Can Tahoe create a Nordic superstar?

By Tim Hauserman

Photo: Tahoe Cross-Country Ski Area

Photo: Tahoe Cross-Country Ski Area

Lake Tahoe is a skier’s haven. Site for the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, it is where you will also find Alpine Meadows, Heavenly Valley, Northstar, Kirkwood, Sugar Bowl, Sierra at Tahoe, Homewood and Mt. Rose. Most years, the Tahoe region is blessed with copious amounts of snow, and over the decades the area has also produced quite a few Olympians. It began with Tahoe City’s own Jimmie Heuga, who when he won a bronze in the 1964 Olympics became a local hero. Tahoe-Truckee High graduate Greg Jones also took a bronze in the combined in the 1976 Olympics, and then we had the more recent successes of locals such as three time Olympic medalist Julia Mancuso from Squaw Valley, two-time medal winner Shannon Bahrke from Tahoe City, and snowboarding Gold Medalist Hannah Teter who lives in South Lake Tahoe.

With all this alpine success, it is easy for some to forget that Tahoe also provides the largest concentration of cross- country ski trails in the United States. Royal Gorge, Tahoe Donner, Tahoe Cross-Country, Northstar, and Kirkwood are all world class cross-country ski venues. The Auburn Ski Club on Donner Summit provides a top notch training and racing facility, and The Far West Nordic Association is highly skilled at training and supporting Nordic skiers. So why then has Tahoe been unable to produce a regional medalist in cross-country skiing?

Photo: Tahoe Cross-Country Ski Area

Photo: Tahoe Cross-Country Ski Area

Well, the bad news for those of us who live in Tahoe and love cross-country skiing is that we are a victim of our own largesse. It’s hard to keep Nordic skiers working their butts off doing lung burning intervals for years when the lure of success in the downhill world is just down the road. And let’s face it, the publicity machine for downhill or snowboarding success is much more hyped then for cross- country skiing. Lindsey Vonn can go on a date with Tiger Woods, or Shaun White can flip his red doo a few times and attract a lot more attention then when American cross- country skiing phenoms Kikkan Randall and Jessie Diggins miraculously win World Cup competitions against what we used to consider the unbeatable Europeans. Personally I’d much rather see Jessie’s fresh face come roaring up a hill, then Lindsey roaring down it, but the media and their sponsors provide much more support to the downhillers and the snowboarders.

Which perhaps explains why the most successful cross- country skiers in America come from places where there is snow but not big mountains (Minnesota and Wisconsin) or where there is a culture and the resources devoted to cross-country skiing (Alaska). There’s also the reality that to create a cross-country ski racer who is competitive on the world stage, you need to have a large number of potential candidates so that the luck of the draw and genetics creates the necessary super human that can do the job. It’s a given that it requires years of grueling training and perseverance to create a Nordic champion. But you also need a person with the monstrous lung capacity and muscle strength to be able to compete in one of the worlds most aerobically challenging sports. It’s similar to elite class bike riding. Lots of people can ride a bike and become a century rider, only a few have the lung capacity to ride 100 miles and then sprint at full speed the last ten.

Photo: Tahoe Cross-Country Ski Area

Photo: Tahoe Cross-Country Ski Area

The good news is that despite all these challenges, we are getting closer, and perhaps it will happen in the next few Olympics. Truckee-raised Matt Gelso and Russell Kennedy have been knocking at the door of membership on their prospective Olympic teams (Gelso for the United States, and Kennedy for Canada, the home of his father), and a host of other top Tahoe trained athletes are slowly making inroads into the national rankings. The key is to start out early, and develop a culture of excitement with cross-country skiing that is not only evident in the skiers, but in the entire community. There are lots of Tahoe area parents, coaches and volunteers that are striving to make that happen.

In Tahoe, the process begins with the after school cross- country ski programs in Truckee and Tahoe City. Children enroll in Strider Gliders at Tahoe Cross-Country starting in pre-school and continue until they reach 5th grade. The program has grown to over 250 kids with very simple goals. Tahoe Cross Country Ski Education Association Director Valli Murnane says, “We are not about turning kids into racers, just kids who love to cross-country ski. We hope they find a passion for one of the few sports that you can do for your entire life.”

Next up is the Middle School programs at North Tahoe Middle School in Tahoe City and Alder Creek Middle School in Truckee. North Tahoe Middle School coach Craig Smith says, “Our focus is still on keeping it fun, so that the kids can decide whether it is a sport that they want to commit to.” At this point, some of those skiers do make a commitment by joining one of the Devo programs in Truckee or Tahoe City, where they learn year round ski specific training such as roller skiing and walking with poles as well as aerobic exercise such as bike riding and running.

Photo: Tahoe Cross-Country Ski Area

Photo: Tahoe Cross-Country Ski Area

By the time Sierra kids reach high school they have to make a decision as to which winter direction they want to go. Those who chose cross-country skiing usually find a new level of dedication to the sport. This is when the Devo Teams, and participating in racing become more important, and those who are putting in the time and training hard, are winning the races.

The scary part is when our fledglings leave the Tahoe nest and go off to college, or to train with programs in other areas. As a Strider-Gliders instructor, I remember Patrick McElravey, a third grader with perfect skating technique who could beat the fifth graders. Now he isskiing for Middlebury College in Vermont (one of the few schools in the United States with a strong cross-country ski program) and recently did very well in the nationals at Soldier Hollow. Truckee’s Matt Gelso went on to great success with the University of Colorado, winning a NCAA National Championship. Now Gelso trains with the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation’s Gold Team, trying to reach the US Ski Team. Russell Kennedy is training with Canada’s most prestigious ski club, trying to make the Canadian team while earning credit towards college tuition.

Photo: Steve Twomey

Photo: Steve Twomey

The challenge for all of the top skiers is how do they maintain the full time drive and focus needed to reach the top level of the sport, while also finding the money needed to feed themselves. Fortunately, the few who reach the elite US Ski Team level, do receive financial support, but it’s in developing the skills to get to that level where many drop out and have to get on with life. Alder Creek Middle School coach Mark Nadell says, “Now we are slowly developing the Far West Elite Team. We have five athletes currently on the team. The goal is to attract higher level athletes, and retain the ones we have. We need the sponsorships and money here to make that happen.”

For me it would be wonderful to one day be watching the Olympics and see a Tahoe City address under the name of a cross-country skier as the national anthem is played. But if you ask every coach or volunteer involved in cross-country skiing, the real reason they do it is to get people excited about an incredible sport. A sport that will bring you plenty of joy and heartache whether you are 8 years old or 80.

Tim Hauserman wrote “Cross Country skiing in the Sierra Nevada.” He teaches and directs the Strider Glider program at Tahoe Cross-Country Ski Area.

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Photo courtesy of Tahoe Cross-Country Ski Area

Photo courtesy of Tahoe Cross-Country Ski Area

Photo courtesy of Tahoe Cross-Country Ski Area

Photo courtesy of Tahoe Cross-Country Ski Area

1 Comment

  1. Nice analysis, Tim. You rightly point out that some of the more successful Nordic athletes come from communities where xc is valued over alpine, or the conditions for the latter are simply superior. Look at the Methow Valley, for example, which has fielded three Olympians this year – (see link to piece about Bjornsen siblings below). The Bjornsens grew up downhill skiing at Loup Loup, but detested the commute, so switched to cross country, which was literally in their back yard. Jessie Diggins attended school in Stillwater, MN, where there were 120 cross country skiers on her high school team. And some of the best cross country communities and colleges are located in the Northeast, and though there’s plenty of downhill there, those areas certainly don’t have terrain like Tahoe’s. Sophie Caldwell, Ida Sargent, Andy Newell and Kris Freeman were dedicated Nords pretty much out of the chute.

    Probably worth mentioning that there a fair few Nords in Sochi and at past Olympics who hail from mountain towns. Check out the current cadre of USST ski jumping, Nordic combined, and cross country athletes: 29 in all. Of the 29, 11 hail from New England, two from the Midwest, and everyone else from the Intermountain West – plus Alaska. Look at Steamboat Springs’ contribution to the Nordic combined team, for example: Todd Lodwick and Brian and Taylor Fletcher (and Johnny Spillane in the last Games). Billy Demong grew up in the Adirondacks. Ski jumpers Sarah Henrickson, Jessica Jerome and Lindsey Van from Park City. Noah Hoffman and Simi Hamilton grew up in Aspen. Kikkan grew up downhill skiing, and decided to switch to Nordic (in part, influenced by her aunt, a former xc Olympian). Same with Liz Stephen. And on it goes…

    Tahoe has everything it needs to produce an Olympian: dedicated and talented coaches, committed parents, an incredible infrastructure, ex-Olympians who still teach, etc. Talk to Nancy Fiddler or nearly any long-term coach, and they’ll tell you they’ve seen a dramatic rise in the cross country talent pool since they’ve been active in the sport. More kids are choosing to go Nordic…and look for even more kids to enter the sport after the coverage xc is likely to receive during these Sochi Games: Kikkan is now a bona-fide superstar, and her colleagues on the women’s team are catching up fast. The pink hair and sparkles don’t hurt — that’s for sure.

    If Tahoe has an Achilles heel w/respect to xc, it could well be climate-related, since most of the Nordic ski areas are located at 7,000’ or lower, an elevation expected to receive more and more of its precipitation in the form of rain – which would translate into inconsistent years – such as this one. It’s a big bummer to roller ski into the winter, or ski in tight 2 kilometer loops. Now’s probably the time to start securing terrain in higher elevations…Tahoe Meadows comes to mind. But that’s a topic for a different article.

    Anyway, nice job on the write-up!

    Brad

    P.S. Here’s an example of how two young skiers from a Nordic-centric region have been propelled into cross-country stardom. Sadie and Erik Bjornsen, of the Methow Valley, first-time Olympians at age 22 and 24.
    http://sustainableplay.com/tom-marys-kids/

    Reply

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