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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