The Coach with the Voice: Conversations with Chad Salmela

Ben TheyerlJune 2, 2023
Newly appointed Team Birkie Head Coach, Chad Salmela. (Photo: Team Birkie)

Chad Salmela has a gift for pinpointing the critical characteristics of a moment and building something special from it. See “Here Comes Diggins,” the emphatically shouted announcement of an historic performance in American skiing, one that defined the careers of Olympic champions Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall, and of Salmela, himself. When it comes to Nordic skiing, Salmela knows what to say, how to put analysis into a context that audiences will understand, how to involve both enthusiasm and nuance. Now, as he takes on a new role deeply rooted in the Midwest ski community, he understands the nuance through-and-through.

Salmela has been named new Head Coach of Team Birkie, marking the latest milestone in his long and varied journey as one of American skiing’s renaissance characters. He has been a top junior, US Biathlon team member, US Biathlon coach, successful college program-building coach at St. Scholastica in skiing and (in his current day-job) running, Threshold podcaster (current side gig), American Birkebeiner finish-line announcer (current side-side-gig), a Duluth nordic skiing fixture, sometime Fasterskier contributor, occasional pop culture zeitgeist, and yes, “the voice of the Olympic cross-country skiing on NBC.” The ski community possesses a special commitment, passion, and thoughtfulness towards the sport, but rarely does a single individual in it have all those dials turned to the max. Chad does. And so, when people go looking for all those things that make the sport great, they find them reflected in Chad.

At his core, though, Chad Salmela is a coach; one stepping back into skiing seven years after his last coaching job. During the interim, he has been a full-time running coach. In fact, in his new role at Team Birkie, he will still be a full-time running coach. Salmela is stepping in as Head Coach with Team Birkie part-time. Which begs the question, what is Team Birkie going to look like?

It’s all part of the plan to innovate and develop the elite club model: more coaches, enmeshed in the wider Midwest ski community, with backing from Central Cross-Country Skiing (CXC), the Loppet Foundation (the Loppet), and the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation (the Birkie). All of it is going towards a “commitment to the idea of elite team in the Midwest.”

The plan will require some hammering out: that’s where Chad Salmela steps in, thinking through—and putting into action—much of what goes into US Skiing. Which made for an opportune time for FasterSkier to catch up with Salmela for a conversation that captured his thoughts on the vision for Team Birkie, how coaching philosophy has developed over the years, and what excites him about jumping back into practicing as a coach after years spent analyzing an evolving sport.

Chad Salmela (far left) at the 2016 NCAA qualifiers with College of St. Scholastica (CSS) skiers Reitler Hodgert and Kelsey Dickinson as well as assistant nordic coach, Josh Tesch. Seven years on, Salmela is stepping back into coaching skiing with Team Birkie. (Courtesy Photo)

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Ben Theyerl/FasterSkier (FS): How did you end up in the role of Head Coach for Team Birkie?

Chad Salmela (CS): It’s been a long process. I told Yuriy Gustev (CXC Skiing Executive Director) flat out no when he first approached me. But as most people who know Yuriy know, he has a good way of getting you to say yes.

I quit coaching skiing seven years ago at the St. Scholastica for a lot of really good personal reasons. Skiing is uniquely demanding to coach on any level. The deciding factor to go ahead here was that I can manage Team Birkie time-wise, from Duluth, and I do not have to leave my job coaching running at St. Scholastica. That is not something I could not have done when I first switched from coaching skiing to coaching running. My training plans are templated, recruiting systems are in place, the budget is workable year-to-year.

When it comes to why Team Birkie? It isn’t something that the Midwestern ski community really wants to see fizzle out again.

I think I see stepping in as stepping into a positive trend in program development for US Skiing. I think we’ve got away from “guru-ism,” where one coach has all the answers. I used to want that as an athlete. We all want that. But the idea here is that athletes won’t be working with one coach, they’ll be working with a whole bunch of coaches. At its core, we are looking to do this collaboratively.

FS: Before we dig into the details of that structure, what are the aspects of nordic skiing that you’ve missed?

CS: Coming back to a sport you’ve spent a lot of your life in is a joyful experience on its own. I still am not ready to hop into a wax trailer or follow the circuit, but I’m at a stage as a coach where I’ve not only gone through being an athlete and then coming back to the sport as a coach, but have also gone through the sport as a coach, left, and am now coming back again. That’s quite the journey.

I also have really missed the technical aspects of this sport. Which is funny, I used to get dinged as a ski coach because my athletes felt like I didn’t spend enough on technique. The technical complexity of skiing tough; it’s been ingrained in me as an observer of skiing. I got my start coaching when I was brought in to the US Biathlon program in 1998 to work with their athletes on technique, because at the time, there was a perception that we were way behind the Europeans. Back then, I was essentially pulling from stuff I was seeing watching Thomas Alsgaard or Ole Einar Bjørndalen in Europe, and back here it called into question some of the really common things we were talking about in America. I guess that’s when I got a reputation for being a coach with an opinion.

Fast-forward to today. I’ve been following skiing as a commentator, and the appeal is still the same. In the last seven years, freestyle technique has changed a lot. Where power is going and when has changed a lot. That is all stuff I’ve gotten to watch, but not work with athletes on. Last week, Zak sent over some of his clips from Bend Camp and it was really fun to start digging in on.

FS: Is the structure of Team Birkie going to undergo any wholesale changes?

CS: I don’t entirely know what it is going to look like yet. I don’t have any plans to make wholesale changes to the program, but I think those decisions will emerge as the we start to get going.

It’s a decision not to change. Like Zak; I don’t really want to mess with what Zak is doing. I don’t have a lot of experience coaching elite athletes at his stage of development. I have a lot of experience developing them to the elite level. Zak already has a system that has got him 98% of the way to where he wants to be. His best friend, Leo Hipp, has been writing his training plan, and it has worked. I see my job as coming in and just seeing if there are little things to poke at in his process and provide an extra person to review what went well and what went bad. I hope I can help him find the 2%, right? At his level, that is the difference between being hoping to qualify for a sprint heat and putting yourself in the mix to make the Final every week.

Coaching is always a mix of art and science. I recognize that I am not the answer. I am a possible collaborator to get to an answer. That’s the important tone that I’m trying to set as a coach.

FS: There is a diverse set of coaching talent working with Team Birkie. What value do you see in pulling together a lot of coaches from across the Midwest together, versus, say, you doing it all yourself?

CS: I think it’s primarily out of necessity. The constraints on my time made me open to the the idea that putting a good group of people together would make the team stronger.

I feel really fortunate to have younger coaches to work with who I think all have great experiences, but maybe aren’t ready to take on a whole program like this. I feel like I want to approach this role as more the “high performance director” or whatever you want to call it. Let the younger coaches who are excited to be on the circuit be at the races, living and breathing the coaching experience, and I can help them put all those things into a perspective that will create a cohesive program for our athletes to follow throughout the training year.

FS: Do you feel like the profession of ski coaching is any more complicated these days than it was when you first started?

CS: No, I just think we understand more than we did thirty years ago. Back then, we didn’t know what we didn’t know.

I think we’ve all come into a tighter orbit around some basic truths about training that we can abide by. To pick things up as a coach has gotten simpler as a result. You need to work hard. You need to be consistent. You need to be focused. You need to do a lot of it. Do that, and you are 95% to the elite level. The extra 5% is technical knowledge and experience. That is what coaches can bring to the table. It also happens to be where the difference is on the international stage.

FS: When it comes to implementing the vision you have for Team Birkie with the coaching staff you have, what does it look like day-to-day?

CS: It still is kind of impossible to tell because we haven’t started the programs yet. I would describe it as “fuzzy but coming into view.” I am ok leaving it there at this stage. I’d rather design the program in a way that is going to work for what we have. I don’t want to retrofit. Most of our athletes have a way and a place they’re comfortable with training right now as it is. So like Zak, right, is probably going to end up training mostly in Norway this summer. We have athletes who are coaching or working with Loppet Nordic Racing. Again, we don’t want to be intrusive into the basic building blocks of what they are doing.

FS: You’ve returned a couple of times to Zak Ketterson in talking about getting this program rolling. He has been a strong advocate for Team Birkie and the idea of professional skiing while based out of the Midwest. Does it feel like he is a kind of co-creator in what Team Birkie is going to look like in the future?

CS: The elite program as it stands is basically Zak. If he hadn’t said that we should keep this going, I don’t know if it would. His desire has brought us Midwesterners into focus though. Simply, he is a good example that we are not doing all we can to support developing athletes here. If they don’t have a place to ski after college, then we can’t expect them to stay in the region. If Zak wants it, then others probably do too, and we should be stepping up and doing it. Our collective commitment is to the idea of an elite team in the Midwest. That is what we want to create going forward.

As for the coaching, based on our first interactions over the past couple of weeks, I think we’re off to a really good start. Zak is probably more respectful of what I have to say than I feel I’ve earned with him, which is a testament to his character.

FS: There have been a few iterations of an elite Midwest team in the past, and you’ve been around to see them all. There was the original Team Birkie (which existed ~1990-95) and then notably, the CXC Elite Team that included Jessie Diggins, Adam Martin, Bryan Fish and Jason Cork, among others. When you look back at those, are there any lessons learned about creating something that is truly sustainable for a longer period of time?

CS: It’s a great question that I’m not sure I have a clear answer to. I wasn’t really around for the original Team Birkie idea, but I was very familiar with the CXC Elite Team. Why did that go away? It was a victim of its own success, mostly. Bryan Fish and Jason Cork both went from CXC directly to the US Ski Team, and US Skiing has benefitted immensely from it. There was talented coaches who could have continued that CXC Elite Team, but the timing just kind of snapped the whole thing. You have to develop key people before they become your key people.

If you wanted to identify why the Midwest has had a harder time re-establishing something since the CXC Team, I think there is a kind of paradox at play. Our strengths, when they aren’t focused, become weaknesses. The Midwest has more developing athletes racing than any other region in the country, but we have always been more dispersed than other regions. We have a lot of talent in a lot of different places and different programs. Once we focus some of that energy, good things happen. We’ve also had kids growing up here and having to leave to do the next level of skiing for a long time. Whether it was college or club, we would keep a relatively small portion of the talented skiers from the Midwest staying in the Midwest. They were, and still are, going to New England, Alaska, or the West. That is a pretty large logistical hiccup in supporting our homegrown skiers. So, if anything, what we’re now trying to do is focus up our energy again. We want kids from the Midwest to feel like we have their backs.

FS: At the “elite” club level, there are a lot of different models to make things sustainably successful. Is there something about the challenge of coming up with that which is exciting to you, versus, say, a college program?

CS: I think it’s more about where the program is and where I can take it. That’s been a fixture of my coaching career. I’ve always walked into “underdog” programs. I’ve never inherited the Green Bay Packers, you know?

FS: (As a Packers fan) I don’t know if you would want that mess right now…

CS: Yes. But like, the Scholastica program didn’t exist when I was hired. US Biathlon was on the fringe of the sport when I was there. There are a lot of challenges that come with picking up a kind of fixer-upper, but there are also a lot of opportunities to do things creatively.

FS: Are there natural strengths for Team Birkie that you can see building on?

CS: I think those are really clear. This is the only ski program in a major metropolitan area. For some, that is an absolute turn-off, but for others, it is really exciting. There is a draw; there’s a reason why the World Cup is coming here next year, right? Our athletes who have left still feel connected too. Jessie Diggins has been based out of Vermont for a decade and she is still gunning relentlessly for a World Cup here. That is something genuinely special, and so for me, is the energy in which a program like Team Birkie needs to exist in. The Midwest, especially this year, is the hub of American excitement around skiing, and that gives us a platform to build on that draw.

FS: Has the excitement around the recent milestones in American skiing, a lot of which you have been the voice for, motivated you to return to coaching at all?

CS: I really don’t know. I think the key thing is that I wasn’t looking to get back into coaching. I understood why Team Birkie reached out to me though, and so now, I am willing to give it a shot. The most telling thing was when I laid it out to my wife, she just shrugged and went, “yeah, it sounds like the perfect thing for you.”

Chad Salmela in another of his varied roles, interviewing David Norris after his win in the 2023 American Birkebiener. (Photo: (c) 2023 American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation)

FS: I suspect a lot of our readers know you first and foremost through your commentary work for NBC and Ski and Snowboard Live. Both there, and in this conversation, we’re hearing from a guy who has been thinking about this sport for a long time in a thoughtful, sustained, and focused way. As you hop into coaching and developing the sport again, how do you think we are doing on that front?

CS: I think the US is doing a relatively good job. The biggest thing we are doing now compared to thirty years ago is keeping talent in the sport long enough to make the decision that they truly want to go for the top level. We have never done that at as high a hit rate as we are now. That speaks to a huge amount of time and focus by a lot of people to get the sport in the United States organized. You couldn’t even list all the names that were important, it was a huge effort. There are old timers and people younger than me who have all contributed.

FS: Where do think the domestic circuit you are stepping into plays in that?

CS: I think the pro teams are a good thing. Strong investment in the circuit they compete in is good too. It’s not all straight-forward. As the US Team on the World Cup has become one of the best programs in the world, the gap between the two circuits has grown. There’s also, the, for lack of a better word, “pay-to-play” problem. I think the clubs provide a way to help mitigate that slightly, we have to provide a way for the people who want to pursue the sport to the highest levels to afford it.

FS: In the Press Release from Team Birkie, you are quoted saying that you “look forward to working with athletes and coaches to find their pathways to success—to base those pathways in scientific principles, sound methodology—but most importantly, finding the creativity necessary to become their best selves.” That strikes me as a very holistic look at the role the sport plays in informing an athlete’s life. Is that an outlook that has always been there for you as a coach, or one you feel you’ve had to develop over time?

CS: I have had to learn and develop, for sure. I was a brash kid when I was say, a 20-year-old kid. When you are brash, you are hiding insecurities. Age and attitude go hand-in-hand. I think as I matured, I found ways to manage my insecurities better, and in that respect, have become a better coach.

Improving as a coach requires you to ask what you are missing in your own motivations. The need to be competitive comes naturally. Thinking about the science and philosophy around being competitive does not always. A lot of growth comes simply because the ultimate arbiter in a sport like this is performance. You are kind of, what I call, scrubbing yourself on the washboard of the sport, physically and emotionally, and there is a lot of value to that. What I worry most about as a coach is that you might lose the meaning of doing the sport in just focusing on winning. That is so easy to do when you are in your 20s or 30s, and now as a father, it is the biggest thing I think about getting my kids into the sport.

Coaching-wise, when you first start out a program, you aren’t as preoccupied with winning, but more so performing at a level that people are going to want to be part of the program going forward. That can cause you to hold on too tight. I definitely said things that were a little more callous than needed to be said because if you are putting everything into it, you will get tired, and you will get frustrated. You learn from making mistakes like that. For every two athletes who like what I have done as a coach for them, there are probably a dozen that do not feel that way. That is one of the laws of coaching. It is not because you are setting out to make someone upset. It’s that you are a little too focused on the wrong things with that athlete.

That, if anything, is what has helped me grow as a coach. I have gotten better at really focusing on what matters to everybody on a team, so that people get something out of it that isn’t frustration. This sport is hard enough that there will be plenty of frustration over the course of your career, no matter who you are.

More than anything, I want people to get a great experience from being on a team. They should have a great experience that makes their lives better. You are not going to get good out of bad. You are going to get good out of good and finding that tone from everyone involved is how the strongest programs are built.

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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