The Loppet Looks Ahead: How Minneapolis is Preparing to Host a World Cup

Ben TheyerlMarch 31, 2023

In 2024, Minneapolis, Minnesota will host an FIS World Cup. That fact has been the source of pure excitement across US Skiing, and also of déjà vu.

For many skiers and ski fans, the cancellation of the planned World Cup races at Theodore Wirth Park in March 2020 will forever be associated with those uncertain first days of the COVID-19 pandemic. American World Cup athletes had come home, the banners and bleachers were up, when the world turned upside down.

Jessie Diggins skis at Theodore Wirth Park in 2020, following the cancellation of the scheduled World Cup there due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo: Brian Peterson)

For the Loppet Foundation, the Minneapolis nonprofit at the heart of the Twin Cities ski community, and responsible for organizing that 2020 World Cup, the loss couldn’t be met with any emotion but sadness: two years of hard work organizing since the World Cup bid was secured in 2018—and many years before that advocating for the idea of a Minneapolis World Cup—all gone due to a world that had changed.

Working in a changing world, though, would turn out to suit the Loppet Foundation’s strengths. Since its founding 20 years ago to “Connect people to the outdoors through experiences that grow community,” the Loppet has completely transformed the cross-country ski community in the Twin Cities, Minnesota, and the greater Midwest. What started as a nonprofit organizing the City of Lakes Loppet,has grown to include a slew of recreational programming, spawned one of the country’s best competitive junior clubs with Loppet Nordic Racing, re-imagined Theodore Wirth Park’s ski trails into a world-class venue, and, indeed, organized a World Cup.

For most of the Loppet’s history, the title of Executive Director belonged to John Munger. Munger moved on from the position in 2020, replaced by current Executive Director, Claire Wilson. Since Wilson’s arrival, the Loppet has hosted Junior Nationals and SuperTours, overseen an explosion of participation in cross-country skiing in Minneapolis that has seen pass sales double five times over, and youth participation in the Minnesota Youth Ski League double too. Then, last month, it was announced that the goal for 2024 would be the same as in 2020—bring a FIS World Cup race to the United States.

Loppet Foundation Executive Director Claire Wilson. (Photo: Loppet Foundation)

This week, FasterSkier had a chance to catch up with Wilson on how the excitement around the World Cup is helping shape the Loppet’s plans, what the 2024 President’s Day weekend World Cup will actually look like, and the Loppet’s journey from lost dreams in 2020 to dreaming again of American World Cup racing in 2024.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Ben Theyerl/FasterSkier (FS): How are you and the Loppet feeling about the World Cup coming to Minneapolis in 2024?

Claire Wilson (CW): The excitement here is really palpable. I have people who aren’t even connected to the skiing world reaching out to say, ‘we’ve already saved the date and we can’t wait!’ And then inside the ski community, well, I think it’s engaged everyone, here in the Twin Cities, but well beyond that as well. There are people from across the country who’ve been in contact to ask how they could help.

I was also just in Norway at Holmenkollen and Drammen with Torsten Brinkema, who’s a local filmmaker working on our promotional materials, and our whole experience there with the US Ski Team and with that wider world ski community really reiterated just how excited everyone is to finally be headed to the United States for a World Cup again.

FS: There’s definitely excitement being stirred again after a ‘near-miss’ hosting in 2020. When, after that, did the Loppet Foundation decide that a World Cup was worth doing again in 2024?

CW: It took a lot of discernment to decide if this was really something we wanted to try again, because it’s very unusual to have a relatively small nonprofit organizing something as big as a World Cup. The scale of the risk, and the opportunity, is just bigger than what most community organizations can take on.

We had to start by asking ourselves, ‘Is this in alignment with out mission? Does this help increase access to the outdoors and grow connections to the outdoors?’ We spent a lot of time listening, with staff, with the wider Twin Cities community, and eventually, we landed on yes.

Then we looked at that mission in context. In Minneapolis, growing connection to the outdoors means building our ski community to be more inclusive. The number of skiers in the Twin Cities has grown substantially in the past decade. Theodore Wirth Park has become the jewel of a world-class park system and become a world-class ski venue. So the world stage, for that venue and for our community, was the logical next step.

There was also a window we recognized here. Jessie Diggins has been supporting the idea of bringing a World Cup to Minnesota for a decade now. And right now, the US Ski Team has an especially strong contingent of athletes with Midwestern roots; Jessie, Zak Ketterson, Alayna Sonnesyn, and Kevin Bolger. This is a unique moment where we felt like we could bring all these athletes who’ve spread out across the world back home.

Community is kind of where it all come back to, really. When we went to FIS initially, they were looking at us hosting on a Tuesday in March. Then though, they came back to us and offered President’s Day weekend, where they would be the possibility to bring the ski community here to watch a whole weekend and then ski together on the Monday afterwards. It aligned the opportunity with what we felt was important and aligned with our values. It just really all came together well.

FS: I couldn’t help but notice that this World Cup also coincides with when the US ski community starts head to the Midwest for the American Birkebeiner in Hayward, Wisconsin the following weekend, too…

CW: Exactly. We’re hoping that the timing will help create a really special couple of weeks here for everyone.

FS: You mention the excitement from beyond the Midwest. Was there a sense in deciding to host the World Cup that this would be serving the wider ski community?

CW: Absolutely. As soon as the Loppet expressed interest, we had the Share Winter Foundation, our presenting partner, and US Ski and Snowboard reach out to express that this was something both organizations wanted to support us in. For both, their partnership was crucial centering this World Cup around being inclusive. Their support will make the event free and accessible, and hopefully fuel growth for the sport here far past this one event.

FS: When does being ‘inclusive’ at a World Cup event look like for the Loppet Foundation?

CW: A lot of it making it just as accessible for those who ski and for those who, maybe, don’t right now. Location-wise, this is going to be one of the most accessible World Cups for any audience to get to. We’re in the middle of a major metropolitan area, less than 20 minutes away from an international airport, with a whole lot of people that might never have thought about cross-country skiing in immediate proximity to a world-class event. And again, it’s a big deal that Share Winter is helping to make this a free event for spectators.

FS: Even though the 2020 World Cup didn’t happen, you went through the whole process of planning a World Cup event. What is the Loppet taking into 2024 from that ‘dress rehearsal,’ of sorts?

CW: We learned a whole lot. The organizing committee is pretty much the exact same from last time around, and this is my second go-around too.

The truth is, there were things that we definitely underprepared for in 2020, and having had that planning process allowed us to spot what they were so we could improve them this time.

The main area was staffing. We just realized that we need a lot of volunteers, and that it is better to overstaff than understaff an event like this.

The other thing is really recognizing that we’re in a unique position as organizers compared to the venues that regularly host the World Cup in Europe. We’re a small nonprofit. We aren’t subsidized by the government. Making this a high-quality event will take a lot of resources, and that could risk expending the Loppet in a way that severely impacts our ability to continue to serve our community. So recognizing that we are dependent on commercial sales to make this a success, and going out searching for sponsors early, is a key change.

FS: I’ll linger on the boring bureaucratic stuff for one more second. What does the process of putting in a World Cup bid and having it accepted look like?

CW: For us, it’s been a complete joint effort with US Ski and Snowboard. The governing body and the host organization put in a bid to FIS (International Ski Federation), and then there’s a lot of negotiation that really, even now, is still ongoing.

The process has been easier for us this time around because all organizations involved are invested in bringing the World Cup to North America, especially after 2020. Minneapolis was a natural spot for FIS to look at, as we are such a hub for the sport in the United States, and then it was a matter of working with Nordiq Canada to help make a North American tour for the World Cup that was going to promote the sport in both countries. I think FIS is happy, US Ski and Snowboard is happy, Canada is happy, and importantly, athletes from everywhere in the sport, not just North America, are excited to be coming here.

FS: You’ve mentioned that the challenges of the Loppet putting this on as a nonprofit. Are their advantages to that too?

CW: The biggest thing is that we’re rooted in the community we’re hosting this event in. Jessie Diggins being a big promoter, for example, that comes with her understanding and believing in the community we have here.

There’s a lot of expertise that is spread among talented individuals in this community. We just had a SuperTour. We hosted Junior Nationals. We put on the City of Lakes Loppet Festival and events throughout the year, and many of the people that will be involved at Theodore Wirth Park next year are responsible for shaping it into what it is today.

What binds us all together is a deep commitment to growing the sport, expanding access to the outdoors, and a belief in the uniqueness of skiing here. The view you get the skyline at the top of Theodore Wirth Park, that’s one-of-a-kind in the ski world, and we have a whole ski community that’s as unique as that too.

The Minneapolis skyline visible in the distance from the finish area at Theodore Wirth Park on a cold, sunny, March day during Junior Nationals. (Photo: David J Owen Photography)

FS: Part of the mission with hosting the World Cup is growing the sport. At least in Minnesota, there’s already been a pretty dramatic wave of growth underway. How are you looking to leverage that at the Loppet through this event?

CW: There was the COVID bump obviously, but why everyone is really interested in skiing in Minnesota really does go back to Jessie Diggins and how she has represented the US and Minnesota. It’s so apparent anytime there’s a high school race at Wirth—we’ve had to post signs reminding kids to clean up their glitter for goodness sakes!

The Minneapolis Parks Board keeps coming to us with record pass sales every year. Before 2018, say, the most passes they sold was around 2,000/year. We’ve been over 10,000/year for the past couple years now. At the Loppet Foundation, that’s allowed us to expand our programming, and the World Cup is probably best viewed in that light. We’re riding the momentum by bringing the inspiration that’s been driving growth from afar right here, from Jessie Diggins to Zak Ketterson to all of the skiers on the World Cup.

FS: When we talk about ‘here,’ we’re talking about Theodore Wirth Park. The ski trails have been there for a long time, but even fifteen years ago, there wasn’t really even a thought that it was a World Cup-type trail system. What has the Loppet put into that park to bring it up to this moment, where it will be a World Cup venue?

CW: I think Theodore Wirth Park is best described as the DNA of our organization. From the beginning, the Loppet’s goal was to recognize that we already had something special with a network of ski trails five minutes away from downtown, and capitalizing on it would lift the neighborhood, the Twin Cities, and skiing all at once.

What started with attempts at snowmaking quickly grew into the desire to re-work the courses there so that they would be world-class, and then, the biggest piece, was putting in the Trailhead Center. The Trailhead has become a kind of landmark in Minneapolis, and that means we’re getting people who have never been connected to the skiing and biking opportunities present here coming to us, getting engaged, joining, and adding to our community.

FS: Yeah, like that Wirth 5 k course certainly isn’t just a groomed golf course anymore…

CW: No it definitely isn’t, and that comes down to having really talented trail designers who knew what makes this space special. It’s no accident that you crest the biggest hill and get a view of the skyline, or that it’s super spectator friendly. I’ve skied this loop everyday this winter and I still find spots where I go, ‘that was really well thought through.’

Skiers from all over the country round the first corner of the Theodore Wirth Park course in the U16 Boys 5 k Classic at Junior Nationals in Minneapolis. (Photo: David J Owen Photography)

FS: Is the 5 k people are skiing now, that racers at Junior Nationals last year and the SuperTour a month ago skied, the one you’re using for the World Cup?

CW: Yes, pending final FIS approval. The distance and sprint course will be the same that skiers have been getting acquainted with the past couple of years for those big events, and will be groomed the day after too. That should allow skiers to compare their times on our course to the World’s best.

FS: That could be a humbling experience a week before the Birkie for a lot of skiers…

CW: Our hope is the cool factor outweighs any blow to confidence people will experience, for sure.

FS: Is there confirmation on the exact World Cup races that the Loppet will be hosting in terms of distances, techniques?

CW: What’s on the draft calendar is a sprint race followed by a distance race. That though, is still under negotiation, and the technique and distances are largely up to FIS’ discretion.

FS: The World Cup season just ended, but before it did the Loppet was able to send over a delegation to observe the Holmenkollen Marathon and the Drammen City Sprints in Norway. What observations did you come back with from seeing those two World Cups?

CW: It was a total thrill to experience the amount of energy over there.

Honestly, our biggest takeaway was that we don’t need a lot of additional bells and whistles. Fans and skiers will bring the energy. In 2020 here, we had such a big focus on creating ancillary events. We were going to have a big rock concert, and the Minnesota Vikings cheerleaders were going to come. But what we saw in Norway, and what I think will hold here, is that if you put on quality racing, that’s more than enough. The fans make their own fun. and are ultimately coming because they have a passion for this sport, so let them do what they do!

From our organizing perspective, that was a bit of a revelation. Operationally, this is a really complex undertaking, but programmatically, it’s fairly simple. We will put the world’s best cross-country skiers on a stage that they can do what they do, you know?

FS: And the US Ski Team was really supportive when you were over there?

CW: In the week we were there, I don’t think there was an interview that US skiers did where they didn’t mention their excitement about skiing a World Cup at home next season. Every interaction we had was just really positive.

FS: Lastly, as we look at the year between now and the World Cup, what can we expect to see from the Loppet Foundation?

CW: Around the event, we’ll be doing a lot work to highlight the athletes and people making this event possible to as broad an audience as possible. We’ll also be looking for volunteers, putting some cool promotional materials out, and the ski community will want to look for tickets when they become available.

And we’ll still be hosting our regular programming. People can still expect the City of Lakes Loppet Festival, the Luminary, our kids programming and all of that.

We probably won’t be taking on a SuperTour, or Junior Nationals, or anything on that scale, but the ski community can rest assured that we’ll still be hosting a weekend where over President’s Day where everyone, and I mean everyone, from the ski world and beyond can come to Minneapolis and celebrate skiing together.

The Loppet Foundation’s City of Lakes Loppet in 2022 at Theodore Wirth Park, home of the World Cup in 2024. (Photo: Loppet Foundation).

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.

Loading Facebook Comments ...

Leave a Reply