The Vail Trail
Julie Littman’s legs spin rapidly on the stationary bike, her warm-up exercise for the grueling workout session ahead: an hour’s worth of yoga, a 90-minute strength and conditioning workout and after that, an afternoon hike through September’s changing aspen leaves. There will be no pilates today, though. This is a light week, after all.
Julie Littman’s heavy workouts are strategic, a carefully planned preparation to help her meet her goal.
Littman knows it will take a lot of hard work to qualify for the U.S. Olympic ski team and compete in Torino, Italy this February.
“It has always been a dream of mine,” said the 21-year-old Ski and Snowboard Club Vail alumna. Littman put herself a little closer to that Olympic dream when she won a spot on the U.S. Ski Team last May.
In Littman’s quest for the Olympics, she is joined by six other locals: ski racers Lindsey Kildow and Sarah Schleper, freestyle skier Toby Dawson, freestyle snowboarder Clair Bidez, and alpine snowboarders Stacia Hookom and Eden Serina. While the first six are aiming for spots on the U.S. Team, Serina is aiming to represent the Philippine National Snowboard Team. Of those seven, Kildow, Schleper, and Dawson are expected shoo-ins.
To make the team, Littman will have to climb her way up from long-shot rookie to making it within one of the top six spots on her team in an event. It will take hard work for her to squeeze in college around the demanding yearlong schedule of the U.S. Ski Team: a semester at Middlebury here, summer classes at Dartmouth there. It will even take hard work to keep the bases waxed and the edges sharpened on the eight new pairs of skis Fischer Ski Company gave her for this season.
There are those who know Littman. They have watched her on the hill and trained with her in the gym. They have gone to her dry-land sessions and sat with her watching endless hours of herself on video. They know hard work is exactly what she is known for.
If Littman wants to look for advice on how to plan a dramatic rise to Olympic success, she should look no further than teammate and fellow Ski Club graduate, Lindsey Kildow.
In 2002, then-unknown Kildow went from the U.S. Ski Team’s B-team to becoming the best overall finisher among the U.S. women in alpine skiing at the Salt Lake City Olympics.
“I was the underdog for those Olympics,” said Kildow. “I pretty much was just winging it. I was just having fun.”
Flash forward four years. With the 2006 Torino Olympic games on the radar, Kildow is now the heir apparent to retired ski legend Picabo Street … far away from her original underdog status.
Is there room for a similar underdog story with Littman in 2006? Littman has her eyes on the combined specialty as the means to that end.
“She’s an interesting skier. Her best events are downhill and slalom,” said John Hale, her coach on the U.S. Ski Team, noting that those two events, which make up the combined, are on opposite ends of the racing spectrum.
The combined involves two heats: one downhill, one slalom. That unusual mix of skills may give underdogs an opportunity to break out. That’s how Kildow did it (with a sixth place finish) in the 2002 Olympics.
“Seeing Lindsey [Kildow] have such a quick rise to the occasion, it gave me a lot of confidence,” Littman said.
As soon as I could walk, my dad put skis on me,” said Littman.
Growing up in Boulder, Littman began to commute to Vail on weekends to train with Ski Club Vail when she entered the seventh grade. She moved up to Vail for high school, attending Vail Mountain School (VMS), and then began skiing for the ski club full time.
Her success comes from “her devotion to the sport,” said Ben Webster, alpine ability director for the ski club. “It comes from the time she spent on the snow, the time she spent in the weight room, dry-land training, and watching video.”
Littman graduated from VMS in 2003. In the fall of 2004 she enrolled in Middlebury College in Vermont. She trained with their ski team all fall. However, during Thanksgiving break she decided to postpone college and dedicate herself to the full-time life of an athlete. It was a question that was in the back of her mind the entire semester, Littman said.
Not every college racer should drop out of school for a shot at the U.S. Ski Team. However, her gamble paid off in May when she was able to use her strengths at the Team’s spring selection camp.
Those strengths include knowing which line to take – at what point to start her turn around a gate and at what point to allow herself to go straight. “I think I have a good sense of tactics,” Littman said, “which is knowing where I am and where I need to be. I can
visualize it and execute it pretty well.”
She knows in the turn when to pressure her skis, and when to just let them glide ” a difficult skill to teach, said Webster, who coached Littman through the U.S. Ski Team selections. It’s about finding that “sweet spot” in the turn after you do all the work, and then letting them ride, Webster said.
“I can still improve,” Littman said.
With a little hard work.
Littman holds the medicine ball above her head. She is at the end of a set of squat-jumps and she holds herself in that final squat. The muscles in her arms and shoulders shake. Despite her efforts otherwise, her elbows start to bend and the medicine ball gets lower by inches.
“Hold. Hold it up. Hold it up,” said John Cole, SSCV’s strength and conditioning director.
Littman is in the weight training room for SSCV. A blue U.S. Ski Team banner hangs on one wall – a constant reminder of what can be achieved in this building at the base of Golden Peak. It has the feel of a high school weight room. It’s a small room, with free weights and a few machines along the wall, but Cole keeps Littman away from them. This workout is devoted to agility and explosive power: jumping on and off wooden boxes, jerking a weight bar from the floor to over her head, different variations of jumping through the squares created by a red nylon ladder laid on the ground.
“There are a lot of skiers out there who have the talent. It’s the ones who can log in the hard work that can make it to the top of the pyramid,” Cole said. Cole was a strength and conditioning coach for the U.S. Ski Team before returning to Ski Club Vail last year.
Littman trains for the slalom and the downhill (and, as a result, everything in between). That combination of skills – agility and quick-twitch muscles for the short, quick turns of the slalom; sustained power for the forces generated in the downhill – are unusual and show the signs of a great all-around skier, Cole said. Teammate Kildow has those skills. Bode Miller does, too, on the men’s team.
“She’s the first one to show up for training. The last one to leave the hill. She’s there for every dry-land session,” Cole said. “From our perspective, she exemplifies the ideal athlete.”
Life on the U.S. Ski Team is not as drastically different from life with Ski Club Vail. Ski Club Vail prides itself on being not only a ski and snowboard club for locals, but also a world-class pipeline to the national teams. Littman is only the latest in a line of graduates that have made it to that top level. Through the club Littman already had access to world-class coaching, conditioning, and training techniques. She has been traveling around the world toting her bag of skis for years already. Even the hours of training aren’t much longer than when she was trying to squeeze the life of a high school student around them; they only have a slightly different focus.
“I’ve never spent this much time in the gym. Usually I’m outside, doing more hiking, biking, or playing games,” she said.
Could this first-year U.S. Ski Team member make it onto the Olympic Team, finalized in mid-January? “That would be a dream season, given it’s her first year on the team,” said U.S. Ski Team coach Hale.
With skiers Kildow, Schleper, and Dawson receiving the lion’s share of the press in the months before Torino, Littman will be hard at work adjusting to her first season on the U.S. Ski Team.
Asked how her future would look if she has her way, Littman gave an impressive answer: two Olympics, World Cup victories, an overall World Cup championship, maybe a couple medals in Vancouver in 2010. All that, of course, will take a lot of hard work.
But that’s nothing new to Julie Littman.
Kelly Coffey is a regular contributor for The Vail Trail.