Cloud City sensations: Leadville locals Nina Schamberger and Rose Horning are set to compete at the FIS Nordic Junior World Ski Championships
Two skiers are sending a notorious boom-or-bust mining town into a California Gulch-sized Nordic ski gold rush.
Before they were knocking on the door of the World Cup, Rose Horning and Nina Schamberger were knocking on each other’s doors on a quiet street in America’s highest city.
“We would always be up to no good in the winter, running around, dragging the sled to the ice skating rink,” Schamberger said. “We did a lot of skiing together.”
“We were best friends when we were little and in the past few years, we’ve gotten pretty close again,” added Horning.
It’s a friendship that has been rekindled by regional and national team development camps and — increasingly — international opportunities. From Jan. 28-Feb. 4, the pair will compete at the FIS Nordic World Junior Ski Championships in Whistler, Canada. SSCV alumna Haley Brewster, now competing for the University of Vermont, is also on the team. For all intents and purposes, the U20 stage is the U.S. Ski Team pipeline’s precursor to the big show.
“I mean, it’s like a huge step for me in terms of my future ski career,” Horning said.
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Though Horning and Schamberger now represent Ski and Snowboard Club Vail and Team Summit Nordic, respectively, their ski stories started in and are still tied to America’s highest city.
“It’s really cool to see two girls from Leadville being able to do something like that even if we’re on different teams,” said Nina, who, like Rose, slapped on skis at Dutch Henry in the local Bill Koch League before most kids learn to write their name.
Schamberger has been eating NCAA D1 skiers and World Cup starters for breakfast practically ever since. The 17-year-old ordered from a familiar menu at the U.S. senior nationals in Houghton, Michigan, three weeks ago, earning her second career world junior team nod with a ninth-place finish in the senior 10-kilometer freestyle. Horning’s scintillating third-place finish in the junior mass start classic later in the week garnered three international team selections — the U18 Nations Cup races in Jyvaskyla, Laajavuori (Finland), the 2024 Youth Olympic Games team in Gangwon, South Korea, and world juniors.
In a sport demanding a seemingly paradoxical blend of aerobic endurance and anaerobic power, two physiological traits usually unique to mature, well-trained bodies, the pairs’ youthful meteoric rise is rare. Their home — somewhere not in the Nordic hotbeds of Alaska or New England and 2 miles above the ocean to boot — is a notably unconventional local angle.
“Many people are worried about high altitude versus low altitude and we now have two girls from Leadville qualifying for junior worlds at a sea-level arena,” said Olof Hedberg, Schamberger’s Team Summit Nordic coach since he arrived in 2014 after a Swedish professional skiing career. “Clearly with the right coaching and program, you can develop skiers that can perform at sea level even though they are at high altitude. They’re showcasing these things that many people before maybe used as an excuse.”
“For Nina it’s easy — my job is to hold her back,” Hedberg said regarding his intrinsically motivated prodigy.
But a PistenBully of talent alone can’t groom a stable classic track to the World Cup. Schamberger was gifted great genes and a love of skiing from her Kansas City-born, Leadville 100-finishing parents and is familiar with dusting the competition, but the laundry list of lopsided wins paints a deceiving visual.
“People think it’s easy once you’re good,” Hedberg said. “Skiing is such a motorically complex sport. There’s always things to work on.”
Schamberger attacks each ski economy element — keeping her shoulders down, not sacrificing frequency for force, and uphill sprinting — with the standard seriousness she addresses any passion.
“I’ve always been very intense with whatever I do,” she said. “When I decide that I really want to do something, then I just go for it.”
The Summit High senior’s superior cardiovascular strength is the result of hundreds of mitochondria-multiplying miles accumulated in the oxygen-deprived trails of Tennessee Pass Nordic Center, located near her family’s home. Years of stoic discipline also honed her greatest asset: mental toughness.
“I’m definitely still figuring out who I am as a skier, but I’d say for the most part, one of my biggest strengths is being able to push myself,” she said. “When the conditions get really hard, I don’t really care so much or get bothered as much as I see other people.”
She views herself as a well-rounded skier who “takes opportunities given to her,” has improved in tactics and learned to resist her natural urge to hammer from the gun. She doesn’t specialize in a discipline, but her best finishes have come in distance freestyle events, like the mind-blowing fifth-place in the 10-kilometer skate at the Sun Valley stop of the U.S. Super Tour — the professional circuit used by domestic American stars to earn World Cup starts — earlier this year. While Lake County’s capillary-expanding gradual grades have equipped her with the aerobic engine equivalent to a Toyota Tacoma 3.5 Liter V6, Hedberg knows that to be successful on the international stage, she’ll need to add a turbocharger: the “Klaebo.”
“That’s been a huge focus since last fall and we’ve seen enormous improvements,” the coach said of the hyper-dynamic uphill running sub-technique perfected by history’s most dominant skier, Johannes Klaebo (59 World Cup wins in 114 starts). In today’s era, the 26-year-old Norwegian’s innovation is a prerequisite for classic sprinting relevancy, and Schamberger’s self-sufficiency in chiseling out its intricate technical components reveals a cornerstone aspect of her athletic ethos.
“I’ve never seen a girl do so much technique improvements with so little hand-holding,” Hedberg said. “It really speaks to how she’s improved as an athlete; how she can go out and make those adjustments by herself. Those things are not easy.”
While the natural erythropoietin stimulus provided by altitude training is a fitness-building advantage, Hedberg’s intentionality in designing a training program inclusive of top-end speed development is paramount to Schamberger’s development. Replicating the increased cycle length and glide time inherent to high-speed skiing at sea-level, moisture-rich Midwest and New England courses has required deliberate, but necessary strategies from both Summit and SSCV coaches. Hedberg combats Colorado’s dry, slow snow and higher elevation with carefully selected terrain across drills and point-to-point net downhill intervals. He increases rest periods between hard speeds, often conducted on slight downhills.
“We put a lot of focus on getting enough speed and that’s one of the big challenges being up here,” said Hedberg, who also bolsters his athletes’ fast-twitch neuromuscular firings through high-RPM cycling in the summer.
“It’s not that hard to create fit athletes at this altitude if the athletes want to put in the work.”
Schamberger has never been short on desire — though a lot has changed since her very first race.
“I remember face-planting right before the finish line, getting back up, and then deciding I didn’t like how my pole straps were fitting. And so then I stopped again, seconds away from finishing, to try and adjust that,” she recalled of the elementary school memory. Her competitive metamorphosis was complete when she started charting Olympic goals at 12.
“I do remember one specific workout where I decided, like, I want to be one of the best in the world,” she reflected.
While embarking on a series of uphill-only rollerski intervals with the team van shuttling breathless athletes to the mountain’s base after each repetition, the middle schooler pushed her internal envelope.
“It was very painful, really hard, but I just remember thinking, ‘Man, this is so much fun … I want this to be my job. I want to be one of the best people that can do this,'” Schamberger said. “And that’s kind of when I really decided to start setting some bigger goals.”
Short-term, that looks like a top-10 in Whistler, something Hedberg agrees is a very real possibility, especially in the 10-kilometer individual freestyle on Feb. 2. Longer term, Schamberger hopes for continual improvements at international U20 events. Next fall, she’ll embark on her collegiate career under Miles Havlick at the University of Utah, a team blessed with two Olympians (Sophia Laukli and Novie McCabe) on its current roster.
The clarity sung by Schamberger’s passionate ski soul is undergirded by a chord structure of stepwise objectives and grounded by a tonic of seriousness. Horning’s melody is a little trickier to pinpoint. The high school junior’s report card looks type-A, but her moment-by-moment, jovial demeanor in training and racing suggests something else.
“I think the feeling of happy-go-lucky comes out partially because she sort of ‘fell’ into this cycle of high-end skiing opportunities out of (somewhat) nowhere,” stated SSCV coach Lenka Sterling in an email.
If Horning has long-term goals — she says she doesn’t right now — they’re shielded by a bright smile and, when verbalized, constantly interrupted by giggles. She doesn’t feel she’s had a single breakout performance, but rather, an illuminating race or two every season, even dating back to seventh grade. In those days, her mom, Christine, drove the Cloud City club team — her and her sister, Adele — to Junior National Qualifiers across the Rocky Mountain region. They’re memories all three Hornings cherish.
“I feel like she contributed in every piece,” Horning said of her mom, a former All-American skier at Dartmouth. “The fun of skiing came from her, the beginnings of getting competitive. She was the first person to bring me to a race. She’s been there every step of the way.”
Karl Remsen, the head coach at Lake County High School, introduced Rose to the idea of a training plan.
“He taught me all about the basics,” she said.
After finding herself on club event podiums with SSCV athletes Cassidy Wright and Lucy Perkins time and time again, she finally joined the Vail club last year, but still practices with her Lake County teammates two or three times per week. “I really enjoy training with both teams. I think a big part of that is I have friends on both teams,” Horning said.
At SSCV, Dan Weiland, Pepper and Sterling dialed in Horning’s technique. They also opened doors, like last year’s U18 Nations Cup — a Norwegian trip eventually canceled because of COVID-19 — and various fall and summer development camps.
“Sometimes an individual goes to those camps and they just come back a little different,” Pepper said.
“The exposure to other fast racers that have similar interests to them and are involved in similar pursuits can be super positive.”
Horning developed relationships with national coaches and competitors while at a U.S. Ski Team camp in Whistler last summer. In vintage Rose fashion, the 16-year-old didn’t expect to return to Canada for the world junior championships when she was there, and she didn’t know what was required of her to qualify when she toed the line in Michigan three weeks ago.
“She isn’t someone who needs that carrot out front or that extrinsic reward,” Pepper said, explaining that withholding the qualifying standards from Horning before the 10-kilometer classic was a conscience decision by all three coaches.
“Either way she was just going to go hammer so why complicate things for her.”
Carrying the torch
Spurred on by Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall winning the nation’s first Olympic gold medal in 2018, the U.S. team’s breakthrough junior performances — including back-to-back boys 4×10-kilometer relay golds and Gus Schumacher’s individual gold in 2020 — have trickled belief down to the current crop.
“It’s pretty inspiring to see what the U.S. has done at this event in the past,” Horning said.
“Because we see kind of how these people have come from the same place and background as you and they’re managing to be really successful,” added Schamberger, who placed 31st and 41st in the individual races and fifth in the relay at the 2022 championships in Lygna, Norway. The Summit High School senior said she was “actually pretty underwhelmed” with those performances.
“They weren’t terrible races by any means, but they did leave me hungry and wanting more because I knew I could do better than that.”
Given her driven personality, it might come as a bit of a shock to know those races didn’t pry her out of bed to sharpen rollerski tips all summer.
“I didn’t really think too much about getting my second chance and ‘going back to junior worlds.’ It is a big deal, but at the end of the day, they’re just more races. They’re never going to be your last.”
Last spring, the burnout Schamberger felt from being “laser-focused on skiing for so many years” redirected her to spend the summer riding for the U.S. development mountain bike team.
“It was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done,” she said. At her first race, her name was the last one read off for call-ups. Racing from the back with no expectations provided a breath of fresh air.
“It was life-changing; it really helped bring back a lot of joy in sports and I’ve just never had so much fun,” Schamberger said. “I’m realizing that I will always care about results, it’s impossible not to. But it’s not the only thing to focus on, which has really helped me to be happier when I’m racing.”
Christine Horning said Rose has always maintained an even-keel disposition. “She lets things roll off of her,” she said. “She doesn’t hold onto things. After a bad race — even after a good race — the next day at practice, she’s like, ‘OK, what are we doing.’”
“I think throughout my skiing background, (I’m) more just like, ‘let’s see what happens.’ Until the past few years, I hadn’t really fully committed to Nordic skiing,” Rose added. “I always knew I loved it and had a passion for it, but I guess, (I’ve been) just more developing … not like stuck in it.”
Horning eschews a monastic approach to sport, opting for a wide range of activities from Alpine skiing to mountain biking to piano lessons. In fact, her mom said the hardest part of competing in Whistler will be that Rose can’t balance out her day by helping her little brothers get ready for the day. She’s not assigning any ambitious outcome goals for the week.
“I just don’t know what to expect and I’ve never competed at this level before,” she said. “So, I’m going into it with not many goals, not very much pressure, which I think is a nice place to be … just like, I’m going to go see what I can do, have some fun.”
Mining for their moment
The junior worlds qualification has been shared with, caused by and inspiring for both girls’ programs. Horning found out she’d made the team riding in the SSCV van with her friends, all of whom went crazy.
“I feel it is huge for the other kids,” said Sterling, who was back at home watching over the local flock while Pepper was in Michigan. “For those who have some high goals, having a teammate who trains with you qualify can be very motivating because you can see that it isn’t a rocket science … it is mostly a lot of hard work, and some talent and bit of luck on the side.”
“Rose and Adele have been good influences on our program,” added Pepper. “The whole thing of training for and competing in endurance sports is something you can tell they really value. The examples they set in this realm are really good for others to see and I hope that it is a source of motivation.”
Though she was concussed from a vicious fall in the 20k mass start in Houghton when she found out Horning had qualified for worlds, Schamberger sent a congratulatory text. Horning has inquired of some advice from her “veteran” friend when it comes to the trip’s logistical decisions.
“I’m really excited Nina’s going,” Horning said.
On the course, Schamberger’s words of wisdom are to not stray too far from the game plan.
“It’s just like any other race you’ve done, just with more people, so just do what you know what to do,” Shamberger said.
“What they know how to do” is perhaps a long-distance instinct predicated on their upbringing in Leadville, where endurance fanaticism is practically hardwired into the people living in its colorful, eclectic homes.
“Overall, I feel like there’s a lot of support throughout Leadville, just as an athlete,” said Horning. “Everyone is excited and interested. Leadville has a lot of spirit in my opinion.”
“Leadville kids are maybe built a little different, they go hard and they aren’t afraid of it,” Sterling said.
“It may not always look pretty,” she continued, almost inadvertently wrapping in a metaphoric reference to the motley mining town itself before concluding with a promising comparison — or maybe even prognostication.
“But Jessie Diggins started her journey in a similar fashion.”
- Samantha Smith – Sun Valley, ID; Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation/U.S. Cross Country Ski Team
- Nina Schamberger – Leadville, CO; Summit Nordic Ski Club
- Haley Brewster – Avon, CO; University of Vermont
- Ava Thurston – Waterbury, VT; Dartmouth College
- Rose Horning – Leadville, CO; Ski & Snowboard Club Vail
- Hattie Barker – Underhill, VT; University of New Hampshire
- Adrik Kraftson – Minneapolis, MN; Northern Michigan University
- Anders Weiss – Aspen, CO; Montana State University
- Max Kluck – Butte, Montana; Bridger Ski Foundation
- Jack Lange – Putney, VT; Dartmouth College
- Jack Conde – Bend, Oregon; Montana State University
- Luka Riley – Boulder, CO; University of Colorado
- Sophia Laukli – Yarmouth, ME; University of Utah/U.S. Cross Country Ski Team
- Novie McCabe – Winthrop, WA; University of Utah/U.S. Cross Country Ski Team
- Sydney Palmer-Leger – Park City, UT; University of Utah/U.S. Cross Country Ski Team
- Anabel Needham – Houghton, MI; Michigan Tech University
- Kate Oldham – Aspen, CO; Montana State University
- JC Schoonmaker – Tahoe City, CA; Sugar Bowl Academy/U.S. Cross Country Ski Team
- Gus Schumacher – Anchorage, AK; Alaska Winter Stars/U.S. Cross Country Ski Team
- Luke Jager – Anchorage, AK; University of Utah/U.S. Cross Country Ski Team
- Zanden McMullen – Anchorage, AK; APU Nordic Ski Center/U.S. Cross Country Ski Team
- John Steel Hagenbuch – Ketchum, ID; Dartmouth College/U.S. Cross Country Ski Team