U.S. Ski & Snowboard recently announced its U.S. Ski Team nominations for the 2022-23 season. Of the 22 athletes named to the team this season, six were not on the previous year’s roster, either newly named or renamed: Michael Earnhart, Walker Hall, Zak Ketterson, Will Koch, Finn O’Connell, and Sammy Smith.
To help fans get to know these new(er) faces, FasterSkier is doing a series of interviews, providing insights into the factors that have contributed to development, progress, and growth for these athletes last season. In this installment, we talk with 20-year-old Walker Hall, who was named to the D-Team this season. Hall grew up immersed in the Methow Valley cross-country ski community and is now entering his sophomore year at the University of Utah.
While the Methow has produced a number of outstanding skiers, including Brian Gregg, Erik Bjornsen, and Sadie Bjornsen Maubet, Hall could find inspiration even closer to home. His mom, Leslie, skied in three Olympic Games between 1988 and 1994, and her best friend and training partner post-professional racing soon became two-time Olympian Laura McCabe, once both women relocated to Winthrop, WA. Still close friends, Walker and Novie McCabe are just six months apart in age, and began tagging along from their infancy on their moms’ training and outdoor endeavors. Both athletes, now U.S. Ski Teammates, developed on the Methow Valley Nordic Team, coached by their mothers.
In this interview, Walker reflects on some of the other influential experiences – and setbacks – that contributed to a breakout season in 2021-22. Hall won the junior men’s 10 k during the 2022 U.S. Cross-Country Championships in Soldier Hollow, and finished in the top-five in a third of his RMISA races, including a podium performance in Sun Valley. Earning his first spot on the World Junior team, Hall competed in both the 1.2 k freestyle sprint and the 30 k skate individually, and was a contributing member of the U20 bronze medal winning relay team.
– Walker’s sister, FasterSkier assistant editor Ella Hall, contributed to these questions
FasterSkier / Rachel Perkins: You grew up in the Methow Valley, which has a strong legacy within its cross-country ski community and the number of athletes who grew up there and went on to ski professionally. But in your situation, you and Novie McCabe are only about six months apart, and your families are super close and it sounds like you both did a fair amount of tagging along for both of your moms’ training as kids. Can you talk a little bit about your introduction to skiing and what your relationship with the sport was like growing up?
Walker Hall: From as early as I can remember, probably as soon as I was capable of going on skis, that’s when I started – me and Novie both. Regardless of what we were doing, it was mostly outdoor activities, whether that was hiking or climbing or just spending time outside. Our moms would take turns, like one would take care of us while the other went and did some training or a long run or something. So I felt like I got a good training base just from everything I did outside, and started off skiing really young, and it’s always been a big part of my life.
FS: I also noticed you also listed your mom as one of the most influential people in your life in your U.S. Ski Team bio, and I know she was one of your coaches with the Methow Valley Nordic Team (MVNT). Can you say more about that?
WH: She coached [MVNT] up until just this last year – she retired last season. Basically when she was done racing [professionally] and once my parents moved to the Methow in the late ’90s, she really developed the program there.
So she’s been coaching for a really long time, and she had a lot of experience. She coached when my sister was skiing, so I grew up doing what [Ella] did because she’s four years older. My mom was able to give me the support and advice and guidance that is crucial for being good at skiing, and she was not too overbearing or anything, so I think she was just a really good influence on my ski career.
FS: That type of relationship seems important – not being overbearing, but really sharing in a mutual love of the sport. Is that something that you have felt within the Methow community and within your own family?
WH: I’ve definitely felt a lot of support from different people in the Methow, whether it’s my mom or Laura [McCabe] or other people in the ski community there. I’ve always gotten the support that I’ve needed and been pushed when I needed to be, and never felt too much pressure or anything, so it’s been really good for my career in skiing.
FS: Fast-forwarding a bit, in high school, you spent six months in Meråker, Norway during your junior year, and it sounds like that was a pretty formative experience for you – you had a really positive experience with that program, and the coach, and made some good friends/training partners. Can you share more about how that came about and what your time was like there?
WH: It came about because Ella did a very similar [program] her junior year; she also went to Meråker, but she went for a shorter period of time. But as I got older and learned more about the sport and the people within the sport, it seemed like Norway was the place to be to really improve and learn. Our family had some connections in that area because Ella had been there.
Once I was there, it was definitely a lot different. Coming from the Methow where there’s really not many – there’s a lot of skiers, but it’s such a small area that you’re sort of in your own little bubble. So going to Norway and just seeing the ski culture there and learning a lot about training and what the Norwegians like to do [was really beneficial], because they obviously have a really good method for juniors or whatever age you are in ski racing. I had good coaches, good training partners, and good support there as well. So I definitely learned a lot and sort of knew what I had to do when I got back to really take skiing to the next level.
FS: Was that at a sports academy? Were you going to school also?
WH: It’s actually a public high school, or it’s funded by the government, but it’s a sports school [called the Meråker videregående skole]. So we would train in the mornings until maybe 11, and then shower, eat lunch, go to class for three hours or so, and then maybe train in the afternoon. That was what it was like most days, then on the weekends, it was more on your own because it’s a school program, not a club. When we would go to races – which I didn’t go to too many races – we would go with a local club.
FS: Your sister said that the experience also inspired you to take Norwegian lessons after returning home and that you’re “decent” now. Is this true?
WH: When I was there, I definitely didn’t know that much [Norwegian]. There were two other non-Norwegian students that I took some Norwegian lessons with, just what the school provided, but I definitely never really spoke that much while I was there. I wanted to keep learning and improving [after I got back], so I’ve studied on and off since then. I’m alright at it – I’m pretty conversational, I would definitely not say I’m fluent. But it’s a fun way to stay connected with my friends over there, and some of my teammates at the University of Utah are Norwegian too, so that’s been cool.
Hall also explained that his classes in Meråker were in Norwegian, but since the group size was small, and both his teachers and classmates were helpful, he was able to get by without being fluent in the language.
FS: After graduating high school in 2020, you had planned to go back to Meråker for a gap year, but COVID got in the way of that, and plan-B ended up including a lot of time training on your own in the Methow. Can you talk about that experience and how you adjusted?
WH: I had been planning to go back to Norway, but everything was so strict with COVID [at that point], they were not letting anyone in, basically. So I was just at home and I kept trying to figure it out so that I’d be able to go over there, but it just kept not working. I kept trying, but eventually, I was just at home the whole time.
I was going to races in the winter but it definitely was not an ideal situation for me because I was doing a lot of training on my own, which, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to train on your own, but for me personally, it’s a lot easier for me to train with other people. It’s a lot more motivating, and long term, it’s a lot better to train with other people so you don’t plateau. But I just focused on racing and kept working hard and it wasn’t the worst in the end. That year was alright, but it wasn’t ideal.
FS: Kind of on the other end of the training group spectrum, for collegiate racing, you originally committed to Dartmouth, but later were offered a spot that opened up at the University of Utah, and made the switch as Utah had been your first choice.
WH: Yeah. Basically, I had planned on going to Dartmouth, and then COVID hit, and it was looking like life at Dartmouth with COVID was going to be a lot different than before. I had been talking to Utah [during my senior year], and they had been saying ‘oh, you should take a gap year and then we’d probably like to take you.’ So there was also a chance that I was not going to take a gap year and just go to Dartmouth, but then when that gap year happened and I got offered a spot at Utah, I just knew that that was going to be the better choice for me.
Last summer before I went to Utah, I came up here to Anchorage for most of the summer, so I was training with a lot of my future teammates. There was a big group of people up here and a good amount of Utah skiers were here, so it was a good way to prepare and it was a really good experience. There’s just such good training up here during the summer. And the winter, I’m sure.
FS: And what does that look like? Are you working with a coach or under a certain program? And how have those experiences being in Anchorage for the summer been valuable for you?
WH: I train with APU when I’m up here. That’s a really solid group to train with, coached by Erik Flora, who I really like and I’ve learned a lot from. It was a really good experience coming up last summer, and I knew I wanted to come again this summer. There’s just a lot of really hardworking people that push me and help me hit big hours, so I think it’s a good place for me to be during the summer.
FS: Going back to University of Utah – what appealed to you about that program? And what was your experience like in that first season of collegiate racing?
WH: There’s a lot [that appealed to me about it.] I knew a lot of the people on the team, and I knew it was such a strong team. I had actually been down there a couple times – or I had been in Park City for ski camps and [races], and I visited Novie for a couple of weeks [during her freshman year at Utah] and really liked it. Me and Novie have always done similar training and whatnot, so I figured if she was liking it a lot down there, then it was a good place for me also.
And I really liked the coaches. I talked a bit with Miles Havlick and Frederick [Landstedt], and I really liked what I’d seen from those guys. Since I’ve been there, it’s been a really good fit.
FS: World Juniors in Lygna was your first international trip, and it sounds like you had some bad luck with racing at US Nationals and/or been really close in prior years. What do you think came together for you this season to make that trip? And what were some of the highlights of that World Juniors experience in terms of how it supports your development and goals?
WH: Yeah. In previous years – maybe the past three years or so for this year – there were like two years where I was just coming off of sickness going into nationals, so I never really had the races that I wanted there, and I never ended up making any of those international trips. Which, honestly, I would have liked to go on the trips, but it never really bothered me too much – it wasn’t like demoralizing or anything – because I felt like I knew the level that I was at and that on a given day I could be as good or better than any of the trip. So it was never really too much of a bummer for me. But this year, I wanted to make it on the trip to World Juniors, and I had goals for the races at World Juniors too, it wasn’t just the trip there was the end goal. But just making it definitely felt good, and I had a really good Nationals this year, which was awesome since that’s pretty much the first time that’s happened for me.
I was super happy that the races were in Norway because I just love spending time there, and we got to do our pre-camp in Hafjell, which is right near Sjusjøen, and I’ve spent some time there – it’s [some of] the best skiing in the world. So that was super fun. And I really liked a group of guys and the entire team and staff that was there, so it was a really good experience.
FS: From the outside, it seems like you took a pretty big step forward this past year, which maybe can be attributed to having such a strong group to train with at University of Utah, or some more direction after a tough gap year. In looking back over this year, what are some of the factors that you think allowed you to take those steps forward and what were some of your personal highlights from the season? And those personal highlights do not necessarily need to be a race result, just an experience that stands out to you.
WH: I think the main factor was really taking my training to the next level. Especially over the summer [in Anchorage] and then carrying that through the fall in Utah. I was just training with a really strong group, and really pushing myself, and doing [types of training] that I hadn’t really done in the past. So definitely, a good part is thanks to that. And then also, I’ve had a lot of different experiences over the years and learning from those helps to channel some better results.
As for my highlights – this last season, I was just proud of the way that I trained and was smart with my training, and I didn’t overdo it. And it seems like it’s often hard to put together a good season like your freshman year of college because it’s such a big adjustment. So I was happy that I was able to have a solid season for the most part while going through such new experiences in my first year in college.
FS: What are your goals heading into next winter?
WH: It’s gonna be my first year not being a junior, so honestly, I don’t have too many specific goals. But I’d definitely love to race in my first World Cup this year, and just keep improving. On the college circuit, hopefully, get a bunch of podiums in RMISA. And just keep learning from my teammates and pushing with the team at Utah.
FS: Last question for you: with making the D-Team, can you share what that means to you and what you’re excited about in terms of the support and opportunity that opens up for you?
WH: It’s always seemed like probably the biggest step you can make in U.S. skiing is actually making the ski team, so it feels really good to have achieved that. I’m just now realizing the amount of support that means that I’m able to get, so I’m just taking advantage of that and learning from my other teammates on the team – taking advantage of the different opportunities that it grants me, and just enjoying the ride. But I’m definitely thrilled to have made the team.
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