Q&A with US Ski D-Team Coach Kristen Bourne: How her Journey in Coaching Inspired a New Fellowship

Ben TheyerlAugust 29, 2022
Physical therapist Ana Robinson, Kristen Bourne, Jessie Diggins, and Julia Kern (left to right), at the Dresden World Cup in December 2021. (Courtesy photo)

Earlier this month, the National Nordic Foundation (NNF), in partnership with the Women Ski Coach’s Association (WSCA) and the Olympic Women’s Cross-Country Book Project, announced the Trail to Gold Fellowship. The Fellowship aims to correct for a historical gender imbalance in U.S. coaching at the club, collegiate, and international level by providing fellows with funding to complete a two-week internship with the U.S. Ski Team on the World Cup this winter. The Trail to Gold Fellowship was sparked by an idea from the U.S. Olympic Women’s Cross-Country Book Project to dedicate profits from Trail to Gold; the journey of 53 Women Skiers to forward the movement for gender equity within Nordic ski coaching.

Applications are open until August 31st, interested women coaches are encouraged to apply here. Trail to Gold: the journey of 53 Women Skiers is available here.

Moving from idea to action for the women involved in the Trail to Gold book turned out to be expedited thanks to an existing template for not only what they wanted their Fellowship to look like, but what they wanted that Fellowship to accomplish. That case study; U.S. Ski Team Development coach Kristen Bourne.

The story of how Bourne joined the U.S. Ski Team coaching staff is a parable for how success in the sport of nordic skiing should come. In which an extraordinarily talented young coach was paired with supportive institutional structures, relationships, and yes, a little luck here and there, to find her way through the U.S. ski coaching system. It’s also remarkable that Bourne’s whole narrative fits the space of a short story rather than a novel. After a decorated junior and college skiing career at Northern Michigan University (NMU), Kristen Bourne did a stint post-grad skiing that culminated in one last Senior Nationals in Houghton, Michigan in 2020. In an instance where metaphorical resonance became something literal, as Bourne was walking away from her athletic career, College of St. Scholastica (CSS) Head Coach Maria Stuber pulled up in the parking lot and – Midwesterner to Midwesterner – let out a big ol’ “OH Hey there!” which quickly led to a discussion about Bourne coaching, and then, a position as Assistant coach for St. Scholastica.

From there, it’s been an ongoing whirlwind. Stuber is the founder and leader of the Women Ski Coaches’ Association, founded in 2019 to “develop, retain, and advance women in ski coaching leadership.” Stuber and Bourne worked through existing NCAA coaching development programs, which saw Bourne win the Women Sport’s Foundation Tara VanDerveer Fellowship in 2021, a first for a nordic skiing coach. Bourne’s Fellowship partially helped fund her position at St. Scholastica, but also came with an additional stipend to utilize for professional development in other organizations.

Stuber reached out to U.S. Ski Team coaches Matt Whitcomb and Chris Grover to see if there would be any opportunity to work with U.S. Ski & Snowboard. That turned into a two-week internship on the World Cup that saw Bourne wax teching and coaching at last year’s Davos and Dresden World Cups. In turn, Bourne received additional offers to work with U.S. athletes making World Cup starts later in the season, all of which culminated in her hiring as a U.S. Ski Team Development Coach earlier this year. To sum it all up, as Bourne did a couple of times when I interviewed her, it’s been a “whirlwind.” Which, to keep to her own metaphor, is a wind that has turned up inspiration among coaches, athletes, and administrators across U.S. Skiing to bring the type of program that put Kristen Bourne in contact with the U.S. Ski Team into the fold of the nordic community. And now, with the Trail to Gold Fellowship, that’s become a reality.

The energy that’s been infused into making that opportunity a reality is still overflowing at the source. When I caught up with Bourne about the experiences that have made up her journey, she was at the end of a long day working with members of the U.S. Ski Team as they prepared for racing in Torsby, Sweden and at Toppidrettsveka in Trondheim, Norway. She brought the same thoughtfulness to our conversation about what formed her approach to coaching as had just gone into that night’s technique session (which happened to include guests Maja Dahlqvist and Frida Karlsson). We not only talked about her journey, but about her influences, mentors, and outlook as a women coach who, just through her own story, has been a leader in the movement to correct for the historic gender inequity in U.S. ski coaching.

Kristen Bourne at a CSS practice in Fall 2021 (Photo: Maria Stuber).

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity).

Ben Theyerl (BT): Can you start off by giving us a summary of your personal background? What was your journey to your current position with the US Ski Team?

Kristen Bourne (KB): I’m originally from the Twin Cities [in Minnesota]. I ended up going to Northern Michigan University (NMU) and skied for them for five years. Then, about three weeks after graduation, I packed up my bags and moved to Norway, where I lived for a year and a half [ski racing]. There’s a funny story about that ending – I lost my permit in a friend’s car. I ended up coming back to race US Nationals in 2020, where I met Maria Stuber [Head Coach at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, MN]. At the time, I was thinking of calling it quits, and my dad had put out some emails to coaches to really try and pull me towards it. Maria had just started the Women’s Ski Coach Association (WSCA), and my dad had also gone out and signed myself and my sister up for a membership – so between emails and that he was really pulling.

We were literally in the parking lot when she pulled up and was like ‘I’ve heard about you, you’re going to get an email from me.’ That turned into ‘Do you want to coach with me?’ and she helped set me up with a summer internship coaching with Pepa Miloucheva at the Craftsbury Green Racing Project. Summer of 2020, I started coaching at Craftsbury, and then I was one of Maria’s assistant coaches at St. Scholastica (CSS) for two years.

When I got to CSS, Maria and I applied for a grant with the Women’s Sports Foundation – the Tara Vanderveer Advancement for Women in Coaching Fund Fellowship. We didn’t get it the first year (2020), and then we applied again, and we got it the second year (2021). That Fellowship partially funded my position at CSS, and then there was an extra $2,500 for professional development outside of that position – which was very broad. Maria nudged me to reach out to the U.S. Ski Team and see if they’d need any help for anything really, and as soon as we did Matt Whitcomb was like yes – ‘we actually could use more help for some World Cups.’ Which was unexpected but made me go, ‘woah.’ So, I went to Davos and Dresden last year.

Over there, I ended up wax teching for Caitlin Patterson, and learning a whole lot from the U.S. staff. Then I was back in the U.S. for the collegiate season and made one more trip back to the World Cup with Bill Harmeyer as his wax tach. That was actually a really cool moment, as he reached out because I had already had World Cup experience. So that little internship directly translated into another opportunity very quickly. Then two months later, Kate Johnson announced she was leaving her position as the U.S. D-Team coach, and I applied and now here I am. It’s a lot, but it’s been a whirlwind.

BT: And now you’re back in Scandinavia at the moment…

KB: Yeah, it’s super full circle now because this is my first time back in Scandinavia since I left and lost my permit. The camp we’re at right now was one of the first ones of a few I had when I was living over in Norway, so it’s definitely a cool thing to be back as a coach this time.

BT: That’s a really great story in itself. If I can dig a little deeper into your background, what was your earliest inclination that you might want to coach? Was this something you thought about when you were younger? Or was it really just when you were stuck trying to negotiate the next step after being a ski racer?

KB: I think I always paid attention to people who were like, ‘you should try coaching.’ But I was kind of stubborn in saying that I was going to do something different after skiing. I guess I kept pushing off that idea in my head, but sporadically when I would help out coaching when I was an athlete, I always really loved it. But I guess, it’s one of those things I guess you don’t think of as a career path when you’re an athlete, right?

As I was ending my ski career and figuring out what I wanted to do I was there with a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science, and I was wanting to do a Master’s in the same, which all just leads me back to skiing. It’s what I love. There was a slow roll towards acceptance that ‘oh man, I think coaching is what I want to do, and then Maria definitely solidified how much I love doing this job.’

BT: You’ve touched on Maria, which we’ll talk about a little bit more, but I was wondering if now that you are coaching, do you look back on any of the coaches you had as an athlete and go ‘oh, like that was why they did that?’ Like is there an inspiration that’s shaped your coaching from your athlete days?

KB: Oh yeah. I had a track and field coach in high school, Bev Docherty. I look back and can’t believe she was coaching me in high school based on her accomplishments – (Docherty has a long list of running accomplishments, including having run in the first 6 U.S. Olympic marathon trials open to women). I look back on her style and who she was and how she coached, and she wasn’t super energetic, super loud, or outspoken. She would lean in during the middle of a race though and you could still hear her clearly even when the crowds were cheering all around. I always look back on that because it was so different than anyone I’ve ever been coached by and she was also one of two women coaches that I ever had. I think that I look back to that and try to emulate just how steady she was as a coach. I don’t know if she knows that: she’s been there throughout my racing career and now as I’m going through my own coaching journey, I really do try to emulate her.

BT: You’ve touched on Maria Stuber a few times. How was that relationship formative when you were starting out coaching, especially given that it was right around when she was taking over at St. Scholastica and starting the Women Ski Coaches Association (WSCA)?

KB: I mean, do you want to write the book on it? She would shrug this off and say it’s not true, but she is one of the biggest reasons that I’m in this job [as U.S. Ski Team Development Coach] right now. She’s pushed me and knows exactly where and when to push is how I would best describe it. And I think that goes both for coaching and also for which opportunities to pursue. She’s 100% my biggest mentor and I will always look up to her.

I think the WSCA and her passion for it is also a big aspect of that. She said ‘this is a change that needs to be made and we as coaches can make it if someone is willing to organize it’ and I’m a testament – as are other women coaches – that she is right on that.

WSCA members Maria Stuber (CSS), Kristen Bourne (CSS), Kristen Monahan-Smith (Michigan Tech), and Tracey Cote (Colby) (l-r) at NCAA Championships in Jackson, New Hampshire in 2021. (Courtesy Photo).

BT: Can you describe how the World Cup Fellowship came together, and what you actually did when you were there last year?

KB: I think the most important part of setting that experience up – because it was really a creation of equal parts myself and Chris Grover and Matt Whitcomb – was that it was a fully immersive experience both on the coaching side and [technician] side, not one or the other. I went over and met up with them right after Lillehammer, which was when the team was on its way to Davos. That gave me three and a half days where I was getting an intensive overview of everything from the wax truck to how [the U.S. techs] do glide-outs, wax application on race day, and the whole process of going from setting up at a World Cup to having our athletes be on the start line.

Then Saturday came, which was sprints in Davos, and I was fully part of it all. Waxing on the World Cup. Sunday for the Distance race, meanwhile, I worked more one-on-one with Caitlin Patterson. It was a whirlwind, but I never felt like I was overwhelmed, because the coaching staff really from the moment I was there was like ‘we want you to be part of everything, and we also know that you’re doing this for the first time and are here to make our team stronger.’

That first weekend was a real introduction into the inside process of what goes on with the process of preparing athletes for a World Cup race. When I wasn’t in the wax truck, I was at team meetings where we would watch sprint footage from previous years on that Davos course and discuss tactics. It’s cool to see how the veterans on the team really are thorough about explaining their tactical ideas and are able to make specific suggestions to their newer teammates. You really get a sense of how the ‘team’ aspect of the U.S. Ski Team operates, and it’s pretty special. I would sit in on meetings with Matt and Chris whenever I was allowed, and also got to be part of the team Christmas celebration.

That was all just in one week. And then we packed up and drove the van to Dresden. Which you know, like I’m driving the whole women’s team from Davos to Dresden and hitting the autobahn and frankly, that was the most nerve-racking part of the entire trip. But we did make it.

In Dresden, I turned over to more of a coaching role. That’s where I got to go out on course for the first time, with poles and radio – the whole nine yards of what you think of when you’re watching the World Cup and see coaches running alongside their athletes on the course. Everyday was really intense, and exhausting, and most of all fun, just taking in everything and not really processing it until later.

BT: Was there a moment of realization where you were like ‘holy crap, I’m on the World Cup?’

KB: I think I tried to process that as much as I could before I got there. Like the moment was really when I had my plane tickets in hand and was like, ‘woah, I’m really gonna go to the World Cup and wax skis.’ But you get there, it was way less intimidating than it looks like on TV. Your years of going to ski races as an athlete of coach kick in and you realize that it’s exactly the same feel and atmosphere – just with the fastest skiers on the planet. Living in Norway and being able to watch World Cups – at Holmenkollen especially – really prepared me for all the extra people, and I think mitigated that feeling you could have when Klæbo or Johaug just skis past you.

But also, I shouldn’t play it down too much. Like yeah, there were moments throughout the two weeks where I did just look up and go, ‘this is the World Cup!’

BT: A big part of the Trail to Gold Fellowship that is based off your experience is that there is a value in having World Cup experience cross-pollinate with the coaching back in the U.S. What did you bring back from the World Cup that you felt like you applied to your coaching on the NCAA circuit at St. Scholastica, and now with the D-Team?

Kristen Bourne logs kilometers on the stunning tracks of Davos, SUI while teching for the U.S. Team. (Courtesy photo)

KB: There were a few things immediately. Like at Scholastica we adopted the glide-out system I learned on the World Cup to our team. More importantly, the mentalities and being willing to talk with other wax techs and understand that waxing theory is really – and that’s a weird thing to call it – less science. You’re not driving towards a single answer, but rather using your knowledge and experience to make a better call than you would if you didn’t. I had a big realization for both teching and coaching that you’re not learning the answer in how to ski coach, but instead that you’re trying to develop a sense of confidence in your experience so that you give that to athletes. There isn’t a one size fits all in coaching.

BT: I really like that idea as a young coach myself. You’re not building towards an answer, but rather you’re building experience to bear so you can make a difference in the really tough situations, you know?

KB: Yeah, I really think that’s a good way of putting it. It’s kind of that moment you realize that there’s not one way to do the job of being a coach, and that’s what makes it a really challenging and exciting profession.

BT: What about how that attitude played into your role now with the U.S. Ski Team? What are you excited about looking ahead to this winter?

KB: For [the D-Team], our athletes are well on their way to hopefully getting World Cup starts soon. And so that’s where I can act as a resource with my experience of what they can expect as they look to make those first starts. I’ll also be full-time on the World Cup this winter, which is exciting. I’m not anyone’s primary coach but will be doing a lot of what I did last winter, so in that respect, the World Cup experience I got will be about as good of preparation as I could get.

BT: I had one last question pertaining specifically to the Trail to Gold Fellowship. What do you think the role of gender representation on the top-level of skiing is in helping the sport develop?

KB: I think it has an immediate impact. I think it’s as simple as the fact that the more women that young kids see out on the course the more, they are going to believe that they belong there. I hope that immediate impact spreads to those coaches that are doing this fellowship this year as well. They can walk away with tangible World Cup experience, and also realize that they are part of pushing the movement for gender equity in coaching forward and inspiring girls that are out there at the races.

I think back to being around wax rooms, at local races, or watching the World Cup on TV growing, and I really do think that if I would have seen more female representation it might have made me realize that coaching could be a viable career for me because I’d seen people like me in that position. Doing this fellowship works to inspire both the women who are coaching and the women who will be coaching one day.

BT: That’s a really eloquent way to put that.

USST athletes and coaches in the Torsby Ski Tunnel, August 2022. Back row, from left: Johnny Hagenbuch, Kevin Bolger, Finn O’Connell, JC Schoonmaker, Ben Ogden, and Walker Hall. Kneeling, from left: coaches Greta Anderson, Kristen Bourne, and Matt Whitcomb. (photo: François Faivre)

Applications for the Trail to Gold Fellowship are open until August 31st.

To buy Trail to Gold, the Journey of 53 Women Skiers, click here. Proceeds are dedicated to funding the Trail to Gold Fellowship.

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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