Thursday, March 8, 2018

Living the Life

If you were here with us, these are the people you'd be hanging out with.

Sadie is knitting me a nice blue mitten. She says I can only have one because I need to be able to drive with my other hand.

The size of the bowl is directly proportionate to the size of the appetite.

Marine is still a bit new to the waxing game. She's struggling with proper fitment of the gas mask.

Here's Sadie, earlier today.



The boys gave it everything they had out there today

The alpine team came out and cheered for us today. It helped us a lot!

I saw this dog.

Here's Hailey getting an award. She's the one with the green flag.

Parents' Night!  Toomas' parents, Heidi & Tiit, are in town from Estonia to watch some ski racing and try out all of Steamboat's best skiing spots. And Hailey's parents, Bucky and Brick, drove up from Aspen to see their daughter get on the podium this morning. They all joined us for dinner at the team house tonight and they've made plans for a ski outing together at Rabbit Ears Pass tomorrow.

Earlier in the week, Anna participated in our UAA coach-exchange program. We're always happy to get Anna's insight and perspective that she brings from the alpine hill. For example, she was pointing out to Marine that her skis didn't match when this photo was taken. Andrew keeps close tabs on the coach-exchange program.

The other half of the coach-exchange program. The alpine skiers let me carry their jackets down the hill for them during slalom training at Howelsen the other day.

Marine took me out ski touring on the pass. We had a real nice time.

Andrew's annual trivia night contest here at the house. This year, the team who won was really intelligent.

If you're in the neighborhood, stop on by. We'll be here.

This is us, at the NCAA Championship opening ceremony.

The vibe in the Steamboat gondola was real good.
Dinner on the mountain. "On our own time"

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

NCAA Championship Team

Here we are, back in Steamboat. It's that time of year again. Here's our Seawolf NCAA Championship team.

Anna Berecz - Assistant Alpine Coach

Tony Naciuk - Men's Alpine

Sadie Fox - Women's Nordic
Toomas Kollo - Men's Nordic

Georgia Burgess - Women's Alpine

Marine Dusser - Assistant Nordic Coach

Sparky Anderson - Head Coach

Marcus Deuling - Men's Nordic

Alix Wells - Women's Alpine

Morten Kjerland - Volunteer Assistant Coach

Charley Field - Women's Alpine

Andrew Kastning - Head Nordic Coach

Eric Cruz - Men's Alpine

Natalie Hynes - Women's Nordic

Hailey Swirbul - Women's Nordic

Zacke Torresson - Men's Nordic

Dom Unterberger - Men's Alpine

Adam Verrier - Volunteer Assistant
The ski racing begins tomorrow...

Saturday, March 3, 2018


The UAA Ski Team coaches are always sniffing around, rooting around, scouting for talent, leaving no stone unturned in the never-ending search for the next big thing. Andrew isn't afraid to search in unconventional places to find skiers who might bring us future Seawolf glory.  Coaching athletes to greatness is only a fraction of the job of a head coach of a college ski team. Recruiting is another fraction. The fast skiers are out there, but they don't become Seawolves unless they're discovered by the coaching staff, and Andrew is always out there trying to discover new Seawolves wherever they may be hiding.

Take last week, for example.  Andrew had a meeting with a potential Seawolf right here in Anchorage. Here's a guy who may have prodigious talent that just hasn't been discovered yet; a budding Seawolf who simply hasn't yet had a chance to bloom. Our potential recruit said "I'm no skiing gold medalist...", but who's to say he couldn't be? Andrew and Howie got together for a little tryout at Kincaid Park and we have film of their workout.

Now that you've watched this video, I'm sure you have some questions, just as I did. The first thing I'm sure you noticed was that when Andrew was handing out the skis, he gave the Trabs to Howie and the Rossi's to himself.  Now, I don't want to sound critical or anything here, but that's a little like taking your date out for a game of tennis and giving her the broken racket.  I know Andrew's got a mean streak in him, and he needs to see what our potential new recruit is made of, but it strikes me as a little harsh for the first day of practice.  

On the other hand, I have to admit that I've never seen that dead-bug maneuver for getting back on your feet after falling down. That was pretty ingenious. In fact, I probably should teach the UAA alpiners about it next November at our on-snow training camp.  I've seen them fall a few times, but I've never seen them use the dead-bug move to get back up. I think they'll appreciate knowing about this. 

Friday, February 9, 2018

Will Shortz

Last week was an off-week on the RMISA circuit. The team was in Anchorage, getting reacquainted with the classroom and getting some training done on our home trails at Hillside and Kincaid Park. But not all of the Seawolves came back to Anchorage from Montana.  A large proportion of the women’s team flew to Switzerland instead, to compete in the World Junior Championships. I'm talking about Hannah, Natalie and Hailey.

For Hailey, it was quite a week. 

A couple weeks ago, I had one of the more exciting experiences of my past decade with the UAA ski team.  Hailey, for the first time in her college career, was in the lead group of four in an RMISA race, and was ready to make an attempt at winning a college race.  It was a 15km mass-start skate race, on soft, slow snow.  The conditions were advantageous for Hailey, who’s at her best on this kind of snow, and she put herself into the breakaway group of six. Every time Hailey went to the front of the group, the pace quickened, another skier got dropped, and the group got smaller. Eventually, with a few kilometers left, it was down to four, with Petra Hyncicova, Guro Jordheim and Hailey looking relaxed, and Hedda Bangman clearly struggling to hang on.

I was pretty excited about the way things were coming together. It has been clear for a while that Hailey has the potential to win college races, though she hadn’t yet managed to put herself in position to do so. But here she was, nearing the finish line in what was clearly going to be a podium finish. It was only a question of which place on the podium she’d end up. 

Petra and Guro are both experienced in mass-start finishes and they’ve both proven to be tough and fast in the last 400 meters; Petra won both races at last year’s NCAA Championships and had an outside chance of being on the Czech Olympic team this year. And Guro is no slouch either; she’s usually on the RMISA podium.

In any group finish, you have to try to manipulate the race and your competitors, to the extent that you can, so that the race plays to your strengths.  You have to choose a strategy that you think will give you the best odds of success and then make a full, passionate commitment to that play, and let the cards fall as they may.  In a 400-meter head to head sprint against proven finishers like Guro and Petra, you could be forgiven for betting against Hailey.  Hailey herself has said that her finish-line sprint isn’t necessarily her strong suit. So I hustled myself out to a spot just within two kilometers of the finish and encouraged Hailey to forge ahead early and try to break the other two.  If she could get a seven or eight second gap, surely she could hold them off and reach the finish line first.  And even as I hollered my advice to Hailey, she immediately went into passing gear and committed herself to the attack.

All there was to do at this point was to listen to the radio because Andrew, Marine and Sara Studebaker were all spread out down the trail between me and the finish line.  Soon enough, Andrew was on the radio, shouting that Hailey had opened a gap of around ten or fifteen meters over Petra and Guro.  But he was in a position to see them twice, and a moment later, he came back on and announced that Petra was closing the gap. Eventually, Marine and Sara reported that Hailey had been caught, and that it was impossible to know who’d won the three-way sprint. As it turned out, Guro had come from the third position to win the race, with Petra second and Hailey third.

Regardless of how the final result came out, the race was a real breakthrough for Hailey; it was the first time she’s been in position to make a real attempt to win a college race. These RMISA races aren’t easy to win, by any means. Of course the first step is having the fitness and skills to be able to put yourself in a position to win. It’s pretty tough to win if you’re a couple minutes behind the lead pack. But the second part of the equation is just as hard. Once you’ve got the skills and fitness to be with the leaders, it’s another step completely to figure out how to win head-to-head matchups against skiers with the experience and mental toughness of Petra Hyncicova, or Martin Bergstrom, or Mads Strom.

And with that, coming off her first RMISA podium finish, Hailey was off to Switzerland for World Juniors. Things were looking promising. Hailey was clearly in good form. And she was coming off a bronze-medal performance last year in the World Juniors relay. So she should have been going into the week with confidence. In her first competition, an individual-start race, she finished second. Not too shabby.  It was, in fact, the best-ever American result at World Juniors. The second and final individual-start race was the skiathlon, and Hailey’s recent results suggested she would have an opportunity to try for the win. As it turned out, Sweden’s Frida Karlsson simply outclassed everyone in the skating portion, but that left Hailey and Norway’s Lone Johansen in a head to head battle for the silver medal.  Hailey knew that her best chance to win the battle for silver would be to try to break Johansen before the finish, avoiding a head-to-head sprint. She charged ahead on the final climb and managed to put a little space between herself and Johansen, but it wasn’t enough and the Norwegian was able to fight back and win the sprint.  It was a courageous race by Hailey, though, and it established her position as the best-ever American skier at the World Junior Ski Championships.

Over the past few weeks, Hailey has put herself in position to win every mass-start race she’s started, and she’s only been racing against tough fields – RMISA and World Juniors.  She hasn’t won one yet, but she’s made valiant attempts. Next time perhaps she’ll come out on top. Or the time after that.  Just as you have to race a lot of races before you can get the experience and skills to become one of the best, it usually takes quite a few attempts at winning mass-start races before you figure out a strategy that works for you. Hailey’s in the process of figuring it out.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Olympic Trainers

Long ago, I would occasionally get together with my friend Jeff at the Alaska Club and we would pump a little iron together.  Jeff was a lot stronger than I was because he'd pumped a lot more iron in his time than I had in mine. While I had been spending my days skiing around in the forest, Jeff had been the starting center on a Division 1 college basketball team, and basketball is a sport where they pump a lot of iron. Another reason he was stronger than me was because he was (and is) six feet nine inches tall.  And it just seems natural to me that someone so big and tall is going to pump more iron than someone who was a foot shorter and weighs about half as much.

Nevertheless, because I'd once been on an Olympic Team, and because Jeff was better at pumping iron than me, and because it was natural for Jeff to show me new techniques for pumping more iron, he always went around telling everyone around us at the gym that he was an "Olympic Trainer". If you knew (or know) Jeff and his general demeanor, you'll know that it was pretty damn funny when he went around mentioning offhandedly to everyone within earshot in the gym that he was an "Olympic Trainer".

Here's Jeff. In Prince William Sound. I think we were doing summer biathlon training.
But Jeff isn't the only Olympic Trainer I know.  Andrew Kastning is now, as of last week, an Olympic Trainer.  And even Marine Dusser, in her very first year as a college ski coach, is an Olympic Trainer too! That's because our own Seawolf Casey Wright was named to the Australian Olympic Team last week, making both of our Seawolf ski coaches Olympic Trainers!

Skippy has come a long way to make this dream a reality. Growing up in the Yarra Valley, known mostly for its chardonnay, it was a long drive for skiing with the family on weekends during Australia's relatively short winters. Eventually she got to the point where she knew that if she was going to really improve, she would need to leave home and follow the snow - in the northern hemisphere for our winters and then returning to Australia for their own winters. By Skippy's account, she had strung together eight straight winters without a summer by the time she joined us here in Alaska a couple years ago and enjoyed a little warm summer weather for a change. Since coming to Alaska, she has improved steadily, and recently started thinking that if she could continue to improve, she could potentially make the 2022 Olympic Team. But last spring, after a couple of particularly good sprint races, it started to seem that perhaps qualifying for this Olympic Team might be a possibility. She put all her effort into the summer dryland training season, working out with APU - a team that has a lot of skiers on the '18 Olympic team, including Skippy's Australian Olympic teammate Jessica Yeaton. Several of APU's skiers are legitimate medal contenders, including Kikkan Randall and former Seawolves Sadie Bjornsen and Erik Bjornsen. Obviously, it never hurts to spend the summer training for the Olympics with medal contenders.

During the fall I could sense Skippy's excitement for, and nervousness about, the coming racing season. She knew she had a good chance of qualifying for the Olympics, but she also knew that she was going to have to improve over the previous year and that an Olympic berth was not hers to lose. Rather, it was hanging out there - a possibility - but she was going to have to put all the pieces together if she was going to get that spot. There were questions about what avenue for qualification would be most prudent, as there were a limited number of opportunities to meet the qualifying criteria and she would have to make some tricky choices about where and when to race. And there was the question of whether it would be more likely to qualify via distance races or sprint races; Skippy thought meeting the criteria would be more likely via the "distance" route. But at a FIS sprint race in Fairbanks just before Christmas, she met the standard and suddenly things were looking really encouraging. I'll always remember driving the team van up the hill to the DiFolco's house in Fairbanks through falling snow, a couple hours after that race. I asked Skippy, who was sitting in the back seat, whether her race had qualified her for the Olympics. She responded, very hesitantly, that in fact it had. But it was obvious that she didn't want to celebrate it or discuss it too much, because she didn't dare start thinking that she was headed to the Olympics just yet. I could tell that she was excited, but was trying her hardest not to count her chickens before they'd hatched, and was determined to keep her thoughts in check and avoid getting carried away with a bunch of Olympic daydreams, in case things didn't work out in the end. So I tried to avoid bringing the topic up with her over the next month, regardless of how curious I was about her standing. Skippy knew things were looking very promising, but didn't want to let herself believe it until the official naming of the team last week. 

I know Skippy gets a little homesick from time to time, but she has said many times that coming to Alaska has been a critical ingredient for her improvement and her recent Olympic Team qualification. Having found it necessary to live several different places to follow her athletic dreams over the years, she's got groups of friends and family on two continents claiming her as "our Olympian." 

Congratulations to the Olympic Trainers, Andrew and Marine! And congratulations to Casey Wright. It's quite an accomplishment to become one of the very best athletes in your country and wear the national colors in the Olympics. Very few people have the talent, the desire, and the work ethic to become an Olympic athlete. Casey ought to be very proud of this accomplishment. Her teammates, coaches and friends certainly are!

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Making Memories

Our last morning out on the ski trails in Montana: