into a family now three-generations into nordic ski racing in the US. He grew up skiing for Chippewa Valley Nordic in his native Eau Claire, Wisconsin, before spending four years racing for Colby College in Maine. He currently mixes writing and skiing while based out of Crested Butte, CO, where he coaches the best group of high schoolers one could hope to find.