Editor’s Note: The following interview with 19-year-old Austin Huneck gives a glimpse of what it’s like to be a postgraduate skier and make the transition to full-time training and racing after high school. Have a suggestion for an interesting subject for a similar “Faces and Places” series (could be a junior, postgrad or senior skier from any nation)? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
As a Shenendehowa high-school student in Clifton Park, N.Y., Austin Huneck represented Mid-Atlantic twice at junior nationals. In 2013, he was the New York State distance champion. As his graduation date neared, Huneck, who recently turned 19, enrolled in the Maine Winter Sports Center (MWSC) postgraduate program to focus on skiing before college.
“Austin has been an excellent addition to our program,” MWSC Competitive Programs Director Will Sweetser, wrote in an email. “A real head down, quiet, lead by doing kind of athlete.”
Sweetser explained that Huneck joined the MWSC late last summer “a bit behind our first year U18s. That changed quickly,” he wrote. “By race season, he was helping to push the group along. The early season trip to Finland was a real eye opener for him, and he used the experience to boost his training during race season. Kudos go to Seth Hubbard and the biathlon group who spent most of the time training with Austin since he lived with the crew in Fort Kent.”
Huneck described his trip to Finland last November as a season highlight. He and other MWSC athletes competed in the sprint and the 15 k classic race at Muonio.
According to Sweetser, postgraduate athletes “must show potential to qualify for USSA Junior Nationals or Biathlon World Youth Teams.” The program is limited to five athletes in each discipline — cross-country skiing and biathlon. Although MWSC focuses on Maine athletes, they consider athletes from other states. In an email, Sweetser wrote that more 60 percent of MWSC postgrads qualify for the New England Junior National team.
Postgrad skiers collaborate with MWSC coaches to develop their training programs. But MWSC doesn’t just ramp up high schoolers’ hours and send them out to ski. The postgrads also commit 50 hours a year to volunteer work and are required to take two college classes during their program.
Early last season, Huneck talked to FasterSkier about his experience in Finland and the transition from his home club, the Hudson United Race Team (HURT) in Albany, N.Y., to MWSC.
FS: How did the races go in Muonio?
AH: I [did the sprint] and the 15 k skate race. The 15 k result was a little bit better. The sprint didn’t go very well for me. In the distance race, since I didn’t have any FIS points going in …I started right at back of the junior boys. Then behind me were the men. On course, I got passed by some of the best skiers in the world.
FS: Were things different from what you expected over there?
AH: Sort of. I expected competition to be a lot tougher than it was. More competitive.
FS: What can you take away from the races over there to use for the rest of the season?
AH: Racing over there, and training over there was a really cool experience. I got to ski alongside some really great skiers. The races give me something more to compare to when I race back here in the U.S. There’s always that next level up from racing in New England and the United States.
FS: What made you decide to take a postgrad year?
AH: I knew I wanted to continue skiing after high school. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to go to college for, what I wanted to study. I figured that doing a postgraduate year at MWSC would give me an opportunity to better my skiing. Maybe when I go to college I’d have a good chance to ski for my college team. And also it gives me a whole year to think about what I want to study.
FS: Was MWSC the only program you looked at?
AH: For me, MWSC far and away the best choice. It’s a highly regarded program, and really good coaches. I didn’t really look at any other places.
FS: What was it like going from Team HURT to MWSC?
AH: HURT is pretty much the extent of skiing in NY for juniors and masters. It’s one of the biggest clubs in New York. MWSC is the biggest junior club in Maine. MWSC is pretty much close as it gets to a skiing lifestyle. The interest in New York is not there for cross-country skiing. The fields aren’t as deep in New York. There’s a lot more interest in skiing at MWSC. They also have better coaching at MWSC. David Paarlberg-Kvam of Team HURT does a phenomenal job of coaching, he does all he can. But MWSC has that extra something.
FS: Did you have a big increase in hours?
AH: It was a big jump. Last year, I trained a little under 400 hours. This year, I plan to be a little over 500. It’s a big jump, but I’m handling it pretty well.
FS: Where do you live?
AS: I live in Fort Kent, Maine. We have a house for the athletes [at MWSC]. It’s mostly biathletes. I don’t do biathlon but I do live in the house. There’s six of us. We all have our own room.
FS: What’s your day like?
AH: We go rollerskiing or running around 8 a.m. … The middle of the day, we have free time. Then we have a second practice session at 3:30.
FS: What sort of community service are you working on?
AH: One of the things we do is help out with the development part of the MWSC program, which brings young kids out to have fun, play games and learn what skiing and biathlon are all about. Also, once a month each of the athletes goes into a different elementary school in the surrounding areas to give a presentation and talk to kids about different things such as, what we do at MWSC and what skiing is, healthy living, healthy eating, and so forth.
FS: What advice would you give to juniors about a postgrad year?
AH: I think it’s a great idea. Doing a postgraduate year anywhere would put you in good position for college the next year. The level I was at last year, where I could go to a college with a good ski team, maybe I wouldn’t quite be on that team. But after doing a postgraduate year, hopefully I’ll be in a better position for when I go to college, to be on that ski team.
In early April, we followed up with Huneck to find out how his season turned out.
FS: How did the rest of your season go?
AH: Overall I think I had a good season. I put in a lot of hard work into this year, and produced my best results because of it. I am happy with how everything is going and will return to ski with the Maine Winter Sports Center next year.
Junior Nationals went well. (A U20 skier, Huneck placed 18th in the 15 k freestyle and 12th in the 10 k classic in the national championships in Stowe, Vt., a set of races he made his primary goal for the season.) I had a couple decent races, but they weren’t quite what I was hoping for. I went in with a goal of a top-10 finish, and ended up just outside the top 10 each race. It was a good week however, great skiing and beautiful weather and many of my teammates had great races and New England was able to win the Alaska Cup fairly handily.
FS: What are you planning for the summer and next season?
AH: This spring, I’m heading home to New York from mid-April to the end of May to spend time with my family. I will return to northern Maine in early June to train with my teammates for the better part of the summer. For the 2014/2015 ski season, I hope to continue to improve and produce good results at Nationals in Houghton, Michigan, and at Junior Nationals in Truckee, California. And I will stick with MWSC for the upcoming season.
FS: What are your summer training goals or focuses?
AH: Over the summer, my main goal is a lot of volume. In skate, I want to improve my V1 technique. In classic, I want to improve my double pole. And I’ll be working part-time to defray some of my expenses.
We also asked Sweetser about Huneck’s progress:
“I can’t wait to see what he’ll do this year with a full summer in our program,” Sweetser wrote. “He will be based in Presque Isle with a new crew of PGs. Most of his morning training will be with Welly Ramsey. The two are a great fit, as Welly is the last guy we had through the program who showed such a meteoric rise in potential.”