The season of giving: from the USST to me to Ford Sayre

Greg DeFrancis.

Racing in heavy snow, with Ford Sayre support, at the Stowe Eastern Cups. Photo: Greg DeFrancis.

While many winter sports continue team competition through the holidays, we skiers are lucky. There are no college races until mid-January, so we are free to return to our families.

This doesn’t mean we’re off the hook, of course. We have to keep training and racing, but rather than doing this with the team, we work independently or with our club teams from high school.

The holidays are about giving, and in a sense, this is our chance to give back to our old teams. I return to Ford Sayre, the club that most of the area’s elite skiers call home.

The club’s nordic program, like its alpine program, has produced quite a few college athletes in my age group: Dartmouth teammate Max Hopkins, Alice Nelson of Williams, Jennie Brentrup of Colby, and Natalie Ruppertsberger and Beth Taylor of Bates.

When we ski with the Upper Valley’s high school athletes, we can tell them this: we may be training more than you are now. But when we were your age we were doing exactly what you are doing, or maybe less, and look where we are now. You can ski in college, too.

Last Friday, Alice, Jennie and I went to practice and gave the Ford Sayre athletes some tips about sprint racing. Alice was the best resource, since she’s raced in the quarterfinals at U.S. Nationals. “The reason I like sprinting,” she told a group of high school freshmen, “is that you don’t have time to think about it. You just go.”

I added that for me the key is not to relax instead of skiing frantically. If you ski poorly because you are trying to pick up the tempo, you’ll actually be slower. Alice reworded it more eloquently: “Don’t ski faster than your technique allows.”

The next day we had a chance to demonstrate at an Eastern Cup sprint in Stowe, Vermont.

In the quarterfinals, Dylan and I made strong charges out of the back of our heats, and Alice advanced all the way to the A-Final. I like to think that watching us may have inspired some younger athletes, if only a small amount.

Then I wonder who I am kidding. Skiers like Lizzie Anderson and Heidi Caldwell have podium finishes at junior nationals under their belts, something I had certainly never accomplished at that point in my career. Every year, there is exceptional talent in this pool of junior skiers.

This was illustrated on Tuesday when U.S. Ski Team Development Coach Matt Whitcomb came to practice at Oak Hill.

We huddled around for introductions and Matt explained why he was there. “You may not realize it,” he said, “But Ford Sayre is an important pipeline for us. There’s probably gold medal potential in this group.”

We were going to be working on skate technique. Matt reminded us that he wasn’t scouting, so we shouldn’t try to impress him. Besides, he said, “If you’re relying on me to pull you out of obscurity, sorry, I don’t have that kind of power!”

Matt is a man on a mission. When he’s not coaching his athletes on the national B-Team, he travels around the country making sure that clubs are effectively teaching up-to-date technique. He wants every club to be on the same page, so that when athletes reach the next level, they can focus on fine-tuning.

We skated a few laps holding our poles vertically in front of us to make sure we didn’t bend over as we shifted our weight. Then we held them horizontally across our hips to make sure we faced forward instead of twisting from side to side.

Matt knew all of our names after a few laps, and his attitude was a hit with the young skiers. When he explained things, he started serious, and then moved into more fun analogies. It’s rare to find a coach with such technical skills who can also connect well socially with skiers of all ages. A friend had told me, “Matt is a kick in the pants,” and I would have to agree.

The next drill was what he called the “skate sprint”. The goal was to use both edges of our skis. As we skated we hopped from edge to edge on each ski, and I couldn’t help laughing as I tried to learn the pattern. I felt absurd and was thrilled that I didn’t fall down.

After watching the mayhem, Matt reminded us that playing around on skis is a great way to gain better balance and push the envelope with technique. Training should be fun, and you can’t get better without trying new things.

He mentioned Andy Newell of Shaftsbury, Vermont, one of the fastest sprinters in the world. “Andy will be rollerskiing down a hill at 30 miles per hour, and then, bam, pull a 180, and he’ll be going backwards down the hill at 30 miles per hour.” Our eyes widened. “My point is not that you should try that – please don’t – but that experimenting makes you more comfortable on your skis.”

As the temperature warmed from 8 degrees and the snow softened, we practiced taking corners at speed. Much like bike racers in a criterium, we were asked to commit fully to the inside edge of our skis and lean into the corner. It was fun, and there were a few crashes.

At the end of the session, Matt wished us good luck with our seasons, and told us to ski as much as possible over the break. While we had done a lot of talking, standing around doesn’t make you faster. Skiing makes you faster. Then he added, “Actually, just do what these guys tell you!” and pointed towards Ford Sayre coaches Scottie Eliassen and Dennis Donahue.

I’m taking my cues from Cami Thompson these days, but it’s because I did what “those guys” told me when I was in high school.

And while the gold medal potential Matt was talking about probably isn’t me, I hope I can give back to them some other way.

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Campers

Hannah Dreissigacker.

Around the dinner table, after most of the food is gone. Photo: Hannah Dreissigacker.

December means two things to me: Christmas and ski camp.

Many Dartmouth teams have a December camp: The swim team was in Maui, and the rowers were in Florida. I just returned from Monte-Sainte-Anne, Quebec, where we have camp at the same time and place every year.

As soon as finals ended, all sixteen members of the women’s team piled into a minibus and a Sprinter van with our giant duffel bags, five or six pairs of skis apiece, and boxes full of meal ingredients from the BJ’s in West Leb. The drive is about six hours, and we napped most of the way up.

When we arrived at the Chalets Montmorency, where the Dartmouth team has been staying for almost 30 years, we unloaded our bags and claimed bedrooms as fast as we could before piling back into the bus to go ski.

That first afternoon is always heaven, since there’s rarely much white stuff in Hanover in early December. This year it was a winter wonderland of freshly fallen snow. There was so much powder that the groomer couldn’t pack it and we kept falling through, sometimes up to our knees. The pink sunset bathed the snowy forest in magic.

Our first dinner was self-assembled burritos. After the meal we had a team meeting and got down to the nitty-gritty of camp.

Every other morning, we did a short jog and strength routine. Breakfast was always at 8, and it was always a big pot of oatmeal and some English muffins. The bus left at 8:45 for the morning ski. Lunch was on your own, everyone crafting different concoctions in the oven and on the stovetop.

During the afternoon break we worked on skis, napped, or did some other quiet activity. Then we were back in the bus at 2:45 for a second ski, followed by a short break and dinner at 6. We all went to bed early.

Camp is predictable. We ski, a lot. We watch the same movies over and over. We eat ridiculous quantities of food. We sleep, a lot. We don’t work on our skis as much as we could.

But the most memorable times at camp are the days that break the routine. One of my favorites is the day we do our long ski, then join the men’s team for a Thanksgiving-style dinner.

This year, we scheduled a long classic ski. The goal time was three to four hours, but I was hoping for five, because there are enough trails at Mont-Sainte-Anne to ski that long with no repetition. The snow had been great packed powder all week, and I was excited.

Unfortunately, when we woke up that Monday morning, it was pouring rain. The snow was melting and waxing classic skis would have been a nightmare; even if we had found the right wax, it wouldn’t have lasted the whole ski. We switched the workout to skating.

I skied up Lac-Sainte-Hilaire with Kristin Dewey, our co-captains Courtney Robinson and Hannah Dreissigacker, and our Development Coordinator Martin Benes. The trail winds up and up and up, and soon I was skiing in only my race tights and a polypropylene shirt. If it’s warm enough to be raining, it’s warm.

We saw the Lebanon High School team heading down from the top of the trail. I recognized a few of the skiers and waved to Les Lawrence, the coach.

We had been hoping to ski up to a cabin on top of the ridge, but the final section of trail was not groomed and in the wet snow we didn’t feel like forging our own way. That section is rarely groomed and in the three years I’ve been to camp there, I’ve only made it to the cabin once. We turned around and headed down the hill.

I took off on my own on a long, only somewhat groomed trail along a smaller ridge. I was making third tracks on the trail, which was slow going. Wet snow built up on top of my skis, and the downhills weren’t much faster than the uphills. But the woods were quiet except for the sound of the rain, and it was peaceful.

I crossed under the massive power lines which are so prevalent in Quebec. There was a strong buzzing as the rain hit the lines and evaporated. I thought of the studies suggesting that living next to power lines increased one’s risk of cancer.

After skiing for two and a half hours, I was completely soaked and too cold to keep skiing. I got on the bus, where I found Ida Sargent, one of our most talented and dedicated skiers. I felt better about ending early once I knew she was, too. There was no point in making ourselves sick.

Most girls skied back along the power lines. Some skied longer than we did, some shorter. As we trickled in we all took hot showers, ate lunches with hot cocoa, and crawled into our beds to warm up. I took a nap before the next portion of the day got started: Thanksgiving.

For this event, we split cooking responsibilities with the men’s team. Max Hopkins, a former Hanover High teammate of mine, is the master of the deep-fat fryer, where he cooks five turkeys. The boys also prepare stuffing (from a box), cranberry (from a can), and carrots (in lots of honey). We girls are responsible for pies, mashed potatoes, and green beans.

It was chaos as we try to fit three tables, thirty-four chairs and place-settings, and five turkeys into one condo unit. But we were eventually all seated somewhere, and began loading up our plates. Max rehearsed a poem and an irreverent version of grace. Every part of the meal was delicious, especially the turkey. Chatter filled the room.

Besides training, this is the point of camp: with no more academic responsibilities, we can relax and get to know our teammates better than we ever have before. Just like any other Thanksgiving, this one felt like it was with my family. As far as I can tell, there’s nothing better for a team than that.

Interview: Running a one-man show, and making it work.

The man himself.

The man himself.

As college athletes, we all wonder what the future holds for us after graduation. Will we be able to keep competing? Will we find a team? Or will we have to decide between training by ourselves and giving up our sport?

After a failed season with the now-defunct Bridger Ski Foundation Elite Team in Bozeman, Montana, Sam Naney, Dartmouth class of 2006, solved this problem by creating the Cougar Mountain Racing Project (CMRP).

I caught up with Sam over e-mail last week.

CL: Did you know you wanted to keep racing after college, or did you consider another career path?

SN: I think I always knew I wanted to continue skiing. It had been such a large part of my life and I felt I hadn’t reached my full potential. Plus, graduating with a degree in British History and having no inclination whatsoever to move to the city and get a corporate job left me with few other options.

CL: Why did you start a “project” rather than a “team”?

SN: Midway through that solo training season I realized I had neither support nor identity. My goal was to give myself an identity on the racing circuit, and to sign on sponsors to help fund a season. I had no intentions of starting a new “team”.

CL: Cougar Mountain is close to your family home in Winthrop, Washington. Could the project have happened anywhere else?

SN: The Methow Valley is, in my opinion, the best place for cross-country ski training in the United States. For my own purposes, this is also where people have known me since I was 6 months old.

CL: How hard was it to sign on sponsors?

SN: I was able to eliminate the entire meet-and-greet aspect and skip straight to the “Hi, remember me? I’m a full-time ski racer and need money/equipment/free massages/etc.” It usually worked out pretty well.

CL: From an individual or company’s point of view, what is the benefit of supporting you?

SN: Most of my sponsors are not in it for any acclaim which might come with my success. I try to offer whatever I can as compensation: I have catered some multi-course private dinners, given ski lessons, and housesat.

CL: That doesn’t pay the bills, though, does it?

SN: From April through November I work 35 hours per week as a bike mechanic at a local shop.

CL: Your results seemed to be up and down.

SN: Oh, that stings. Yes, the last two years were rough.

CL: So what happened that first season?

SN: I made a mistake by boosting my yearly training volume by almost 40% (the suggested maximum increase is 10%). Without getting too much into the grimy details, we’ll just say it caught up to me. By early November, I was overtrained. The first four races I could barely get out of my own way much less compete well.

CL: How did you solve this problem?

SN: I signed on with my current coach, a former U.S. Ski Team racer and marathoner, Scott Johnston. This was the crucial thing I had been missing the first two years out of college. As an individual athlete, and it is very difficult, if not impossible, to coach yourself.

CL: How so?

SN: Ski racers are almost all Type-A personalities and will push harder and harder, ignoring when our bodies need to rest. A good coach provides not only sport-specific guidance, but an objective eye to identify when you’re getting tired.

CL: What’s it like to compete without race support?

SN: I raced for a month in Europe last year and my parents became my race staff. I taught my mother how to apply fluorocarbons to skis at an OPA Cup (the races series below the World Cup) in Germany less than 30 minutes before my start. It was a bit harrowing but it really teaches you how to cool off under pressure.

CL: Have you had any favorite moments?

SN: My “breakthrough” was last March at Canadian National Championships. I waxed my skis off the bed of my truck at the race parking lot, ate microwaved food out of my hotel room and attended the coaches meetings to get the race details. In the sprint was the 11th American and raced side-by-side with Sweden’s Bjorn Lind, the 2006 Olympic Gold medalist in the sprint. That moment confirmed that I can be a great ski racer and that I can do it on my own if I need to.

CL: Do you think CMRP could ever become a “Team”?

SN: I would love to see a few more athletes train here and I would welcome them to join the “Project”, but either way I’m proud to have CMRP as my own and prouder still to be a representative of the Methow Valley.

CL: Would you suggest this route to other skiers?

SN: If you don’t mind abandoning the path of wealth, career choices, and stable relationships, and you wouldn’t be opposed to moving back in with your parents if you really ran out of money, then yes, I would definitely recommend it.

CL
: College skiing feels like a wonderland. True or false?

SN: Never leave college ski racing. Ever. It’s a wonderful, insular community of fully-supported teams and happy little community races. Your coaches wax your skis and wipe your noses, your professors let you skip class and your parents are footing the bill.

CL: So you miss it…

SN: Before the first Carnival my freshmen year, we had a team meeting where Ruff (Patterson) announced the Carnival team. When my name was read off with the five other guys, I just sat there, trying to act as if nothing had happened, but inside I was exploding. All that next day I walked around campus in my new varsity parka, knowing that it represented almost 100 years of amazing skiing history.

CL: Finally: is there any truth behind the nickname, the Cougar Mountain Chasing Project?

SN
: Haha – let’s just say that living for two years in Montana and struggling with ski racing leads you to some rather shameful pursuits… But those times are far behind me. That was the dark rockstar period of my life.

(A full transcript, covering more issues surrounding racing as a senior and many more gems from Sam, can be found here.)

towards the Gold Rush NRL.

To race or not to race? That is the question.

The end of November is early. It falls more than a month before the first major races of the season, U.S. Nationals, which are held in the beginning of January.

And yet, for many skiers, late November is the start of everything. The SuperTour series kicks off in West Yellowstone, Montana, offering up valuable points for qualifying and seeding races later in the season.

Thanksgiving races provide an opportunity to test your fitness and to get on snow – if there’s going to be a race, there has to be somewhere to ski, which is more than you can say for most parts of the country.

These starts can help clear the jitters, remind you how to push yourself, and, one always hopes, get any disasters out of the way before the races that really count.

There are, nonetheless, some negatives about early-season racing. It would be unfortunate to start the season off strong, but to tire by Eastern Championships in late February because you’ve been racing for too long. Both from a physiological and mental perspective, racing is a tiring business.

For college skiers, too, it’s a challenge to travel and find ample time to adjust to on-snow training while missing as little class as possible.

Because there is seldom snow in the East until December (or, as it was two years ago, January), many people overlook the negatives and see West Yellowstone as a golden opportunity to get on snow and readjust to racing.

Meanwhile, I am sitting here in Colorado, doing some intervals by myself. What gives? If I made the commitment to finish the term early and travel to snow, why aren’t I in Montana?

Last year, I did make the pilgrimage to the SuperTour races. Our entire women’s team did. I was beyond excited to be able to race the best skiers in the country. Traveling made me feel like I finally made it as a skier.

When we arrived, there was no snow in town. We crammed into various vehicles to drive up to the plateau, where we skied an out-and-back swatch with what seemed like a hundred athletes from Duluth, and that’s not even counting the other teams.

The races didn’t go particularly well, but since it was November and I wasn’t used to starting my season so early, I was told not to worry, that better results would come.

Instead, I fell into a continuous mental loop of pressuring myself to keep up with my teammates, expecting that I should be able to do it, having anxiety attacks, and racing horribly.

Oops, there went my season.

All right, it’s unfair to blame my demise on West Yellowstone. That’s not what I’m suggesting. But understanding the challenges I face – that I’m in great shape and racing is 95% mental – made me plan a different November and December this time around.

Maybe my body isn’t meant to race in November. Maybe I need to keep doing what I did every year besides last year, which is training. I spent a week doing two-hour distance skis, and once I was adjusted to the altitude, I started alternating these days with intervals.

I may not have training partners, but my trusty heart rate monitor keeps me honest in my workouts.

I can spend this time getting used to how it feels to be on snow. Even though I don’t have anyone to shoot video, I can try to improve my technique – something that is always shaky when on-snow training begins.

Yes, I’m racing while I’m out here. But not until next weekend, not against the usual slate of top college and professional racers, and, for the most part, not against my teammates.

I’m hoping that starting the race season against unfamiliar opponents will remove some of the pressure that I always find a way to place on myself.

I’m hoping that spending time training alone will clear my head and boost my confidence.

And I’m hoping that when I return to racing in the East, I will already have a good finish under my belt. I’m trying not to turn hope into expectation.

I peeked at the results from the West Yellowstone races. There, bam bam bam, where three of my teammates, who all had great races and finished within 10 seconds of each other. I sucked my breath in, thinking, maybe I’m doing this all wrong.

And then I remembered that many of our other top skiers weren’t racing either: Vermonters Ida Sargent, Sophie Caldwell, and Hannah Dreissigacker. I exhaled, and thought, what happens happens, and I’m in great shape, so go get ’em when it counts.