22 for 22: Inside the US cross country ski team’s fall training camp
22 stories to get you hyped for the 2022 Olympic Games
Lower River Road is quiet and empty. Francis, Utah — 2 miles from the middle of nowhere — is where I sip my coffee and watch the sunrise on this particular morning. On the 8 a.m. cue, one van after another emerges from the first turn and pulls up next to my own, homogenizing the endurance vehicle of choice. A man in a puffy down jacket hops out of the lead vehicle. The back of his jacket reads, “U.S. Ski Team.”
Technically, I’ve made my way to Park City to fulfill the practicum portion of my master’s degree in exercise science. I’m here to shadow four-time Olympian Andy Newell and his Bridger Ski Foundation elite team as I produce written content for Nordic Team Solutions, Newell’s online educational platform for skiers, coaches, and teams.
Unofficially, I’m here to chase a story — to give an inside look at the most important preseason fall training camp for the country’s best Nordic skiers as they strive for an Olympic roster spot.
Deep down, I am trying out for the U.S. Ski Team, myself.
That ridiculous final thought powerfully reverberates as I locate my rollerskis in order to head out for a 2.5 hour skate session with the 60 or so youngins. Few have the jacket; most envy those who do.
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The journey towards sporting the latest Ralph Lauren opening ceremony ensemble is neither simple nor easy. Come February, fans will have digested plenty of Jessie Diggins and Mikaela Shiffrin stories. Underneath are a plethora of “Rudys,” whose quests to five-ring fame depends on their ability to capitalize on opportunities, maintain an unshakeable, internal belief and cultivate an insatiable joy in the process of pursuit. Like Pete, the childhood friend who never wavers in his support of the eventual Notre Dame icon’s unlikely goal, poignantly stated: “Well, you know what my dad always said, ‘Having dreams is what makes life tolerable.’”
That’s what really brought me. The dreamers’ stories are the ones I went to uncover.
Park City: the place to train
The U.S. – and Canadian national cross-country ski teams have been descending upon Park City every October for decades. With the Beijing Olympic courses nestled 1,700 meters above sea level, getting to the bike, run and ski mecca for the annual two-week fall camp was more critical than ever for U.S.head coach Matt Whitcomb.
“The actual physical training was a huge success,” he said about the camp in a recent Fasterskier.com podcast interview.
Whitcomb fosters growth all along the pipeline by allowing club programs with nonski team athletes to join the national members for key workouts.
“One of the important things about Park City is this is a chance to bring the best club athletes together with the national team and to really break down team barriers,” he said.
Wiry, lean, highly motivated men and women from Alaska Pacific University, Stratton Mountain School, Bridger Ski Foundation, Sun Valley, the University of Utah and other places donned their logoed jackets and sponsor-patched helmets throughout the week for speed, interval, and race sessions. Many hoped to make a mark Whitcomb’s staff wouldn’t easily forget.
As the program has matured, specifically on the women’s team, breaking through has become more difficult. Heading into the Ruka, Finland World Cup opener at the end of November, Nordic nerds have reason for optimism for the candy cane spandex bunch. 2018 Olympic gold medalist Jessie Diggins enters as the defending overall World Cup champion, a first for a female athlete in the stars and stripes.
As the coaches congregate to discuss the morning’s workout, my observation — or admiration — is interrupted by my host for the week. With a quick handshake, Newell welcomes me and pulls me into his team’s van. As he takes the familiar — for him — course like an F1 racer, he gives me the low down on the session. My brain strains to process his instructions and wealth of information on anything, from the week’s schedule to double pole mechanics in general while simultaneously consuming the course, noting any potentially hazardous downhills I’ll be taking when the two of us park and skate back towards the group.
Newell is a soufflé of Tom Cruise meets Bode Miller, with a touch of Ph.D-sports-scientist-guy frosting on top: suave and sophisticated in conversation, and talented, daring and innovative on skis. Clips of him shredding the backcountry and ripping an impromptu backflip — on skinny skis — linger in my prefrontal cortex as I try to download any hills I anticipate him full-sending. Sure enough, a 16%, 600-meter behemoth serves as my initiation to camp. Newell baptizes me by fire, launching down the warmup descent on the brakeless death apparatuses locked to his feet in an aggressive tuck.
I decide to proceed with caution. On the ensuing uphill, an 1,800-foot climb, my Leadville-trained lungs shine as I move past groups of skiers. After 2.5 hours of rolling through an empyrean gated community’s perfect blacktop, a seldomly used route that comes courtesy of a longstanding U.S. team relationship with a local, I roll up to Whitcomb, who is capturing the incredible mountain and fall leaves with his camera. Despite my lowly ski-status, Whitcomb addresses me by name and engages in an authentic conversation about a variety of topics, even mentioning a mutual friend who lives in my neck of the woods.
The conversation reminds me of my time in Maine. I was a first year coach at a tiny University so far north, it seemed — and maybe technically was — closer to the Arctic circle than to Colorado. I attended a coaching conference in New Hampshire my first month on the job. Nervous to small-talk with the legendary coaches and athletes in attendance, I sat down for dinner, by accident, next to Whitcomb. He probably was supposed to be yakking it up with longtime club leaders and donors, but instead he listened to my diatribe about journeying from music teacher to ski coach as if he had been reunited with a long lost childhood friend.
The best way to describe him would be to say that he is the person you want with you in the proverbial bunker when hope is lost and you’re fighting to the end. He’d be the one to motivate and instigate a 300-esque performance, or he’d be ready with words to satisfy everyone’s ears in bidding farewell to life itself.
I recall an anecdote shared with me when I interviewed current U.S. Ski Team member and 2020 NCAA champion Ben Ogden during the pandemic. Ogden is a member of the young crop of male hopefuls who claimed back-to-back 4x10K relay golds at the 2019 and 2020 World Junior Championships, a first for the country. When he was a middle-schooler at a July Regional Elite Group camp, Whitcomb spoke into existence a theme of “80 days of toughness.”
“I want you guys to do one thing, every day, to get you out of your comfort zone,” Ogden remembered the coach preaching. Afterwards, the boys were amped.
“All the guys at that camp went outside and started wrestling; we were just so stoked about Matt Whitcomb talking about being tough.” Even listening to Ogden retell the stirring speech gave me chills. There is a reason you want to be on this team.
Making Team USA
On tap for the recovery day was a leisurely 3-hour double pole session around the “Town Loop.” Newell, one of the more precocious talents in recent American male Nordic vintage, came straight from high school at Stratton Mountain in Vermont to Park City, and hence identifies his well-traveled training routes with explicit distinction. If he lacks a formal college education, he doesn’t show it. He’s more likely to discuss the details of a recent scientific journal article regarding lactate accumulation than he is to say, “Let’s send it, dude!” His combination of cool, collected, and connected — to coaches, millennials, and everyone in between — is a treat to observe. He gladly and capably hops in on every workout, knowing just when to ski away from an athlete and when to come alongside and listen to them vent.
Sometimes, he’s charged with empathizing over the plight of the high-level skier trying to break through on the big stage. All of his athletes at BSF are currently a part of the nonski team group Whitcomb happily included in time trials, drills and key workouts at this camp. They know, however, the importance of hopping on the train before it rolls too far down the track. Sometimes, it feels more like the Polar Express: Only a few select people have a golden ticket.
Skiing is a sport so dependent upon the mechanical aspects of speed. Winners have access to the fastest hand-picked planks, the most base grind options, and the largest selection of outrageously expensive high-fluorocarbon waxes — and the doctorate capable of selecting the right combination of the three to maximize friction reduction — ultimately promoting a system where the rich get richer. Junior athletes fortunate to have that support are at an advantage at regional and national meets. When they win, they are noticed. Consequently, they receive more support, which in turn helps them emerge victorious in the next race. And the next.
For late bloomers, it’s hard to break the cycle and gain admittance into the U.S. Ski Team clique. It’s an issue inherent with the sport and thus, not easily solved. Fortunately, national coaches, development coordinators and support staff are going about growing the program in the right way, nurturing the athlete as a person first.
Bryan Fish, sport development manager at U.S. Ski and Snowboard, is on site at many Regional and National Elite Group camps for promising high schoolers, including one in Park City this week. He is well aware of the challenges in identifying young talent. A thorough study of the program’s coaching education curriculum indicates their primary concern: the sound application of an athlete-first approach which considers athlete age and “training age” in planning developmentally appropriate practice activities and race schedules. For U.S. skiing, it’s about growing the base and getting more people to enjoy skiing for a lifetime. Fostering club teams, Bill Koch programs, high school leagues, and United States Collegiate Ski Association and NCAA programs, as well as post-graduate teams like BSF, is vital to the overall plan.
Despite this, athletes in their post-graduate window — perhaps their final chance of making the jump from Super Tour regular to World Cup starter — feel the pressure to put themselves in a position to succeed against current national team members. This is the context for a telling van ride conversation later in the week between Newell, myself, and an athlete. We are en route to the Soldier Hollow rollerski track to join members of the U.S. team in their “speeds” (15-30 second high intensity bursts over varying terrain). While most of the group elected to forgo the opportunity, this individual, a multitime NCAA All-American in her own right, felt it was in her best interest to be seen.
Riding up to the 2002 Olympic venue, she vents her disappointment regarding a race from her junior days. Her one pair of skis picked off the Boulder Nordic display rack stood no chance against competitors’ quivers of hand-selected skis specially stone-ground for the conditions. “If I’m in the top three that day — instead of 10th — I’m invited to the regional camp,” she said, seeming to plead for Newell’s approval. After outlining the butterfly effect on her career, she concluded, “Now, I’m outside looking in.”
Qualifying for the Olympic team is dependent upon a combination of objective and discretionary criteria, but part of those objective requirements involve World Cup results. Getting a bib for those is not like registering for the Birkie. You have to have given Tom Hanks your golden ticket and be sipping thick hot chocolate already riding the Polar Express, so to speak.
The reality these athletes face and the pursuit of a shared goal strengthens BSF’s cohesion. I witness this close-knit culture during the whole week as the athletes mingle between training sessions in their ridgetop mansion home base. During the brief 4-hour respite sandwiched by the morning town loop rollerski and the scheduled afternoon run and strength session, showered athletes in sweatpants and sweatshirts grab a warm beverage and settle in for graduate courses, side-hustle jobs, sponsor outreach, or intense games of pool in the basement.
For Hannah Rudd, a blog post needs to be typed up for EnjoyWinter, a Bozeman-based company owned by skier and entrepreneur extraordinaire, Andy Gerlach, the former manager of the Subaru Factory team, the first and arguably most groundbreaking professional cross country ski team in the world. For Aspen-native Graham Houtsma, it’s inputting client data into a spreadsheet for his boss. For Lauren Jortberg, it’s a few phone conversations for a consulting firm she works for — her boss is Newell’s wife. For Reid Goble, who would overcome a head cold to place in the top five in the rollerski sprint the next day, it is a consultation with Newell regarding a potential sponsor. Logan Diekmann emerges from the basement to get the OK on inviting girlfriend Grayson Murphy to the next morning’s run. I jokingly ask if he thinks the former Ute and 2019 World Mountain Running champion and XTERRA Trail Run World Champion will be able to keep up.
After the 4 p.m. workout in the rain, Jortberg, Goble, and Rudd hurry to prepare the evening feast for the ravenous bunch. Jortberg is the mother in the kitchen, ensuring meal prep tasks are assigned at the beginning of the day and carried out when it counts. The table is largely quiet at the beginning of the meal as food gets shoveled down. Once the calories are replaced, conversation commences.
Stories about the day, past races, and inside jokes are shared. Suddenly, all eyes swarm a full-mouthed Goble, whose red-face indicates he is only OK with the attention. “Are you like this when it’s just you and your family eating?” someone sarcastically inquires, referencing his quiet-but-jokester temperment.
Later, Steamboat-raised University of Vermont graduate Finn O’Connell elicits the largest explosion of laughter when he makes a competition-related juicy statement, which silences the table and directs all eyes to his, and then proceeds to engulf a carb-laden original concoction: a slab of the forgotten remnants from the enchilada meal that avoided his mouth during the first go around, piled high on a massive double decker wheat-based plate of bread. Every person at the table hangs in silence, processes the creation they are witnessing being devoured, then chorally erupts in laughter. But, for athletes burning 5,500 calories per day, the helping, plus an evening snack an hour later — a mound of cereal, granola, yogurt, berries and peanut butter Matt Stonie might not finish — are totally normal.
As most of the team returns to the kitchen bar for their late night energy replacement, a habit that Newell, widely traveled and well-read in all things Nordic culture-related, informs me is part of a longstanding tradition in the Norwegian ski lore, I feel comforted by the cultural validation for my own return trips to the fridge for more almond milk and Cheerios during the never-ending blocks of 22-hour training weeks.
Watching the athletes prepare for another cycle of eat, sleep, train, repeat, I’m reminded that in the grind of an athletic pursuit of excellence, the definition of success and the journey towards it, is what it’s all about. It’s the silence of a road, waiting to be skied. The rising of the sun, inviting you to attack the next day, the next goal, the next dream.