On February 18th, four days before the American Birkie, Kyle Bratrud (SMS T2) announced that the race would be his final competition as a professional skier. The news caught many by surprise as Bratrud seemed to be having a strong season, following a solid season in 2018/19.
Last season, the 26-year-old Minnesota native won the 15-kilometer classic and took second in the 30 k free at U.S. Nationals in Craftsbury and ended his season as the 2019 Overall SuperTour winner.
Internationally, he raced at the World Championships in Seefeld, Austria where he finished 31st in the 15 k classic. He also earned his first FIS points by popping a 26th place result in the same event in Cogne, Italy.
“Kyle has been an athlete that has always had a very clear understanding of what he needed to do to succeed, especially when it came to championships, and winning national titles,” said Pat O’Brien, head coach of the SMS T2 program. “He was fantastic at that. His track record was, anytime you came into a World Championship year, more often than not, he was the guy that was winning those championship level races.”
Being the SuperTour winner, Bratrud was granted his first Period 1 World Cup starts this season, which O’Brien explained they planned to target. They recognized that it can be very hard for a distance skier to find success in Period 1 as international athletes are also using these starts to prove they belong on the World Cup squad — every on-the-cusp racer desperately seeking the top-30.
“The World Cup is a tricky one, because you don’t have the luxury of picking and choosing,” O’Brien explained. “You have to spend some time over there to learn the venues and figure out how to live on the road with your teammates over there for support.”
The first two weekends in Ruka and Lillehammer were not what Bratrud was hoping for, but he placed 38th in the 15-kilometer freestyle in Davos. He was the top American, just ten seconds outside of the top-30, and less than two minutes behind winner Simen Hegstad Krüger of Norway.
Though he was offered starts for the Tour de Ski, Bratrud headed back to the US after Period 1 to race the distance events at Senior Nationals in Houghton, Michigan. There he repeated his 2019 results with a 15 k freestyle win and second in the 30 k classic.
Bratrud explained that the venue in Houghton is special for him as it is where he won his first national championship back in 2015 during his senior year at the University of Northern Michigan.
That 2015 was not just a win. He burst onto the scene and took the 15 k freestyle by 50 seconds, followed by third in the 30 k classic four days later. These results instilled belief that he could ski at the professional level and opened doors for him to ski at the FIS U23 World Ski Championships in Almaty, Kazakhstan, where he took 19th in the 15 k skate. Bratrud was also given World Cup starts the following week for a distance race in Östersund, Sweden and again at the World Ski Championships in Falun.
Rather than his recent results motivating him to continue, Bratrud explained that it felt like the pieces were fitting together in a way that allowed him to walk away on a high note. Though he still loved the process, the lifestyle had worn on him and he was ready for a change.
“The time in between [training and racing], used to not bother me at all, and now I’m feeling kind of restless and like I want to do something different and engage my brain in a different way and help other people.”
O’Brien recounted his conversations with Bratrud following his performances in Houghton about a transition in his career. They discussed taking a break and evaluating the weights of the variety of passions that were calling to Bratrud.
“It’s an interesting dynamic,” O’Brien said. “When you’re a young, hungry athlete, you want nothing more than to have the opportunity to have these at bats racing over in Europe and trying to become a World Cup ski racer. I think for the first time in his life, it was like, ‘Okay. I’m at an age where I’ve gotten to experience World Championships, I’ve gotten to experience the World Cup, I’ve succeeded at a level that very few people have.
“And I’m actually at a point in my life where it’s great to know that I have those options available to me, but maybe the sacrifices that I didn’t view as sacrifices when I was 21, 22, 23, I start getting older and I realize, I just don’t know if that’s really what I want to throw myself back into.’ It’s a very difficult crossroads to be at as an athlete, but it’s also very important to acknowledge that something you’ve pursued for a long time — it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t still inspire passion in you, but it may start looking different and feeling different.”
Bratrud spent some time in Boulder, Colorado with his girlfriend, Kelsey Phinney, and her family. He also raced in the RMISA races in Steamboat Springs, winning the 10 k skate and taking second in the 20 k classic, and won the 42 k skate at the Alley Loop in Crested Butte.
Ultimately, Bratrud decided he was ready to step away mid-season. Being from the Midwest where the Birkie reins supreme, he selected it as the “perfect opportunity” to ski his final race as a professional.
“More people ask me how I’ve done in the Birkie than about any of my World Cup results, which I think is a little funny, but that’s kind of how the culture is,” he laughed.
After burning a few too many matches responding to Niklas Dyrhaug’s early moves, Bratrud lost contact with the lead pack and crossed the finish line in Hayward in 10th (+1:47).
In this conversation, Bratrud talks about his day at the Birkie and the experience of skiing across the lake, over the international bridge, and up Main St. knowing it would be his last professional race. He also reflects on his career highlights and gives an honest answer to the National Team and World Cup selection criteria for domestic skiers.
Since the call, Bratrud has moved to Boulder and has accepted a position with the 20th Judicial Court in the Court Clerk’s office. Here he can apply his undergraduate degree in criminal justice, and the experience will support his interest in pursuing law school.
Interview with Kyle Bratrud discussing his retirement after the 2020 American Birkie.
In addition to providing further insight into Bratrud’s season and decision to retire, O’Brien also discussed how he advises his athletes in terms of meeting age-weighted criteria, a charging group of juniors who are achieving international success, and the balance of their career with other pursuits.
“It’s also incredibly difficult. If you are an older athlete who has not made an A or B-Team age weighted criteria, the expectation is that, yes, you can earn World Cup starts through various pathways… but it’s difficult as an athlete who’s not fully funded on the A-Team or supported on the B-Team. There’s the higher financial costs, there’s a lot more logistics involved, so it becomes difficult and at some point in time, it’s very hard for those athletes to figure out how they can continue to balance — ‘How am I going to financially support my ski racing? And also, every year that goes on is another year that I’m not entering a normal job market.’
My feeling and approach to it has always been that I’m fully supportive of whatever athletes decide and whatever their passions are. If it’s 100% skiing, then that’s what they should pursue. If it’s like, ‘This is what I want and I’m going to chase this dream for as long as I possibly can.’ That’s fantastic. But if they get to a point where they’re starting to say, ‘Okay, this is something that is still a passion of mine that I’m going out and pursuing, but I’m starting to think that my time pursuing this at the highest level might be coming towards an end or I’m starting to look at what’s out there and available to me.’ Then I think it’s important to recognize that this sport isn’t something that you do forever…
“I think the most important thing is that whether they decide that they’re going to be completely done with ski racing or try to find a different balance between skiing and pursuing a job on the side, there’s no right or wrong. It has to be an individual decision and it has to feel right.”
Interview with SMS T2 head coach Pat O’Brien.