Inside the skiing pipeline: The trail to gold
The U.S. cross-country team’s collaborative culture shows what’s possible when we work together
It’s a cloudy Saturday — Jan. 26, 2019 – in Lahti, Finland. Johnny Hagenbuch, the third leg for the U.S. in the U20 4×5-kilometer relay at the Junior World Championship, just tagged off to Gus Schumacher in third place, two seconds out of first. Germany’s skier attacks an early hill, but the young Alaskan, who would become the first American individual junior gold medalist 13 months later in the 10-kilometer classic, one-skates the incline to cover. The live feed cuts back to the stadium, where Schumacher’s teammates are yelling.
“Team U.S. is cheering,” Fasterskier’s Gavin Kentch reported the announcer proclaiming to the U.S. fans across the Atlantic, the dedicated few willing to watch at midnight. “But I have to say that Team U.S. is always cheering.”
Meanwhile, Kentch also notes that members of the U.S. Ski Team — including Olympic gold medalist Jessie Diggins — are assembled for a watch party before their Ulricehamn World Cup freestyle races go down later in the day.
Germany leads the U.S. at the top of the penultimate hill. At the bottom, it’s reversed.
“And look at Shumacher bouncing! Schumacher is bouncing like a maniac!” the Finnish broadcaster exclaims as the 18-year-old dynamically hopskates into the lead.
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Awaiting the arrival of their comrade, Ben Odgen jumps in the air and Luke Jager yells. Both had raced to silver in Goms, Switzerland, in 2018 — as had Schumacher. This time they snagged gold. Upon crossing the line, Schumacher was buried in a celebratory dogpile.
“I look at the picture from that day of the four guys holding their medals, and I hope that in eight years, we look back on this photo and say, ‘gosh that was really special because it was the start of something,’” said Greta Anderson, U.S. Ski Team development coach, in a recent phone call.
Anderson has been in the development trenches for awhile — first as a coach at Steamboat Winter Sports Club before landing her current role on the U.S. Ski Team. She’s seen the “snowball effect” in U.S. cross-country skiing gain momentum.
“Five years ago we were showing up at championship events and we were hoping to do well,” she said.
“Now, we know that if you qualify for one of our junior teams, you probably have a pretty good shot at a top result, because our level for juniors is getting higher and higher and higher … Which tells me that on an international level, our development scale that we’ve come up with is working.”
Contrary to the Alpine side, where national team standards were arbitrarily raised, consequently discouraging the community at large, in Nordic, athletes themselves have forced a tightening of the criteria.
“Our athletes are getting better,” Anderson explained. “It’s probably one of the best problems you can have.”
With the four horsemen from 2019 walking off into the World Cup and Olympic sunset, a whole new bunch earned bronze at the team relay in 2022.
“So these new four guys, they show up, they’re expecting to do well, they know it can happen because they’ve seen teammates and guys they look up to make it happen fairly recently, and they essentially have a ton of success at their second major start,” Anderson said of the recent relay crop.
While cross-country isn’t immune to the challenges facing any other sport under the U.S. Ski Team umbrella, Chris Grover and Matt Whitcomb’s stable Nordic staff has bucked the trend of living and dying by star performers and found a way to establish a rich, collaborative culture and a growth-mindset within its team.
The result of fostering an athlete-first environment has slowly but steadily led to breakthrough performances, and the growing inspired cross-country community seems poised to continue the trend of international relevance.
“The future of skiing is bright,” Anderson stated.
“It’s a time of a lot of progress in our sport. It’s not perfect, but we have a really growth-oriented team. We have a team that believes it can be the best in the world and that is willing to keep trying things and being creative until we get there.”
Pathway, not pipeline
“I’m not a big fan of the term pipeline,” said Bryan Fish, cross-country sport development manager. “We like to use the term ‘pathway.’ There’s not one single path, but there’s a number of opportunities.”
Fish participated in two events at the 1997 NCAA championships for the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay before coaching the Phoenix from 1998-2006. He joined Central Cross-Country Ski Association as an elite coach in 2006, where he mentored a two-time World Championships and one-time Olympic qualifier as well as six World Cup skiers. In 2007, he was USSA’s development coach of the year and the U.S. Ski and Snowboard cross-country domestic coach of the year. He’s been the U.S. Ski Team cross-country sport development director since 2018.
The preferred nomenclature accurately represents the cross-country staff’s approach: developing athletes by — and it might seem obvious — putting athletes’ needs first.
“The goals are like, ‘how do we approach this in a method that works really well. How do we meet our athletes’ needs?’” Anderson rhetorically asked. “We’re looking for putting our athletes in a place where they can perform.”
The Lindsey Vonns and Mikaela Shiffrins — teenage prodigies ready to kick butt and take names — aren’t the source of any of the cross-country team’s international medals, which came together the old fashioned way: with patience.
More than any other sector within the U.S. Ski Team, true development — even through an athletes’ 30s — has been the prerequisite for bringing home any global medals at all. It’s partly the nature of endurance sport — where athletes peak later in life — but mostly the fruit of grounded principles, coaching continuity, and a culture of collaboration. And of course, belief.
“I would like to think that everything we’ve seen in the last 10-15 years is primarily forward,” said Fish.
“Clearly with that there’s a lot of challenges, and what we need to do is evaluate every year. But generally speaking, what I witness is just a stronger, more collaborative community. I think if there’s anything that I could really say is that there’s belief. There’s a culture of belief and a culture of team that is authentic.”
Today’s skiers rest on the proverbial shoulders of giants — the groundwork of Kris Freeman, Andy Newell and Simi Hamilton on the men’s side and breakthrough performances by Kikkan Randall and Jessie Diggins on the women’s side.
“They came before us and showed us that indeed an American skier can not only be on the podium, but they can win globes,” said Fish.
Diggins was part of the historic 2018 Olympic sprint relay gold medal with Randall, and then did something else no American had done in 2021 by winning the overall crystal globe. She placed second in 2022. The success of the junior relay team, however, provides perhaps a fuller representation of the development discussion at hand.
Prior to Ogden, Hagenbuch, Schumacher and Jager’s successes, the candy cane spandex skiers showed up at international trips humbly hoping for a positive experience.
“Now, what I witness from even our younger athletes — they believe they can be (there) and they’re making decisions (in kind) and those that choose to be at that level are making that happen,” said Fish.
“I hope that’s a tipping point where we see many ski racers gravitate towards the sport not just with the hope that they can do the same thing or better but with the expectation that it’s very possible,” added Anderson.
As athletes — not office-dwelling decision-makers — raise the criteria, and then meet the elevated bar where it’s at in larger numbers, money becomes an issue.
“So with better performances with a larger number of athletes, that’s a growing pain for us. One of the elements is to ensure we match the resources that athletes need.”
The National Nordic Foundation provides financial support to promising athletes in need. For Anderson, who scours high school race results and constantly communicates with club and high school coaches, keeping tabs on promising athletes and getting insight on ones who may have slipped through the cracks — or are surging up the ranks — money shouldn’t be a determining factor in anyone’s future.
“One of my goals as a development coach is, I don’t want any athletes that are showing commitment to the sport and a lot of high-level skill acquisition to have finances be a barrier,” she said.
Central beliefs anchoring a decentralized model
U.S. cross-country skiing’s decentralized model depends on local club coaches, those in the mentoring and training plan trenches. Developing race schedules and coaching proper double-pole technique, however, are just part of the equation.
“We try to work closely with the regions and club coaches and stay in touch with them,” said Anderson, who can glean anything from technique improvement to track times.
“You can tell when somebody can cross-country ski. We spend enough time with these athletes, we have enough coaches working with them, or we’ll see outstanding cross-country running results and we’ll say, ‘oh hey that kid skis for his high school team.’ If we have athletes that are doing well, we work with the resources they have to get them good skis.”
At international junior competitions, the U.S. is one of the only countries staffed almost entirely by local club coaches. It further promotes the culture of togetherness and fosters shared ideas, critical components in the U.S.’ creative approach to matching Scandinavian competitiveness on the world stage.
“I don’t think there’s a better way to share ideas and best practices and principles than when we work together on these trips,” said Fish.
“We’re not going to all agree on everything, but I do feel that more and more our community is rowing the boat in generally the same direction,” he continued, noting annual meetings between U.S. Ski Team staff and club coaches are organized to discuss upcoming seasons, schedules and athletes’ needs.
“We might be getting there in a slightly different way, but when it comes down to it, our goals and ideals are similar.”
Fish claims a shared “athlete-centered approach” is what anchors them, but explained the culture of collaboration as encompassing the major “strengths and weaknesses” of the system.
“When we totally disagree, we have those situations, but at the end of the day, it does take a team and it does take all parties kind of pushing in one direction,” he said.
“Can we do better? We need to continue to do better on that one. All parties from all sides. But I think we share a general philosophy — we want to be really good at the sport, we have ideas and we share those ideas.”
Fish points to the coaching curriculum, which he helped develop, as providing a unified language in terms of teaching technique and outlining proper physiological principles, and more importantly, laying the foundation of what it means to be a skier on the U.S. team. It contains, as Fish says, “common practices that we as a U.S. coaching community feel really strongly about.”
“That coaching education curriculum is really important when it comes back to the topic of ‘are we on the same page?’ It comes back to what are our goals and what are our general practices and principles,” he said.
“And I would say that yes, in general, we agree on those.”
The cultural cornerstones are just as important to raising up future generations of athletes who, unlike other nations, have to navigate spending five months on the road.
“We’re really trying to develop that culture of ‘this is how you travel,’ and having the appropriate level of steps and skills that athletes can thrive at,” said Fish.
The national team does organize regional development camps, national development camps, and international trips for many of its best athletes. There, the goal is to provide “motivating and stepwise opportunities” and “a chance to get together, develop as a team, and be motivated to make the choice of cross-country skiing,” according to Fish. The genesis of the U16 camp, in fact, was birthed from club coaches — not U.S. Ski and Snowboard — who wanted to guide athletes pressured to choose other sports toward cross-country skiing.
The “pathway of camp and international competition” is something Fish feels is a bright spot.
“If we can keep athletes closer on track at a younger age and it’s not such an onerous task in the future, I think it makes development a lot easier and makes for a lot happier athlete,” he said. “So, that’s really our intent.”
At regional camps, the best U16 and U18 athletes gather, not as some talent identification ritual, but rather in a way that “promotes talent,” as Fish likes to phrase it.
“It brings awareness to the things that they need to focus on as an athlete,” he said.
“The term ‘talent ID’ often comes up. I would challenge any coach in any sport if they’ve yet to come up with a great single test to identify talent,” he added posturing compelling evidence that an athlete’s decision to go ‘all-in’ on skiing – something immeasurable by any test – is the single most important factor for long-term success.
Skyrocketing international performance is one reason for celebration, and its sources are the other. Fish notes that athletes from a “broader scope of the country are qualifying for Junior Worlds or regional camps.”
“I would say that’s another testament to the curriculum but also more professionalism at the junior club-level coaching,” he said.
“We have more educated coaches and that’s creating more inter-region competition, which is raising the bar there and that’s also raising the bar for our whole nation when we go international. I think that all plays a part.”
Choosing your own path
One defining characteristic of the cross-country team’s athlete-centered approach is that there is not a one-size-fits-all method for international success.
“There’s not one single path, but there’s a number of opportunities,” said Fish. “We try to cast a wide net of communication to focus on what we do well, which is addressing what we need to improve.”
Whereas many sports have endured constant coaching turnover, the cross-country team has remained stable.
“Continuity is really important to us in terms of ideas, systematic changes, applying the methodology that we’ve learned, and probably more than anything building trust,” said Anderson. “We’re really clear as a team in emphasizing putting the athletes first.”
With athletes reaching their peak in their mid to late 20s, and, in the case of Rosie Brennan, sometimes the early to mid-30s, perhaps the most crucial element to athlete development is thinking long term.
“The challenge for us there is keeping it fun, keeping it progressive, making sure it’s meaningful for them so that they stay in the sport,” Anderson explained.
“I look at it and I think, ‘yeah we’re doing great and we’re improving every year,’ but the reality is those athletes need to be in the sport minimum four more years, but for the men especially, probably six to eight more years before we even see the top-end of what their potential is going to be,” she continued.
“If they don’t love the sport, if they’re not having fun, they’re not going to stay in the sport long enough to become the greatest in the world. So, there’s a lot of other components that are not just performance that need support so that they show up at the start line ready and having fun. I think we’re doing really well on that front.”
How do the coaches get along through a year on the road and an “off-season” packed with meetings and training camps?
“The thing that makes it work is that the goal is the same — ski racing fast, doing well as a country,” Anderson explained.
“And I think we’ve realized, (with) Nordic particularly, it’s such a long curve to become the best in the world, that you have to be happy and find meaning in it in order to stay in the sport long enough to really see your potential through. So there’s a lot of pieces there that we try to make sure we’re aware of and supporting.”
While both Fish and Anderson recognized that their focus is on developing elite athletes, they also acknowledged the importance of growing the participation pool at the high school, collegiate and master levels.
“A good pathway or pipeline needs to have a pretty strong and broad base,” Fish said.
“That’s something we want to build — a love of the sport and a love of being outdoors — for everyone,” said Anderson.
“The national team, we offer education and resources and information, but we’re probably not the source for growing the communal aspect of skiing. We rely really heavily on our coaches and programs all over the country for that,” Anderson added. “It’s a really incredible lifelong sport — it’s fun, it’s healthy, you can do it with your grandma and with your little kids.”
“In sport development there’s three measures: growth, retention, and performance,” said Fish, who hearkened back to that triumvirate of success as well as its comrades — “culture and collaboration” and “access and opportunity” — regularly throughout our 75-minute conversation.
As someone who coached club and collegiate teams, Fish understands the importance of a symbiotic relationship between public middle and high schools and ski clubs, as well as the furthering of the sport into the next level — college and beyond. It’s an arena he believes has room for potential growth.
“You’re probably hitting on our greatest opportunity,” he said of the public schools.
“Organizationally, we’re set up more to help those clubs that are producing national team-level athletes. We try to utilize our sport-education systems as a linkage or as an opportunity to reach out to more school-based (programs). But, I’ll be honest, the Olympic sport platform right now, there’s so much unfortunate scenarios and litigation, and justifiably — athlete safety is absolutely critical.”
With rising insurance costs forcing a surge in membership expenses, Fish sees the steps required for coaches — albeit “100% necessary” — as occasionally preventing school-based programs from getting off the ground.
“I don’t want to say it’s a barrier because it can’t be a barrier — that has to be something, that we must protect our children — but, it has added increased cost and increased steps to a lot of the volunteer coaches,” he stated.
“And, we want all those coaches trained, but I also fear that it’s making it more difficult to bridge the gap between USST and school-based programming, if that makes sense.”
Of course, in a perfect world, resources would be no object.
“I wish we had more money for development — I’ve basically focused my life for many years on cross-country development,” Fish summarized.
“This is the space I find really important that I really feel strong job satisfaction, but clearly I wish we had more resources to invest there. I don’t have all the answers there, but I wish I did.”
Fish added, “I think we’d be even stronger if we could figure out strategies to again, further collaborate down the pathway or pipeline to younger levels, to more broad and diverse groups, to even further connect our U.S. cross-country community.”
Closing: A ski team for the people, by the people
An energizing reality for passionate U.S. Ski Team fans is the dynamic role they can play in building and shaping the direction of the program whose stars wind up front and center every four years. The involvement is something Anderson encourages.
“We’re the U.S. Ski Team and so anybody who has questions, ideas, or wants to be involved on some level or is curious about something we’re doing, my door is always open,” she said. “I hope they’ll get in touch. We’re always happy to partner with people and collaborate. We seem to do better the more team-oriented we are.”
The chronological placement of Anderson’s interview for this series allowed the coach to size-up previous stories and integrate her experience and ideas into the myriad of issues and challenges raised. Her positive outlook breathes fresh air into a sometimes stuffy room.
Her quote — “While everyone can point to what they don’t have, that’s not a winning mindset or the messaging of a winning program anywhere,” — embodies her forward-thinking leadership. In peppering the coach with potential “rabbit-trail” questions, what was revealed inspired this writer and skier. She demonstrated a firm grasp not only on the respective regions her responsibilities encompass, but also intimate knowledge of individual athletes — their names, traits, strengths and weaknesses. Say what you want about any potential corruption and bureaucracy within the national team, but in speaking with both Fish and Anderson — and sitting in on talks from Matt Whitcomb or Chris Grover — I’m convinced in the direction and culture of the team to the degree that I’d sign up to be coached by them … even if it didn’t come with a Spyder — er, Kappa — jacket.
“It’s a really exciting time to be a U.S. ski racer,” Anderson commented, apparently sensing my sentiment.
“There’s never been a better time to be a junior in the U.S. or up-and-coming racer or somebody that’s involved in the sport in any capacity.”
Equipped with a knowledgeable grasp of U.S. Ski and Snowboard’s past, Anderson — who also competed at a high level — is able to empathize with both athletes and coaches.
“There may be some systematic failure in terms of development systems,” she said, referencing Dan Leever’s 2018 SnowBrains story mentioned in part seven of the series.
“Do I think they each took the sport as far as they could? Yes. Do I think the system and coaching they were in could have been better and provided more resources in hindsight, which is 20-20? Yes. Do I believe those coaches and teams and systems were doing the best they knew how to do at the time? Yes, 100%. And you know, we’re all learning to do better, we can all do better, we’re all doing better. Those are learning curves. They take time,” Anderson said.
The recycling of student-athletes becoming the new teachers was a pattern dissected in part three of the series, and it’s something Anderson has seen take place in the coaching world as former athletes dedicate themselves to the next generation.
“They’re committed to making betters ski racers than they ever were,” she said of retired World Cup athletes like Andy Newell at Bridger Ski Foundation. “And I think that speaks to our community and how much the people who are in racing in cross-country skiing in the United States love the sport and the pursuit of what they’re doing.”
If you’ve found your way to the end of this series, you’re likely one of those people. Unlike a helpless bystander reduced to Monday-morning quarterbacking, the leaders at the U.S. Ski Team rejoice when members of the ski community come alongside to help raise the bar.
“I’m trying to understand the business of skiing better,” said Anderson. “I’m open to working with anybody, hearing anybody’s story or ideas. Hearing if they’re interested in being involved as a sponsor or supporter.”
Another encouraging sign provided from the Nordic staff is the willingness to consistently revisit questions surrounding development.
“These are all questions that as coaches and for myself as development coach, these are things I look at and try to ask myself on an ongoing basis to make sure we’re keeping our eyes and ears open and we’re doing what’s best for the athletes and also what works for our system,” Anderson said upon receiving my rather large, interrogative email.
And, they aren’t going at it alone.
“We aren’t going into this team structuring and development blind,” Anderson stated. “We have a ton of experienced coaches in this country. We have people who understand high-level sport, high-level business. At the same time, if we aren’t making mistakes, we aren’t learning,” she continued, emphasizing the need for a growth mindset.
“If you don’t have a growth mindset, how are you supposed to grow? If you don’t have a growth mindset, you shouldn’t be in sport,” she said.
“So, to improve a system, I think the first step is to say, ‘Hey, here’s what we can do better next time,’ and also have the humility to recognize that something that’s good may never become great for that very reason. And so it’s really important that we look at, ‘OK, how do we do better next month, next year, next quad?’”
The at-large engagement is not only pivotal to the team’s success, but a reminder of what is a worthwhile and fulfilling calling — and the centerpiece of this series’ discussion, all the way from part one: The kids.
“It’s about the athletes and supporting their goals,” Fish emphasized.
“It’s not about the coaches or the clubs. How do we best support our kids? How do we best support our community so that this is a healthy, lifelong sport? Those are the things.”
He continued, emphasizing the importance of heroes, mentioning “athletes like Jessie Diggins that the kids can look up to and aspire and want to be. But at the end of the day, our success will be measured in growth in retention. We want our kids coming back, we want our adults coming back to the sport and continuing forward.”
“We’re doing awesome things with young people, they’re getting better every year, we’re supporting them, we’re open to continuing to do that,” Anderson concluded.
“That’s kind of my mission.”
Working together, thinking critically and connecting the areas where blindspots arise are what both coaches saw as being important.
“When we look at success and we look at challenges, as team U.S.A., it’s ‘we,’” Fish finished.
“We’re all a contributing part of this. And I hope that ‘we’ as a nation, as a cross-country ski community, can really be proud of the steps that we’ve taken. And our shortfalls, that we as a collaborative community can continue to work together to strengthen it.”