CommunityNewsResourcesWaxingThe Pros & Cons of League-wide Wax Protocols: the Wisconsin Nordic Ski League

Rachel PerkinsJune 6, 2022
Chippewa Valley Nordic coaches prep classic skis for their athletes at the 2022 Wisconsin Northern Conference meet. (Photo: Chippewa Valley Nordic)

In case you missed it, here’s part 1 and part 2 of this series, in which industry representatives and expert ski technicians discuss ski performance theory and what impact a single-wax policy may have on competitive skiing. 

What goes on inside the wax cabins and trucks at high-level competitions from the SuperTour to the World Cup seems, in equal parts, expertise, artistry, and alchemy. And, for those looking to understand to which conditions their pair of race skis might be best suited, the basic insights into ski performance provided in previous installments of this story provide ample fodder for consideration and experimentation on the ski track.

However, these insights may not fully resonate at a meet where coaches are furiously corking in kick wax on benches set in the snow for skiers who only recently took up the sport. Or a league which simultaneously supports competitive racers and participation-based programs, and ultimately just wishes to see the sport grow and thrive at all levels. 

In speaking with representatives from leagues that have implemented a single-wax protocol, it is clear that there are a myriad of factors involved in the decision making process beyond ski performance theory that might skew the cost-benefit analysis on any inequity in ski speed derived from putting all racers on Swix HS6. 

Ben Popp – executive director at the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation, Wisconsin Nordic Ski League President, and volunteer coach – discusses the wax policy and sponsorship package accepted by the league this season. (Photo: American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation)

To unpack the counterpoints, we’ll begin again in Wisconsin, with a conversation with American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation Executive Director Ben Popp, who also sits as president of the Wisconsin Nordic Ski League (WNSL) and is a volunteer ski coach for the youth program in Spooner, 30 miles southeast of the Birkie finish line in Hayward. 

Before jumping into the conversation, a nuanced reminder to readers that will be revisited in subsequent stories: the WNSL wax policy is unique in that the policy was included in a sponsorship proposal from Swix, which offered the league $10,000 per year over a three year period. Under the policy, all athletes would race on Swix HS5, HS6, or HS7 hard wax in cold or moderate temperatures, with HS7 and HS8 liquids used in warmer conditions. In other leagues, there may be special pricing available through this manufacturer, but this was not the origin of the policy.

In what the single-wax policy implies: rather than spending money on a robust wax box, programs would only need to purchase the five aforementioned products for glide. The event hosts determine which wax is most appropriate for the conditions a few days prior to the race, allowing coaches and athletes to wax their skis accordingly before travel. 

While questions of the financial impact on other wax manufacturers and the loss of experience for developing high-level wax technicians remain present, it’s also worth noting that this policy only applies to events that are organized by the WNSL; this small list of events includes only the northern, central, and southern conference meets, and the Wisconsin state championship – two races per year for each club or school. Regional Junior National Qualifiers (JNQs) and other local events not organized by the league remain open. Simply put, the wax protocol only applies to what Popp described as “a sliver of all of Wisconsin skiing.”

According to Popp, in considering the proposal presented by Swix, there was one key word on the minds of WNSL board members: opportunity.

“The checkbook for the Wisconsin Nordic league, before this year, never had more than $2,000 in it,” he stated matter-of-factly in the call.

Wisconsin skiers line up at the Birkie Trailhead in Cable for the state championships. (Photo: Once in a Blue Moon Studio / Kelly Randolph Photography)

Another key distinction is that the state of Wisconsin is among the few remaining states in which high school and club level programming fall under the same umbrella, without financial support from the high schools that offer skiing. This means small participation-based programs with volunteer coaches compete against well-established clubs who can support kids whose goals extend to representing the Great Lakes Division at Junior Nationals; it’s a state of vastly different programs with vastly different budgets. And it stands in contrast to Wisconsin’s neighbor, Minnesota, with whom Wisconsin used to compete against for spots on the Midwest regional team for JNs. It’s a nuanced structure that Popp explained has constrained the potential of the league historically.

“Even though the league has been around for a while, I think it’s still in its real infancy. It’s completely volunteer run, but yet we’re in a climate that has metropolitan areas where there is snow, so we’ve got a ton of opportunity. But I think we have to look at, ‘How can we start to grow the league?’”

Under the constraints of the previous budget, the WNSL was limited in its ability to promote development in programming state-wide, and Popp explained that primarily, the board only planned the state meet and agreed upon its rules. That leaves little room for supporting new teams, planning summer camps, and other initiatives that might grow the league and the sport more broadly. A 500% increase in funds would allow the WNSL to hire a part-time administrator, who could improve inter-team communication, oversee a league schedule, and perhaps most importantly, continue fundraising initiatives to support broader development. 

“Our goal is to create opportunities for kids to cross country ski and race in the state of Wisconsin. So we have to look at, ‘What is the best way we can do that?’ And we’ve been doing the same thing for a long time, and we’ve gotten the same result. So if we now say, ‘We want to grow the sport in our state’, I think we have to look at a variety of options. We see what the results are in a couple years, and then we’ll readjust from there.” 

Athletes from Rhinelander, WI compete at the frosty state championship meet in Cable. (Photo: Rhinelander Nordic Ski Team)

While the WNSL is interested in supporting the upper tiers of youth racing, Popp explained that the main objectives remain at the participation level: improving access to ski programming and helping get more kids on skis.

“I feel that we don’t necessarily have to focus on the high end of development. I think that happens organically and naturally rises… the bigger and broader a base that we can build, it’s just going to build that up much higher of a pyramid.”

In his mind, implementing a wax policy fits with this initiative by removing a potential hurdle for smaller teams and coaches with limited background knowledge. 

“In making it simple [to wax], it really makes a small team, the newer teams – it lowers the barrier to entry a little bit. Like, ‘Okay, now, me as a new coach, or as a new team, this waxing thing isn’t quite as overwhelming and doesn’t seem like such a heavy lift that I can actually now get into this without being completely overwhelmed.’ So I look at it as a tool for trying to create growth at the very basic level for newer teams.” 

As the Swix sponsorship proposal was accepted in November 2021, last season was the first in which the conference and state championships operated under the wax policy. Popp reflected on the impact of the sponsorship and protocol through the first year. 

“I personally think it was beneficial. Obviously, it helped from a sponsorship standpoint to help us grow our league and invest back in the skiers of Wisconsin. Again, personally, I think it helps sort of lower that barrier to entry for some of the newer and inexperienced teams. And whether it does or does not make it fair or unfair, if you will, to the skiers – I think you’re always going to have that in some way, shape or form. There’s a reason skiing is going to be different than track… there’s always going to be a set of variables.” 

Chippewa Valley Nordic skiers compete for the Great Lakes division team at the 2022 Junior National Championships in Minneapolis, MN. (Photo: Chippewa Valley Nordic)

Speaking to the reception of the policy more broadly by WNSL teams, Popp expressed it was “overwhelmingly supported”. He indicated that a of the larger programs who had already put together well-equipped wax boxes were reluctant initially, but ultimately, those teams were still taking athletes to JNQs and other events where those waxes were fair game, so they would not go to waste. 

Mostly, Popp felt that the results seen at the WNSL championship events were as expected, indicating that the wax call likely had minimal impact on the race outcomes. 

“Because it was relatively benign in terms of the amount of races [where it was enforced], and then two: there weren’t some funky results at the state meet or the conference meets where [the policy was] used – the best kids still won, so there were no surprising results. And because the amount of wax that people had to buy and the cost level of it was really pretty low – I think the benefit of what this can bring in the future, ‘Let’s see.’ I would say the coaches that I’ve talked to certainly felt like, as a whole, it wasn’t detrimental. And if it leads to some growth and benefit for us in the league in the coming years then… we’ll just have to see.”

Stay tuned for the next aspect of the league-wide wax protocol story, where we consider the evolution and outcomes of policies enacted at the club level by the Rocky Mountain Nordic (RMN), Pacific Northwest Ski Association (PNSA), and Intermountain Division (IMD).

Rachel Perkins

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

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