VAIL — Vail native Sylvan Ellefson graduated from college in 2009 as an All-American Nordic skier, but making it to the top level — the World Cup or even the Olympics — still seemed like a far-off dream.
Encouraged by family, friends and coaches, Ellefson stuck with it, taking his training to the next level. He felt that his father, Lyndon, a pioneering mountain trail runner who died in 1998, when Sylvan was 11, would not have wanted him to give up.
“My dad is pretty much the reason I still compete in sport at this level, because I know it’s something he loved to do and would have wanted me to continue to do,” said Ellefson, 26. “It’s also my mom that’s given me the support to keep going, but I guess I want to finish the business he couldn’t.”
Ellefson chipped away at his goals, reaching one and setting another. He competed for several years in national races with improving results. Top 10s. Podiums. Last year, he made it to World Cup events, traveling across Europe and North America, competing in front of thousands.
Now, the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, are within his grasp. But competing at the pinnacle of his sport this February is no lock. The next four months of competition at national-level races in West Yellowstone and Bozeman, Mont., and British Columbia in Canada, will determine whether he will earn a spot in the Olympics.
World Cup experience
Ellefson sets three types of goals as an Nordic skier — goals that are well within reach, goals that are achievable but will take some work, and goals that are truly seem unreachable.
Until a few years ago, the Olympics were in the third category. However, 2011-12 was a breakout season as a pro for Ellefson. He dominated the U.S. Super Tour, the top national race circuit, landing on podium after podium. Those results bumped him up to the World Cup, despite not having a coveted spot on the U.S. Ski Team. He competed in the World Cup from February to December of last year, in places like Russia, the Czech Republic, Poland, Finland, Norway and Sweden.
“It’s super exciting,” Ellefson said. “It’s so much fun. It’s definitely something you have to get used to, though. Every week you’re racing Saturday and Sunday and you’re traveling between 300 miles and 2,000 miles.”
Adjusting to the whirlwind of the World Cup circuit, Ellefson struggled in the races. The level of competition and the amount of travel brought new challenges. He finished in the 50s — results that weren’t good enough to keep him on the World Cup — and he returned to racing at lower-level national competitions.
“I think being out of World Cup for almost a year now is actually good for me,” Ellefson said. “It made me realize how badly I want to get back to that level.”
A special athlete
Dan Weiland, who has known Ellefson since he was 11 and coached him since he was 15, quickly recognized him as a gifted athlete — the type that comes around every 10 years or so. Ellefson excelled on Vail Mountain School’s soccer team and won Skimeister — an award given to the best combination alpine and Nordic skier in the state — when he was a sophomore. He hadn’t even started Nordic racing until earlier that year, and quickly transitioned from alpine — which he had competed in as part of Ski Club Vail since he was in sixth grade — to a full-time Nordic racer.
“He’s one of those kids blessed with some God-given talent,” Weiland said. “He’s one of those kids who can do any sport well right from the get-go.”
Growing up in the valley as a talented athlete in his own right, Weiland remembers competing against Lyndon Ellefson, who died in 1998 after falling into a crevasse in the Italian Alps while training for the Skyrunning World Championships. Racing in a 5K in Avon when he was a young athlete, Weiland recalls thinking he could “smoke that old guy.” Ellefson ended up cruising past him in the home stretch to win the race.
“Don’t worry, kid, you’ve got a few more years to develop your skills,” Weiland recalls him saying.
“I never beat him, but those things that I saw in him — while he was winning he was also encouraging — Sylvan has those traits from his father,” Weiland said. “He wins very often, and he’s very modest about it. It’s the best quality to have as an endurance athlete — confident but not cocky. He is friends with everybody, and that’s exactly how his dad was. His dad’s legacy lives on through Sylvan and through (Sylvan’s younger brother) Kjell.”
Kjell Ellefson is a pro big-mountain and slopestyle telemark skier. Growing up in ski-centric Vail with parents who worked on the mountain and were passionate about skiing, the sport — whether alpine, telemark or Nordic — became a natural path for Sylvan and him. Kjell also sees Sylvan and himself as carrying on their dad’s legacy by being mountain athletes competing at the highest level.
“Especially when you talk to our dad’s friends that still live in Vail and still keep up with the family,” Kjell Ellefson said. “They’re constantly saying, ‘Your dad would be so proud of you guys.’”
Andy Newell, of Shaftsbury, Vt., is a two-time Olympian whose 16th-place finish in the men’s sprint in the 2006 Torino Games was the best U.S. showing ever in that event. He noted that Ellefson is not part of the U.S. Ski Team, yet still has a great shot at competing in the Olympics.
“It’s cool to have that side of the sport,” Newell said. “That’s an example of how skiing has grown in the U.S. Maybe 10 or 15 years ago it wasn’t possible to be a professional skier and not be a part of the U.S. Ski Team.”
Not being part of the U.S. Ski Team means Ellefson must fund himself with his own money and sponsors. He works part-time as a property manager, and has many local sponsors, from Ski and Snowboard Club Vail to the Vail Valley Foundation to smaller operations such as the Westside Cafe and Pedal Power.
Ellefson said he has been blown away by the support he receives in his hometown, and that’s why he continues to live and train here. He moved back to Vail in 2009 after graduating from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, where he was a two-time All-American.
“I came home and it wasn’t like I was forgotten at all,” Ellefson said. “People still embraced the fact that I was this great Nordic skier from high school and went to college and had some good results, and that I was going to try to make it as a pro Nordic skier and trying to make the Olympics in 2014. So it really meant a lot to me to come back to Vail and have that same support group when I left. To be able to train and compete in the place where you just have everyone rooting for you, it’s really just a good, positive experience that really helps.”
A huge part of Ellefson’s support system is his wife, Sarah. They met as college Nordic skiers and were married last year at Piney Lake. Ellefson trains with Weiland and Eric Pepper, another local coach, as part of Vail-based Team Homegrown, Ski and Snowboard Club Vail’s elite-level club. Other Olympic hopefuls that train with them include Noah Hoffman and Simi Hamilton, both of Aspen.
Weiland describes Ellefson as an all-arounder who can compete well in sprints and distances races, both classic and skate. Around eight skiers are expected to be named to the Olympics for cross-country skiing. If he races like he did two years ago, consistently landing on the podium, Ellefson thinks he’ll have a great chance of making it to Sochi. His summer training went well, focusing on a mix of roller skiing, trail running, “bounding” — cardio exercising that mimic skiing motions, and weight training.
“As much as I’m excited to race for my country, I’m really excited to race for my hometown of Vail,” Ellefson said. “Because this is where I grew up, it’s where I learned how to ski, it’s where I transformed from an alpine skier to a Nordic skier. The actual town of Vail and the community have supported me so much growing up, it’s one of those things where I’d like to give back by going to the Olympics. I know I’m not expected to go, but it’s definitely something I’ve always wanted to do. It’d be a treat to go.”