After eight years at the helm of the Stratton Mountain School (SMS) T2 team, head coach Pat O’Brien is in the process of taking a few steps back, passing the reins to Perry Thomas, who has spent the last five years as the assistant coach at the University of Vermont.
Perhaps highlighting this transition and the sharing of responsibilities the two are in the process of navigating, FasterSkier connected with Thomas in mid-May while he was in his second week of supporting the SMS T2 athletes who had joined the U.S. Ski Team for their spring training camp in Bend, OR, and with O’Brien who was back in Stratton, having recently wrapped up with his participation in U.S. Ski & Snowboard spring congress sessions.
A 2006 graduate of SMS himself, O’Brien raced collegiately for Dartmouth College, then spent four years training and racing professionally with the Craftsbury Green Racing Project. His move from Craftsbury back to Stratton was timed with his retirement following the 2014 Sochi Olympic Quad. Given his age and the proximity to his racing career at that time, many of the athletes on the T2 team were among what he called his “peer group”, having overlapped with many of them during either high school, college, on the race course, or all of the above. Jessie Diggins and Sophie Caldwell Hamilton were quickly becoming rising World Cup stars on the women’s team, while Andy Newell and Simi Hamilton headlined the men’s roster, and a young Julia Kern and Katharine Ogden were spending a PG year training with the T2 team.
Eager to stay connected with the sport after retirement, O’Brien seized the opportunity to take over in Stratton, stepping in as his predecessor Gus Kaeding departed.
“Ski coaching is the one thing that I’ve always known that I wanted to do, it was just kind of a natural progression for me. I knew that I was done with my athletic career – I didn’t really want to ski race anymore – but I knew that I still wanted to ski, I still wanted to be involved and to give back to the sport. I felt like, to some extent, when you spend basically your entire life skiing, you get pretty good at understanding the sport. But we never know as much as we think we do, and we always need to be students of the sport and have an open mind and learn.”
As he began his coaching career, he quickly realized that writing training plans and facilitating training was only a small subset of the responsibilities of an elite club coach.
“Good coaching is being comfortable wearing a bunch of different hats. And I mean, I joke, but the actual coaching is such a small part of it. The nitty gritty of pulling an athlete on the side of the trail and looking at video and all of that is important, but you’re there as a friend, a drill sergeant at times, and as someone that is just really trying to be supportive.
“And that’s all-encompassing. So for me, it has been a pretty fun experience to see people figure stuff out and be there to support them when they needed a little extra help and to do it in a pretty collaborative, dynamic way.”
He described his experience transitioning to coaching primarily as a mindset shift from the inevitable self-centric focus required of professional athletes toward selflessness; but the work required and pace of life remained equally taxing.
“When you coach at a club level – all coaching is a demanding job. I do think that you have to – I don’t want to use the word ‘sacrifice’, but when you transition from being an athlete yourself to being a coach, your job as an athlete is to be a little selfish. You’re trying to maximize your athletic performance. You need to have balance… but at the end of the day, you need to make sure that you’re training well and with purpose, you’re recovering well, you have goals and you’re going about achieving them. It shouldn’t be simply looked at as like what you have to give up to do that, but to be the most professional athletes and succeed against people who are trying to do the exact same thing, you just have to do a really, really good job with it. And coaching is the same thing. You have to be willing to approach everything that you do with the same degree of drive and focus that you would as an athlete…
“Basically, I just threw myself into it with the same approach that I had as an athlete which is, I’m just going to work, and work, and work, and learn all along the way. And then give it my best push and know that if I get to the point where that balance starts becoming harder and harder, or I can’t really do the job that I want, to be supportive of the athletes [to the level I want to be], that’s when you’ve got to know that you either double down and keep pushing or make a transition.”
While O’Brien is no less dedicated to the SMS T2 program or its athletes, a new endeavor has begun which will make achieving the balance he described significantly harder: he’s about to become a father. His wife, two-time Olympian and long-time U.S. Ski Team member Ida Sargent, is due in mid-August.
Since retirement, Sargent has been working for her high school alma mater, Burke Mountain Academy, in Northern Vermont, and is currently the Academic Director for the school while also teaching STEM classes. O’Brien has been splitting his time between Burke and Stratton, which lies roughly 150 miles southeast in the opposite corner of the state. His usual coaching schedule pulled him around the country for weeks at a time to support athletes at U.S. Nationals and SuperTour events, and sometimes around the globe for World Cup, U23s, and other international camps and races.
While he acknowledged that there are many examples of coaches at all levels who have successfully juggled a demanding work and travel schedule with raising a family, what felt like the best fit given his and Ida’s vision and priorities for their own growing family was for O’Brien to decrease his level of responsibility with the T2 program, allowing greater flexibility and more time at home.
“I just felt like there’s part of me that was like, ‘I’m not seeing a pathway that I feel like I can still commit [to coaching] at the level that I want and know that you need to in order to to do the best job with your job, while simultaneously trying to start a family.’ I felt like it was my time to reevaluate and maybe step back or be completely done with ski coaching, because I certainly didn’t want Ida to have to put her growing career on hold to be the [primary] caregiver…
“Eight years is a long time to do something and I am very proud of what the team has accomplished in that time… it’s really cool having spent this time seeing athletes grow, not just not just athletically and within their their ski careers, but as individuals from high schoolers to finishing up college to full blown ‘this is my job.’”
While his role will be smaller, O’Brien is certainly not stepping away from the T2 team altogether. “Starting a family does not necessarily mean that it means the end of being involved in the sport,” he said. “It just means trying to figure out what the right relationship is with it.”
The exact balance and distribution of responsibilities remains a work in progress as Thomas moves into the head coach role and the new season of training begins, and both O’Brien and Thomas are excited to collaborate and support one another throughout the year.
Explaining his philosophy as “under-commit so I can open perform”, O’Brien anticipates taking on many of the behind the scenes tasks that support the team, from collaboratively blocking out the season calendar, to managing travel logistics for camps and SuperTour races. As he put it, the little details of deciding “which flights to take to get from Canmore to Sun Valley” and where to stay are often made easier with several years of trial and error under your belt.
While Thomas will spend more time with ski boots on the ground, both in Stratton during the summer and at races and camps throughout the year, O’Brien anticipates he’ll still be plugging in a fair amount too. Though his stay might be shortened to the period immediately surrounding races, he plans, at minimum, to be in Houghton, MI for U.S. Nationals in January, and also the SuperTour finals in Craftsbury in late March.
He’s also excited to reconnect with the team in Stratton early in the summer before Ida gets close to her due date, but also to take off a few of his usual coaching hats while doing so.
“I think it’ll be really fun for me to actually be able to flow in and out get to see people, connect with them, but also not be like ‘Okay, now I don’t have to worry about making sure that the van’s filled up with gas, or water jugs have been filled, or that I’ve ordered all the lactate strips in advance so that we don’t run out.’”
As Thomas gets his feet under him in Stratton, he explained that he feels “very fortunate that Pat will still be involved.”
“As much as I can have him in the mix, the better,” Thomas said. “His knowledge with skis and wax is just unreal, so tapping into that resource is huge for me, for sure.”
Prior to joining the UVM program, Thomas spent five years as the assistant coach at the University of Vermont, working alongside head coach Patrick Weaver. During his own collegiate racing career, Thomas spent four years racing for the University of New Hampshire, where he served as team captain during his senior year in ‘12-13. Departing briefly from the cross-country ski world, he spent a year teaching high school science to underprivileged youth in the Oakland area of California, before returning to the Northeast to begin his coaching career as the assistant coach at Williams College in Massachusetts.
“Working at UVM was unreal – a great experience,” Thomas said emphatically. “I really loved working with Patrick Weaver and the athletes there and it seems like almost a seamless transition, in many ways. Four of the skiers on the T2 team I actually coached at UVM. So knowing a lot of athletes here already – what they’re working on with technique, and racing, and goals and all that – has been very seamless, and that’s been great.”
The UVM graduates who now ski for SMS T2 include Alayna Sonnesyn (‘18), Bill Harmeyer (‘20), Lina Sutro (‘21), and Ben Ogden (‘22).
Given the caliber of these athletes and the success of the UVM team as a whole during his tenure, Thomas credits his time with the program to the acceleration of his development as a coach, preparing him to take his next steps forward with SMS T2.
“Patrick Weaver definitely gave me a lot of opportunities and ownership over different facets of coaching that team and I think that’s been instrumental in me being here now with T2. I was able to go to World Cup Finals with Ben Ogden in Quebec his first year in school [in 2019], and I was just able to do trips like that on my own with athletes. That was huge for my development as a coach and for my experience of waxing, ski testing, and [other responsibilities at that level of racing]. So working at UVM was a lot of fun – I’m gonna miss it for sure – but it set me up very well for this transition.”
A theme of both Thomas and O’Brien’s comments on the difference between collegiate and elite club coaching is small in terms of the training and technique coaching itself, but vastly different in terms of the opportunities elite club coaches have to support their athletes.
“I think the big differences are what we can and can’t do throughout the year from collegiate [racing] to the elite team,” Thomas explained. “Like, I wouldn’t be here [in Bend] and been doing an on-snow training camp if I were at a college team. And obviously the racing schedule is super different.
“The college schedule is pretty efficient, whereas the SuperTour calendar is quite a bit more spread out. And then, in addition to that, you have an athlete’s like Jesse Diggins, and Ben Ogden, and Julia Kern that are going to be on the World Cup, as well as athletes that are trying to make it to the World Cup. And at UVM, we had crazy talented athletes – Ben Ogden is one of them – so working with with high caliber athletes is nothing entirely new, but dealing with athletes where some are on the World Cup and some of them on the SuperTour is an interesting dynamic that you don’t often get with the college teams.”
In terms of what Thomas adds to the program as he steps in as head coach, he described his coaching philosophy and the environment he seeks to create within the training group, which keeps athletes motivated and happy through the arduous and long-term development process.
“[Cross-country] skiing is such a hard sport – it’s so much time that that we’re putting in, and so many sacrifices that we’re making, that I wholeheartedly believe in making that time that we’re together training and working hard fun and enjoyable,” Thomas said. “I think that’s a big part of what we do – and it has to be a big part of what we do – because like I said, it’s a hard sport. So I think making things light and having fun with all that is super important. And that’s definitely something I bring to the table in that regard.”
But Thomas will add more than just fun to the T2 program. While he may be, as phrased by his new colleague, “almost too humble”, O’Brien was quick to highlight Thomas’s preparedness to prescribe training, coach technique, and otherwise lead an elite team stacked with some of the nation’s best athletes.
“If you have been at a D1 college program where you’re dealing with 15-20 athletes and that dynamic environment where student athletes are constantly balancing all these different commitments and time constraints… And really, what you learn there as an athlete and what you learn there as a coach is that working with a club – it just isn’t that different.”
O’Brien added that the shift to an elite club from college may, in fact, be easier than going in the other direction. When athletes no longer have to miss key workouts to take an exam or rush off to class halfway through a team meeting, barriers to consistent communication and training are removed, and consequently a coach has a greater capacity to build relationships with the athletes as they stack together the bricks of the training program.
“You get an opportunity to really work one-on-one with the athletes and to really be there to facilitate and support their training and their racing. In that sense, I think coming from a college background – especially given his ties with many of the current athletes that are on the team – you’re just working with the same people and you’re doing the same stuff.
“I mean, there’s no magic formula,” O’Brien continued. “Someone can claim that they can write the best training plan in the world. And that’s all fine and dandy – there are definitely people who do an amazing job with it and they really enjoy that aspect of that aspect of the sport. But at the end of the day, it’s just really just working with people. You don’t need to make it more complicated than it is. The best athlete is not a robot. The best athlete is someone that is self aware, that can think critically, learn from mistakes, recognize when things go well, and the coach is there to support them along the way.”
Thomas identified building upon his relationships and experience with his former athletes, who account for half of the team’s eight athletes, as something he’s looking forward to in joining T2.
“I am very appreciative of the continuity and being able to work with some athletes I’ve worked with in the past,” said Thomas. “I love all of them – they’re incredible people, incredibly hard workers. So to be able to continue working with them is just awesome. With that, too, it’s like – I have been working with Ben for the last four years, I worked with Lina Sutro for four years, I worked with Alayna for a little bit. It’s just a matter of knowing how they operate and how they train and knowing what they’ve been working on too. It’s easy for me in training, [even] this morning, to see some of them and be like, ‘okay, like this is something we’ve been working on for the last however many years’ or maybe, ‘a couple years ago, this was something we’re working on’. So let’s continue this, let’s continue these cues that we’re working on, and have that continuity there.
“It’s been awesome to be able to continue that work with them. It’s nice to see the progress – to see what they were doing in college a few years ago, and then to see where they are now, and then also to be able to help them through the transition to professional skiing.”
Simultaneously, these UVM-T2 athletes are excited to be working with their former UVM coach again. In an email to FasterSkier, Alayna Sonnesyn reflected on her time as a professional skier guided by O’Brien, while crediting Thomas’s contributions at UVM for her reaching the professional level in the first place.
“Stepping into the professional ski world four years ago and onto the SMS T2 team was super intimidating to me,” wrote Sonnesyn. “The team has been home to some of the fastest skiers in the world and I was clueless when it came to racing at that high of a level. Pat O’Brien helped steer me in the right direction as I made this adjustment and took huge jumps in my skiing ability. He taught me when to train for fun and when it was time to buckle down and get serious. When Pat says it’s go time, you go! He helped develop me from a reasonable distance skier to a strong and powerful distance AND sprinter, a trait I never thought I would be capable of. Pat’s knowledge of the sport and ski waxing, as well as the mental and emotional obstacles that come along with it, is unparalleled. He was a coach that believed in me as a junior skier and saw potential. The only thing that can make a good ski race even better is when Pat gives you a proud hug at the finish line. Although I will miss these hugs and his direct coaching, I know that he will use these skills to care for his growing family and I am excited to see where life takes him next.
“Back when Pat was just seeing the potential in my college skiing, I was working with Perry Thomas when he was the assistant coach at UVM. I feel like my athletic career has come full circle as I get to transition back to a coach who helped put me in a place where I first believed skiing professionally was an option. Although I only had the pleasure of working with Perry for one year at UVM, it was a very special season! I instantly trusted him with my skis and could feel his enthusiasm for the sport radiate on the ski trails. I’ve witnessed just how hard Perry has worked over the years and how well-prepared he is to take over the position as head coach of the SMS team. Just in the first month of working with Perry again, I already know the team is heading down a path to continue its mission; local inspiration, international excellence.”
Likewise, Lina Sutro shared she is looking forward to the transition, applauding Thomas’s dedication to his athletes.
“I am truly so excited to be working with Perry again,” she wrote. “He is one of the most hard working and committed coaches I have worked with. He has a strong work ethic that I am excited for the Stratton community to experience. Pat and Perry both give so much back to the ski community and their athletes, I am excited to see the two of them work together.”
As for the broader questions of “what’s new?” and “what lies ahead for the SMS T2 team this summer?” Following Katharine Ogden’s retirement in March, Lauren Jortberg will join the team as the fifth athlete on the women’s side – five and five is what the team identifies as the sweet spot for numbers. Jortberg joins Jessie Diggins, Julia Kern, Alayna Sonnesyn, and Lina Sutro. The men’s team is light this season, as Ian Torchia moved on this spring also, leaving behind a three-man roster of Bill Harmeyer, Will Koch (who also competes for University of Colorado), and Ben Ogden.
After Bend camp, the team will part ways with many attending “a big event in the Midwest” which happened over Memorial Day Weekend. The SMS T2 team will finally reconvene as a whole in Stratton in early June. Though regional and international camps are planned, particularly for athletes named to the national team, Thomas anticipates ample quality training based in Vermont and the surrounding region.
“We’ll be in the Stratton area for the majority of this summer,” he explained. “I think one of the cool things that we’re doing is: Sverre, and Pat and I have started working on doing a summer [training] program, so we have some awesome athletes joining our crew this summer.”
This list includes University of Utah and U.S. Ski Team skiers Sydney Palmer-Leger, Novie McCabe, and former SMS junior athletes Adam Witowski and Zander Martin, who now ski for Michigan Tech and Bates College, respectively. JC Schoonmaker and Gus Schumacher also plan to join the T2 team for some training in Vermont throughout the summer.
“So a really stacked crew, for sure,” said Thomas. “It’s gonna be a really exciting summer to say the least.”
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