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.

: 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?

: 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.)

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