With Dreams Chased and Achieved, Adam Martin Retires from Professional Skiing

Ben TheyerlMay 16, 2022
Adam Martin strides at the 2022 Holmenkollen 50 k classic in Oslo, Norway. Martin finished 26th in his third Holmenkollen in March, and recently announced his retirement. (Photo: NordicFoucs).

Adam Martin’s skiing has always tended to be best described in conjunctions rather than disjunctions. He could do this and he would do that.

Or, that’s always how his mentors looked at it. My most distinct memory of Martin is from a CXC (Central Cross Country Skiing) camp about a decade ago when Sten Fjeldheim, then Martin’s coach at Northern Michigan University (NMU), gathered a group of us J2s (U16) around in the lobby of the old Telemark Lodge and said, “there’s proof you can be an All-American caliber skier and have a 4.0 GPA too,” pointing to Martin as the example.

That stuck with me as I watched him as a US skiing fan for years. Martin was giving it everything he could in everything he did, and the juxtapositions that produced were inspiring in their absurdity.

He would run a combined bike/run hill climb and beat all but one of the cyclists. He would win a local 5 k while pushing for pro runner–caliber paces (seriously, he ran a 14:34). He would compete on the World Cup, and his best result would consistently come at its longest and hardest race – the Holmenkollen 50 k.  

That pattern strung along almost a decade from his high school career to its final, most striking juxtaposition: Martin had his best season ever in 2021/2022, and now he will retire from professional skiing.

The pattern held all the way through. He gave it all, in every way, and at everything the ski world had to offer.

It was exemplary of his philosophy of inclusiveness, of an and; a persistence in bringing in others’ ideas, their accomplishments, their experiences in skiing, learning what he could, and channeling it all into his performance out on the course.

That stance towards thoughtfulness and inclusion could be figured as an essence to Adam Martin the skier. Something that reached all the way back and followed him all the way through. When we spoke a couple weeks after his retirement, that was the timescale he reached for. “I was lucky to grow up in the nordic skiing community that I did, with a lot of great people helping me in the sport, both getting into it and supporting me today,” Martin said.

Adam Martin strides through the woods in Falun, Sweden, during a 15 k classic in January 2021. (Photo: NordicFocus)

That nordic community was the one in Martin’s hometown of Wausau, Wisconsin. He first came to skiing as a 10-year-old there – venturing out on skis after the local skating rink shut down and left his then favorite sport, figure skating, an impossibility. “It was a good winter so there was good skiing at 9-mile (Wausau’s trails) for all of March. My mom took me out once or twice a week for a whole month and I think we progressively worked up to 20 k at the end of the ski season. And that was big for me. I didn’t think about figure skating after that.”

It was an understated but persistent start in the sport that matched the ski community that Martin would grow up in. An old timber-boom relic in Wisconsin’s Northwoods, Wausau hums along as a city of 38,000 marked most prominently by Rib Mountain, an erratic that signals that glaciers crept across the land there, carving up knolls and hills under the forests that now surround it. It is as perfect ski terrain as you’ll find in the Midwest. Granite Peak, one of the oldest lift-served ski hills in the country, calls one side of Rib Mountain home. Characteristically of Martin, when I asked him if he skied there as a kid he replied “Never downhill. I used to ski up it after the lifts closed in high school though.” Martin was instead drawn into skiing by the rolling terrain at Nine-Mile County Forest, a network of trails a mile south of Rib Mountain that had already been home to a couple generations of nationally competitive skiers .

Before he joined those ranks though, Martin signed up for the Wausau Night Gliders, the community’s youth program coached by Rachel and Greg Kresse. “We met twice a week, and I was just so excited to see and learn different things in the sport. I remember the first time we learned to skate, and was like thinking, ‘could you V2 in a race?’ Because at that point I was just doing one technique. That was the clincher, I decided I wanted to race. I wasn’t even doing particularly well in the beginning, and getting extremely nervous, but I do remember one race at 9-mile where I had one of my experiences hitting the ‘flow state’ and that was it after that. I was totally hooked on that experience.”

From there, Martin started to look down the road at skiing. Standing there metaphorically, he saw skiers doing what he would one day hope to do. “[In Wausau] the Hugus brothers were three or four years older than me. When I was in 8th grade Ben [Hugus] won the state Championship. One of them was getting top 10s at Junior Nationals, and then I was good friends with Matt and Chris Nichols who were around my age. I had a lot of great competition in Wausau, and in Wisconsin too. I remember Dylan McGarthwrite (from Hayward) making the Scando (Nordic Nations U18) trip when I was a freshman in high school, and I was really hyped up about that.”

After gaining that preview of the Wisconsin nordic world, Martin would chase down each and every one of those goals reached by his role models. By the time he was a freshman in high school, he was qualifying for Junior Nationals. Then, he won the Wisconsin high school state meet, and then qualified for the U18 Scandinavian Cup trip with US Ski & Snowboard. With dreams realized and only good things ahead, Martin decided to go all in on skiing.

Adam Martin pushes over the line during a 15 k classic in Falun in February, 2020. (Photo: NordicFocus)

His time, and his place in Wausau, were serendipitous in presenting a ready-made opportunity in his own backyard. In the early 2010s, the Midwest was home to a grouping of skiers who would go on to define their generation of American skiing. Martin headed to the CXC Elite Team, where an orbit of skiers that included Jessie Diggins and Kevin Bolger, along with coaches like Jason Cork, Igor Badamshin and Bryan Fish, were all forging the philosophies and approaches to skiing that would eventually influence the direction of US skiing for years to come.

That it was happening was almost hidden by the shabby surroundings in which they were pushing forward. After joining up with CXC, Martin split his time between Wausau, and CXC’s main training site at the Telemark Lodge in Cable, WI. The training environment was spartan, but the facilities couldn’t even strive for that aesthetic – they were just run down. The VO2Max-fitted treadmill hung out in what used to be a shop floor in the Lodge’s old mall, most athlete accommodations still donned the dull color tones of the 1970s, and the old Telemark World Cup trails were overgrown and uncut.

It was out of the way, but it was also all about skiing, which let Martin fully lean into his developing thoughtfulness towards his technique and his training. “I took a lot of cues from Igor [Badamshin] there. The thing that stood out for me was that he was so joyful about skiing, and that joy could extend to looking at every little aspect of things. He’d point out a little thing in technique, and would get incredibly excited about it, and that was contagious.” (Badamshin passed away in 2014; read a FasterSkier tribute to him here). 

That attitude extended to new areas of interest too for Martin, who began to take an amateur’s interest in the sports science behind cross-country skiing. “I just bought a standard exercise physiology textbook and think I like read it cover-to-cover. … I started reading all sorts of exercise physiology, and still do.”

Martin’s post-grad year was a fruition and a starting point. Going into a year at CXC, Martin was a skier whose results indicated a huge amount of physical talent and mental intelligence. Then, somewhere in the Wisconsin Northwoods, they melded together, and Martin formed a full-on focused approach to skiing.

But there was a paradox at play too. In developing this holistic approach to skiing, Martin realized he had let go of fitting skiing into his holistic approach to life. “Just focusing on skiing and putting all that pressure on one avenue of my life did not work for me. I really needed to challenge myself mentally and take the pressure off skiing after that post-grad year.”

That led Martin to another natural stopping point in his skiing career, college skiing at Northern Michigan University (NMU) under coach Sten Fjeldheim. “I really fell in love with the sport again under the tutelage of Sten, and with the incredible team environment there.” NMU had long been a waypoint for talented Midwestern juniors – the path that stemmed from JNQ wins to Marquette seemed almost ubiquitous. That meant Martin joined up with a group of teammates that could help him push and be pushed by him.

Adam Martin tags Craftsbury Green Racing teammate Caitlin Patterson during a March, 2022 4 x 5 k mixed gender relay in Falun, Sweden. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Like he had when he was a young skier in Wausau, he looked ahead to see what and where his teammates were achieving results, and found cues he could take, saying that “When I was a sophomore, Kyle Bratrud won the 15 k skate at Nationals in Houghton. He was a year older than me and that really opened my eyes to say ‘ok, we can do this. That level is achievable.’”

With that long view of what he wanted to accomplish, Martin also found in Sten Fjeldheim a coach perfectly matched to the detailed approach to skiing he had formed. Fjeldheim at the time was somewhere between elder statesmen and guru in his career, which meant that the years that Martin was beyond in his skiing knowledge had found a home. “Oftentimes, before a workout, [Sten] would explain exactly why we were doing it, why we needed to execute it a certain way, and what the physiological effect would be for doing that. That was exciting to me, and it worked really well with how I looked at ski training.”

As important as his coach was the skiers that Martin called teammates during his time at NMU. “That was a rare team environment, we were all super competitive with each other but in a super constructive manner.” During his four years, Martin was part of teams that included former, present, and future US ski team members with Ian Torchia, Zak Ketterson, Kyle Bratud, and biathlete Jake Brown. At the NCAA Championships in 2016, he, Torchia, and Brown combined to put NMU at the top of the team scoring – all earning All-American status in the process. Across both the 10 k Classic and 20 k Skate races, he and Torchia were the top American-born athletes in collegiate skiing. 

When Martin graduated in 2017, it was also with a distinction that marked a whole other focus during his time at NMU. He had two degrees  – one in mathematics and one in computer engineering. He had taken what he learned about himself during those post-grad days in Wisconsin, moved on up to the U.P., and nailed it.

Adam Martin (NMU) racing to a American-leading 23rd in men’s 15 k classic at 2016 U23 World Championships in Rasnov, Romania. (Photo: Pete Leonard)

With a 23rd in the 2016 U23 World Championships 30 k Freestyle, there were plenty of professional clubs that were interested in seeing Martin continue his skiing career. And he was up for it, if he could continue to take the holistic approach that had seen skiing not be “the only thing” in his life. From a far-flung corner of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, a call came in from Pepa Miloucheva, the coach at Craftsbury Outdoor Center’s Green Racing Project. The GRP was a top-level, proven club, and also one uniquely structured to have its athletes take an active role in the sustainability and outdoor recreation–focused activism of the Outdoor Center. “It just made sense,” said Martin on his decision to head to Vermont after graduating. “I was getting into a program that was more than just training…I was able to work with them, take the GRE, take grad school classes, and make it feel like NMU where I was very challenged.”

Again, Martin had put himself in a place where skiing was the thing. A small pocket of rolling hills that were a little bigger than the ones he started out on in Wausau, but rolling, nonetheless.

On the skiing front, things continued to progress for Martin after joining the CGRP. He made his World Cup debut at the 2018 opener in Ruka, where he placed 51st in the 15 k Classic. That season he also notched a pair of 2nd places at US Nationals in the 15 k Classic and the 50 k Classic, while earning consistent World Cup starts throughout that 2018-19 season. Those World Cup appearances culminated in a season-high 31st place at the Holmenkollen 50k marathon in March 2019. It was Holmenkollen that year which provided another one of Martin’s realizations about himself as a skier. “I started to learn that my strength as a cross country skier is that my physiology is really geared towards distance – it’s definitely not speed or transitions. Holmenkollen specifically has these grinding features that make you get to your VO2 max and have to stay there for a long time. It’s almost a perfect physiological stress for me.”

Adam Martin during the Holmenkollen 50 k in 2020. (Photo: NordicFocus)

That further stuck out to Martin especially when he returned to the Holmenkollen race the next season, in 2020. “In 2020, it was a low snow year, so we had to do a different course than the traditional 8 k, and it was more focused on transitions. I just learned again, in one race, a lot about myself as a skier. I was just happy to finish.”

That Holmenkollen marathon also marked the end of normalcy in skiing for the next couple of seasons to come. “That was my last race on the World Cup before the pandemic, and then I came home to do the SuperTour in Minneapolis right before the World Cup, and I won. It was my first SuperTour win, and then the pandemic happened.”

Martin was in a weird spot. The markers that he had traditionally used to gauge and reach for new heights in his skiing career would suddenly disappear over the course of the next season. He was making progress, but the road didn’t have as many markers as it did before.

“[The pandemic] was something everyone dealt with differently, right? But I think for me, the big challenge was that the Craftsbury program is traditionally very communal and very close knit. It’s a big group of athletes – like 30 between our skiers and rowers – and traditionally we’re eating in a dining hall, working together, working out together, and sharing the same gym. That was a super vulnerable situation to COVID, so we went from super communal to basically not going into public buildings for that first year.”

Adam Martin races a frosty 15 k in Falun, Sweden in January, 2021. (Photo: NordicFocus)

It was as if someone flipped a switch on the type of training environment that Martin had been in since his days at CXC. His training grounds had always been out of the way geographically, but always included the ability to bounce ideas off his teammates and coaches, to try out new things, and to get feedback then and there. They also had always included a full race schedule, which due to a combination of the COVID situation locally in Craftsbury and Vermont state safety policies, became an impossibility the next season.

When Martin could race, it was internationally. “I was lucky to get a start on the World Cup at Davos in December, but while I was gone, the state of Vermont changed the rules around COVID travel. (At the time, COVID cases were undergoing a spike.) I got back and I couldn’t be on the ski trails in Craftsbury while I quarantined unless it was like before 7am or after 6pm at night. I knew I was lucky to be getting racing in, but it brought restraints that forced you to adapt your training.”

Martin credits the imperatives surrounding COVID compliance with giving him a new adaptability to his training approach, even if the changes he made were more informed by what they always had been – his coaches, his intuition, and his constant searching for knowledge that would lead to improvement. “I think there was some changes in those two years that helped me make some big improvements that were probably independent of COVID, but came about because I felt like the pressure was off again for the first time in a while.”

That intermittent COVID season’s lessons would all come to a fruition in Martin’s skiing at the start of the 2021-22 season. Martin started his season on the US SuperTour circuit, and the SuperTour circuit was to begin in the Midwest. That, for Martin, brought back an extra level of familiarity to the return of a regular racing schedule in 2022. “I was so happy to win that first SuperTour in Cable (in the 15 k Classic).”

The early part of the season also saw him call to mind some of the moments that he had once seen teammates achieve back when he was based in his home region. When he came out of the first SuperTour period in 2nd place overall, behind former teammate Zak Ketterson and barely missing out on the automatic World Cup start Ketterson earned, Martin turned towards US Nationals in Soldier Hollow in January.

There, on a sunny Utah day, he won the 15 k Classic, a moment that was “particularly awesome, since it was what I watched Kyle Bratrud do at Houghton.” Over seven years, Martin had had the revelation about who he skied with, and then chased down that moment for himself.

Adam Martin at 2022 Nationals in Soldier Hollow. Martin would become a National Champion in the 15 k Classic, a goal he set 7 years earlier after watching then NMU teammate Kyle Bratrud accomplish the feat. (Photo: Tobias Albrigtsen / @untraceableg)

His National Championship and SuperTour results would, in nearly any other season, have seen him shortly to the start line of a World Cup. But for a second winter in a row, COVID was surging (this time as part of the Omicron wave). A slate of World Cups were canceled in January, and the Olympics in February took out any flexibility in the US Ski Team’s lineup. In the Olympic qualifying period, Martin was just behind Scott Patterson for 2nd place in the standings. With a more competitive field than ever before, Martin just missed out on qualifying for the 2022 Beijing team.

From there, he would continue to race the SuperTour, with his consistency throughout the whole season earning that series’ overall title, which he capped off with a win in the 15 k classic at SuperTour finals in Whistler. He also would get the nod to race the final World Cup period in March. A period that included, once again, the Holmenkollen marathon.

Martin had a memory and a goal. “I had been 31st there my first time, so I wanted to notch a top-30 finish. I looked at the points list and my bib and knew it was going to be a challenge, but the way the race went out I felt like I could hang onto the pack a little longer than I had before, and with the course being one I knew I liked, I just skied with a confidence that I might not otherwise of had.” That effort and that approach, as it had throughout his career, saw him through to accomplishing his goal. Martin finished in 26th.

Martin could continue like that – setting goals that, through the constant refinement of his approach to skiing, he would surely accomplish. But that’s where the paradox of his approach comes in again. In powering his skiing through a fine-tuned balance between focus on skiing and focus on other aspects of life, there came a time when the balance would shift towards life. For Martin, that moment is one he says has come:

“What was important to me in professional skiing is giving it everything I have, and that requires a lot of sacrifices. It’s important to me that I’m giving my best effort, and now I give that to other things in my life. I had so much fun this season, and don’t have to step away with any bitter taste in my mouth. Skiing will always be there – I’ll be doing the Birkie or the Noquemanon next year I’m sure, but I’m ready to push myself in a different sense.”


Ben Theyerl

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.

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