Editor’s Note: Part of a quote based on a conversation Caitlin Gregg had with the U.S. Ski Team, which originally ran in this article, has been omitted for the sake of clarity and objectiveness.
The power couple of U.S. ski racing, Caitlin and Brian Gregg are somewhere in Europe with a rental car as they await their next move, which will be decided when the U.S. Nordic Ski Team officially announces its 2014 Olympic team on Wednesday.
On Sunday, the husband and wife wrapped up the last of the World Cup races they earned as the early season U.S. SuperTour leaders — with Caitlin nearly qualifying in Saturday’s freestyle sprint then pulling out of Sunday’s 10-kilometer classic mass start in Szklarska Poręba, Poland. Brian was sick and did not race last weekend, but got one World Cup under his belt two weekends ago with a skate sprint in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic.
“We have had a blast and we are looking forward to a little R and R!” Caitlin wrote in an email on Sunday. “I think I hit the point where the adrenaline and excitement of the past few weeks faded and the fatigue and nerves from travel and anticipating the Olympic Team selection set in! It is always a bummer to pull out if a race but there are times when it hits you like a pile of bricks and I know I have a lot of (hopefully big) races down the road to prepare for still this season!”
For the better part of the last four years following her first Olympics in 2010, Caitlin has had one race on her mind: the 30-kilometer freestyle mass start at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
The aspiration goes back to her college days at Northern Michigan University, when her coach Sten Fjeldheim told her the 30 k skate would be her forte.
“A couple Birkies later, a couple more marathons under my belt, I can see that being pretty awesome,” said Gregg, a two-time winner of North America’s biggest ski marathon, the American Birkebeiner.
In 2010, Gregg notched 30th in the 10 k skate for the best-distance result but an American woman since Nancy Fiddler placed 27th in the 15 k classic at the 1992 Games in Albertville, France. Fiddler went on to notch 29th in the 30 k skate at the same Olympics.
Nearly 22 years later, the former national-team member (in 2007 and 2009) and one of the best distance skiers in the U.S. sat quietly in a corner of a small grocery store/eatery in Midway, Utah. Two days before one of her biggest races of the season at U.S. Cross Country Championships, she was fueling up after a morning workout at Soldier Hollow’s nordic trails.
Fresh off an interview with Cosmopolitan Magazine a week or two before, Gregg, 33, looked like a sporty glamour girl in her natural setting — minus the makeup and blowout. A Minneapolis resident and half of Team Gregg (Brian being the other half), she wore a sparkly Loppet Nordic headband and hadn’t yet changed out of her Loppet Nordic race suit. The white, black and blue spandex and accompanying gear was relatively new to the Greggs since they pioneered their own elite team with the support of Loppet Nordic Racing this season.
The following is from an interview with Gregg on Jan. 6, two days before she crushed her competition in the 20 k freestyle mass start, winning by an unprecedented margin at U.S nationals by nearly four minutes. A few hours later, she and Brian flew from Salt Lake City to Prague to prepare for their first World Cup races of the season in Nove Mesto three days later.
FasterSkier: How are you feeling about your distance-skate racing?
Caitlin Gregg: I’ve only done one skate distance race this year [before the U.S. nationals 20 k] that’s really counted for anything. It feels like I haven’t really had an opportunity to race, let alone where my true strengths lie, so I’m excited to see where I sit … on that spectrum of that next level of endurance combined with skating combined with altitude combined with big hills. I mean that’s kind of everything you’re looking for picking a team for that 30 k in Sochi.
Brian and I have obviously talked about this and said, ‘You know, it really hasn’t been many distance skate races [this] calendar year, 12 months.’ If you look back on it, there was a true distance skate race, there was one in Minneapolis and both Brian and I both won that but it didn’t count because it was part of the Tour [de Twin Cities]. And last year, the way they scored this is going off the calendar year, but not the FIS scoring year. Last year was the total cumulative time that went to the FIS points not just your time for the day, which they’re now doing on the World Cup this year. It’s sort of weird that the criteria picks from previous years with different rules governing how the points are [allocated]. So that race was a great race and it was a win of the day, but not really slated as a win, which is tough when it’s your strength and you don’t get opportunities. So really besides that race, the Birkie is the only true race over a distance that is anywhere near the 30 k. It’s actually on the long end, but it’s the only one we’ve done. We tried to get some distance skate races at SuperTour Finals, but it just wasn’t in the cards. So just one skate race on the schedule, besides this one, before the team selection.
So you know, it’s sort of like you’re up against some odds there. The hardest thing for sure, I mean I’m super psyched to be going to Europe, but the weirdest thing I’ve ever experienced is trying to make a team where you don’t really ever get to compare yourself to the team. People are being named and obviously they’re having great results, and you feel like, ‘Gosh that’s incredible. I haven’t even had a chance.’ I mean I’ve had a chance in other [races], but not in my so to speak, strengths, against the field that they can put in that event.
“The weirdest thing I’ve ever experienced is trying to make a team where you don’t really ever get to compare yourself to the team.” — Caitlin Gregg
FS: What’s it like knowing you have to be on the top of your game — and the results — in the U.S. to get to Europe?
CG: It’s one of the more unusually psychological aspects of racing. I’ve never really had to think about this in the sense that you’re sort of torn. I mean, It’s phenomenal; I’ve said this from the get go that those girls are skiing incredibly well and if I’m not skiing anywhere near that level then I don’t deserve to be on the team. There’s no question about that, it shouldn’t be, ‘Oh, I went before and so therefore I should go again.’ Those girls are on another level, but I will say it’s very unique where you feel like, ‘OK, it’s probably the fittest I’ve ever been, I’m skiing the fastest I’ve ever been, I wish I had some measure of where I sit in that other group. And you can’t because of that separation of they’re racing in Europe and you’re here.
“I’ve said this from the get go that those girls are skiing incredibly well and if I’m not skiing anywhere near that level then I don’t deserve to be on the team.”
I was told the best option was to be the SuperTour leader, to get over there to do these World Cups. That was Plan B. After West Yellowstone, I skied so well there, I was like, ‘Just checking, one more time, I know there’s a World Cup coming up in five days but just wondering how people are feeling on the team, what the opportunities are?’ (laughs)
This sort of fits in with Brian and I, our plan of the year, we’re just ready for anything, anything, any opportunity. … We’re just having a great time with great stories this year and we’re giving it our all. At some point that’s all I can control, just ski as fast as I can and you never want to be off the team, especially if you feel like you are skiing at your best and you’re in there, but at the same time it’s the most difficult decision to make in any sport, at any time, picking that team, it’s really tough. But I’m having a blast and doing it with Brian again, we’ve said this many, many times, it’s the coolest experience ever. It’s hilarious; we just sort of pack up our little house everywhere we go is like home. Compared to four years ago when I did this journey and so forth, it was really fun, it was really exciting and I knew people along the way, and there was a lot of congratulations but nothing compares to, even if you don’t make it, just the experiences that we’ve shared so far this year.
“We’re just having a great time with great stories this year and we’re giving it our all. At some point that’s all I can control, just ski as fast as I can.”
Someone was just asking me, ‘Are you happy?’ and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can get second in a [U.S. nationals] sprint by a sliver, but yet the day was such a success because Brian won, our family was there, everything is just so positive right now for us in general.’ You sort of sense this, too, with the ski team and their kind of energies. You look back, we have great jobs [at the Jerry Gamble Boys and Girls Club in north Minneapolis] with the kids that we work with and our connections with the community in the Twin Cities area, and then our sponsors are psyched and we’re psyched with all of our equipment. Everything just has really good positive momentum. We’re sort of banking on this, anything is still possible.
FS: You and Brian both got off to incredibly strong starts to take the SuperTour leader spots in two weekends of races. What was the secret?
CG: For sure, there’s some calculated decisions in the last three years that I’ve made between the Games that weren’t necessarily the same for Brian, but it seems like we kind of had the trajectory and everything kind of aligned to this year. For me, it was maybe taking a step back, doing more, like one summer right after the Olympics, I just had to work a ton, I had a lot of hours of work to do and a lot of debt to pay off so I just couldn’t commit to skiing like I had in the previous year. Another year I went back to school, just different things that I was doing in the offseason.
The intensity was there, but I couldn’t commit 100 percent. It’s hard to maintain that 100 percent, 100 percent, 100 percent so many years in a row and not feel a burnout or not feel an overreach, so psychologically and also in my own career as an athlete and development beyond being an athlete and what I wanted to do, going back to school for a semester or two and doing other things and taking on different roles in the community, purchasing a house, getting married [in 2011], all those other things were super important to me and I said, ‘I’m gonna take a step back, focus on racing domestically and making money and then really launch into this Olympic year with all I’ve got.’ With that came this benefit of, people always talk about gearing up for the Olympic year and how do you really come on hot? It’s planned, but sometimes it’s those things where unfortunately to make it to that Olympic year, to spend the money, to go to Eagle Glacier, or to make sure we can afford to save in Midway, or what we need to do, it’s going to take three years of kind of foresight and say this is what we got to get to line up.
“I said, ‘I’m gonna take a step back, focus on racing domestically and making money and then really launch into this Olympic year with all I’ve got.”
I think we’ve sort of nailed it in the sense that we were able to make money, we were able to represent our companies, we purposely didn’t reach out to the community in those years and have big fundraisers because we knew there’s only so many times you can do that and expect people to get behind you and rally for you. So we said we’ll kind of keep a low profile. We’re involved with the community, but we didn’t want any big to-dos. We’ve done this Fundly campaign this year which has gone beyond what we thought it even would [raising nearly $11,500 dollars], and we’ve gotten even more support from our sponsors and equipment than we ever thought we could. I think that was all a really cool, calculated approach that sort of fell into place. Really we’ve known for a long time that this year was going to be the big push, and we wanted to put everything 100 percent into it. We kind of sat back and we’re like yeah, we were able to do that and that’s awesome. We’ve stayed healthy and excited and kind of gunning for it and I think that’s made a big difference on the results sheet for sure.
FS: What kind of pressure do you feel then?
CG: Honestly, we have no pressure. I love pressure, I love getting down to it. I love circling the day on the calendar. I love being like, ‘Oh this is big, this is for all the marbles! This is the one!’ And Brian, he’s sort of like, ‘I kind of get into it,’ but anyway, we don’t feel the same sense of pressure. Nobody said to us, ‘You guys are gonna make it, you guys are gonna make it if you don’t screw up.’ It’s like, ‘If everything goes really well, you guys might have a chance of making it.’ That’s sort of been the other side of it. We’re sort of on the good side of the pressure where we can just take advantage of the opportunity rather than be like, man you just lost it for yourself. There’s two sides of that pressure spectrum and we’re on the good side. It’s maybe one of the only perks of not being on the U.S. Ski Team (laughs). In an Olympic year, you don’t have that same sort of performance pressure. Everything is sort of icing on the cake.
FS: Looking back your 2010 Olympic experience, what are your thoughts four years later?
CH: Still to this day, one of the greatest things though is that anticipation of not knowing that you made it. Even in that year, for the most part people were like, especially in the beginning of the season, ‘Oh she is not gonna make it, she is skiing awful, it’s not happenin’, not getting results,’ and I was like, ‘Well, I don’t know, I’ll just keep going along here, keep believin’.’ And so when it happens — and I wouldn’t say it’s not expected, but it’s not a given — you think about it and you know there’s some athletes out there who have kind of been whispered to or said, ‘You know, you’re probably gonna make the team,’ or ‘Yeah, you’re on the team if you don’t screw up,’ or ‘Yeah you’re on the team, no question. We just have to wait to announce it.’ There’s nothing better in my opinion, if you think of some of coolest phone calls you can get, getting a phone call that’s like, ‘Hey, you made it, congrats.’
I remember when [former U.S. Ski Team Head Coach] Pete Vordenberg called me before 2010, man, I was just like, I mean that’s the coolest thing! You have no idea what he’s gonna say, he could be like, ‘Hey, way to go, you’re skiing well, not gonna happen.’ It could go either way, but getting that phone call, is by far it’s gonna stick in my mind for the rest of my life. That was the coolest thing, just not knowing and finding out that.
FS: Why did you decide to go for a second Olympics in 2014?
CG: For that year and where we were as a nation at that point, I was like, this is pretty awesome. I love skiing and I love everything about it. With the 30 k skate being where my focus has shifted, I’m excited about that event more than anything else. The relays, the team is doing great, everyone is doing so well and that’s really been what’s spurring me on to keep training and keep going for it this year, four years later … that idea that, man, that 30 k could be awesome. Sten, my coach, from college always said the 30 k skate would be my forte. A couple Birkies later, a couple more marathons under my belt, I can see that being pretty awesome.
Obviously seeing the women do so well, that’s a huge motivator and inspiring and you’re like, gosh it’s so great. I did go back and forth and say, especially when I was taking classes, maybe I should just move on or maybe it’s time. It’s always in the back of your mind, and I’m one of the oldest in on the race board, but we’re making it work in the sense that we were able to get married, buy a house, have great jobs that we feel like we’re getting a lot back from. We feel like we’re really growing in so many ways simultaneously that the ski-racing side of it, it really doesn’t feel like we’re sacrificing anything or trying to draw anything out.
I can’t think of a better life. Brian has said this and I will second this, if we had a million dollars — which we definitely don’t — if we had a million dollars, we would be doing the exact same thing. We’d be ski racing and we’d be working with kids. We’d be helping underprivileged kids, getting them excited. It doesn’t matter where they come from, but really enjoy inspiring and mentoring that next generation and I think that’s something we’ll be doing forever. And the whole skiing side of it — I was just talking to [University of Alaska-Fairbanks Head Coach] Scott Jerome about some of the things we’ve learned from working with the kids in the neighborhood where we live and what they go through and what their life is like. You stop and you think about our lives as skiers and we’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, what perspective that brings.’ You suddenly realize that a bad wax day is the least concern you ever have. I think that’s really been huge thing in the last four years for me, too, the things that you thought were such a big deal, and this all comes from maturity and just having more experiences in life, but man, I can’t tell you how many times Brian and I have left work in the last year and it could be dark, it could be 8 o’clock at night, we’re tired, it could be raining, we’re super hungry, and it’s like, ‘Man, those kids just ran all these laps for us and after hearing all those stories, we have no excuse not to get out and train right now. No excuse not to be so grateful and so ecstatic about everything we have going for us and what opportunities that lie ahead.’
“I can’t think of a better life. If we had a million dollars — which we definitely don’t — if we had a million dollars, we would be doing the exact same thing. We’d be ski racing and we’d be working with kids.”
FS: Can you explain more about your jobs in the Twin Cities?
CG: We are so fortunate. We both work for an organization called In the Arena, there’s a couple athletes on the circuit — Sylvan Ellefson, Torin Koos, and numerous others that have been involved with this, Laura Valaas, Nicole De Yong — it’s been an incredible, incredible opportunity for us.
It’s something that we’ve been involved with now for five or six years. It’s really incredible because it’s a program that’s nationwide. It’s a nonprofit for all endurance sports but typically underfunded endurance sports, so mountain biking, rowing, triathlon, running, cross-country skiing, sports that are not funded as you would imagine compared to baseball, basketball, golf. The idea is that you’re taking athletes that are college graduates who are on the cusp or on track to qualify for either World Championships, World Cup or Olympic Games, and it takes those athletes and their community-service proposals. You as the athlete propose to the organization what type of community work you’re going to be involved in and what the scope of that work entails, in terms of who are you helping, what is the demographics of the area, what is your plan, what are you going to specifically do with those youths involved.
Through generous donations and grants that this organization receives, whether it’s companies, individuals — I know for a while one of my grants came from a Minneapolis-based company, General Mills, for a year — it’s really cool to see that their specific grant wanted to target health and wellness in north Minneapolis so it was a nice circle. They could support In the Arena, and In the Arena could support me, I could be a volunteer for these kids so that’s been really the backbone of our ability to continue ski racing.
We’re really proud of the fact that we can be self sufficient. Brian says that every year we can afford to keep ski racing in the sense that we aren’t losing money and we aren’t living off our parents, we’re not being a drain to anything, is really what it’s about for us. In the Arena has been that backbone for us to continue racing and secure our living expenses when we’re not racing during the season. It pays for, whether we’re renting at the time, now we own a house, that or utilities or any of those incidentals that we have. On the other side of it, it’s awesome because we get to work with these kids who come from all kinds of different backgrounds, who come from lives that I think would probably completely turn most of the individuals involved with cross-country skiing in the U.S.’s world. This is the real deal and this is pretty intense for these kids. And again, it gives us the opportunity to show them that just because they’re living in this particular world of what they know, that there are other opportunities out there.
Basically, what Brian and I have really focused on with our world in north Minneapolis, is we bought a house there for $10,000 dollars because that’s what we could afford and that’s what was available there. We live in the community where we work with these kids, so not only do we go to the Boys & Girls Club or Harrison Park, but they see us out training on their streets. That’s a huge connection that can’t be created from an artificial sense. Having them see us actually out physically training, walking our dog, mowing our lawn, we’re part of their community. I think that seeing that … in the sense that we are an active, energetic couple that are working together and working well, which they don’t often see, that idea of husband and wife still together, and that we are excited for them. A lot of their attention or feedback comes from negative reinforcement. If they act up, if they’re misbehaving, they instantly get what they’re looking for, which is people pay attention to them, people take notice. So we’re trying to turn that upside down and say this is what you really shine with and this is something that you’re good at. They’re all phenomenal athletes and we took on running this year and it blows my mind how good they are and suddenly they’re getting this positive reinforcement. It’s amazing what it does, everyone comes up to us and says, ‘Our kids are behaving better, they’re motivated, they’re healthier, they’re excited.’ It’s goal setting, it’s everything. It’s so amazing to have that be a part of our ski career.
FS: It is year round?
CG: It is year round. Brian and I used to go to different schools in the areas we were staying, we made big effort to do that throughout the season, and what we found is that we were getting really sick. We spent a lot of the fall 2012 in the Methow Valley so we were away from our project and we were away all winter, so we had to put in a big push over the spring and summer. It’s quite a bit of hours, actually. We propose how many hours we can work, and we’re working more than people would probably realize. We’re really grateful; it’s an awesome opportunity, but it is something that we have to be on top of. It’s not just every couple of weeks go in and say, ‘Hey, what’s up kids!’ and take a couple photos … We really have to do the consistent day-after-day connection with the kids and year after year, it sort of builds on itself. We have to explain to the kids when we leave, ‘This is where we’re going, we’ll be back, don’t worry you’ll see us again.’
It’s not full-full time, it’s not quite 40 hours a week but it’s quite a bit in the spring and summer that we really need to put in. We have to figure that out with our training schedule … if we’re doing a training camp somewhere. Last year we finished up the season in Truckee, Brian finished his last race, showered and we flew to northern Michigan, because I was inducted into my collegiate hall of fame there, and then we drove right back home and the next day we went to work.
FS: So no spring or summer vacations?
CG: We have not taken a vacation ever. I’ve gone and visited my family in New York City or California because obviously we don’t get to do that often either, but no true vacations. We’re kind of joking that France, we’re flying into Paris [before Prague], and we haven’t even taken a honeymoon yet. It’s kind of like our honeymoon.
FS: What are your plans for after this season?
CG: I know for a fact Brian wants to keep racing. I know he has no question in his mind, he’s having a great time, it’s sustainable, he feels like he’s progressing in so many ways and I’ve kind of gone back and forth. I’d love to keep racing. I think it would be awesome, and there’s obviously a whole slew of different races you can do. There’s all of these local citizens’ races and also marathon races in the U.S. that we think can really garner some more excitement and attention on a higher [level]. I mean the Birkie’s a big deal and all the other marathons are big deal, but even more so. And then there’s marathon races over in Europe, which we think would be just a blast. You get to travel the world racing in these long-distance, some of them are classic so I’d have to work on that, but skate races. That couldn’t be more fun. We totally want to have kids someday, and we joke all the time that we’re pretty creative, when it comes to living. We have a $10,000-dollar house and a free hut that we got off of a mountain in Washington … You can basically make anything work if you’re willing to bend your expectations, and have a good perspective of it. We’re staying at a Craigslist condo [in Midway] that’s kind of funky, but it’s super cheap and we’re like, ‘It’s perfect, it’s fine, it rocks.’ That’s kind of our outlook and so we’re willing to keep skiing in that realm.
“There’s marathon races over in Europe, which we think would be just a blast. You get to travel the world racing in these long-distance, some of them are classic so I’d have to work on that, but skate races.”
The more I work with these kids and I see sort of their passion and how excited they are, the more I realize that, gosh we really do know a lot about this sport and a lot about, especially Brian, the industry, training, racing, waxing, everything is just becoming more and more knowledge for us. The ideas of coaching at some point are definitely entering our minds. We’ve dabbled back and forth, we both have degrees in totally separate areas [Brian in business] but you kind of get to a point that’s like, this is pretty fun, and working with these kids and seeing that next generation get excited, this is more speaking now with the Loppet kids and other kids that we have in programs like CXC, that suddenly spurs this part of you. You’re kind of like, ‘I could get into this.’ I never would’ve thought that would be me. I remember in college saying, ‘Sten, I don’t want anything to do with coaching ever. I want to be done with my skiing and move on,’ and yeah, it totally changes after how many years I’ve been doing it. We’re definitely in skiing for a long time.
“I remember in college saying, ‘Sten, I don’t want anything to do with coaching ever. I want to be done with my skiing and move on,’ and yeah, it totally changes after how many years I’ve been doing it.”
FS: What about after your World Cup races — will you train with the U.S. Ski Team at its pre-Olympic camp in Seiser Alm, Italy?
CG: We were told to get a ticket home and if we need to make changes, we’ll just change that ticket. Basically we said, ‘If we make the team can we train and race? and they’re like, ‘Yeah. If you don’t, no’ (laughs). We understand from the perspective that their athletes are there and focusing and they want to not have extra bodies that they have to babysit in the pre-camp or Toblach.
That’s the one hard thing when you take years off you always get those phone calls that, ‘You’re on USADA [US Anti-Doping Agency], but seeing as how you’re not fast and not on the U.S. Ski Team, you don’t need to be on USADA anymore.’ … I don’t get all the invitations to the training camps and the girls training camp; they’ve invited me year’s past, but I couldn’t afford to go … so then you slowly don’t get invited to those camps anymore. Finally this year I didn’t get the Olympic registration form back in August. October came around and Brian’s like, ‘You’re skiing well, probably should register for those Olympics because if you don’t, you can’t go.’ It had to be in by the next day or something so I called up [U.S. Nordic Program Manager] Joey [Caterinichio] and I got that done. You have to be on your stuff. I got on USADA right then. Test me all you want.
The best part, too, is Brian’s family coming on the road with us. It’s hilarious. They’re pretty awesome in-laws. I lucked out. My husband’s sweet, my in-laws are even sweeter.