The U.S. women’s cross country ski team has never won an Olympic medal. But that could change in Sochi, Russia this winter.
Leading the way is Alaska Pacific University skier Kikkan Randall, the best sprint skier in the world. Summer training usually involves giving up on snow, but the U.S. women have a secret weapon as they prepare for Sochi – APU’s Eagle Glacier training camp.
Flying up to Eagle Glacier is like taking the longest and most dramatic elevator ride of your life. From Girdwood, it’s 6,000 feet nearly straight up. The helicopter barely crests the rocky edge of the glacier and then swoops down over the snow and lands next to a neatly groomed cross country ski course.
APU Coach Erik Flora stands at the edge of the course, offering pointers to skiers during a mock speed relay race.
“OK, so ladies, when you go, get a really quick first few strides so you get the speed up… in the end of the zone here,” Flora said, giving them instructions and encouragement as they skied past.
APU runs training camps on the glacier every summer for its Olympic development team and other elite cross country skiers.
The athletes spend a week at a time on the glacier, sleeping and eating in a dorm that sits on shale rock just beyond the snow. They put in long hours skiing each day.
On this morning, Flora is watching to see how “poppy” the skiers look in the legs – as he puts it, among other things:
“In the downhills we’re looking for how they take the turns, the lines they pick, body position, just trying to find different ways to find that extra two or three percent,” Flora said. “And then just pure racing skills.”
Flora designed the course to mimic the Olympic venue in Sochi. The snow is soft, sugary and wet after baking in the summer sun. It’s not exactly first rate skiing, but APU skier Kikkan Randall says when the team had a chance to test the Sochi course on the World Cup last winter, it felt very familiar.
“We all kind of looked at each other and went, ‘this looks just like Eagle Glacier snow,’ so I think even if it’s not the most glorious conditions to ski in, learning how to be technically efficient in this kind of softer snow is going to help us out tremendously,” she said.
Randall is the best sprint cross country skier in the world and the favorite for a gold medal in the event in Sochi. A decade ago a top-30 finish for the U.S. was a cause for celebration. Now, a handful of the U.S. women could medal at the Olympics. The team proved its depth last winter when they won bronze in a four-person relay at a World Cup event in Sweden.
“You know it’s funny because you go around town and people are like, ‘yeah that race you guys won,’” APU skier Holly Brooks said, describing the moment. “And it’s like, ‘well actually we didn’t win, we got third,’ but in our minds we won because nothing like that had ever happened before.”
If the U.S. team does bring home a medal from Sochi, Eagle Glacier can take some credit. It’s one of the only places in the world where cross country skiers can train on snow in the summer with a place to sleep and eat nearby. Brooks says there’s no substitute for skiing on snow.
“We roller ski a lot, but actually moving on snow is a totally different feel, it’s a totally different technique,” she said. “So, as a team… we’re looking to make history and this is kind of the ground work of that history.”
When Erik Flora became head coach at APU seven years ago, the glacier training center was a scrappy facility where the heat didn’t always work and the grooming was marginal. Since then, he’s turned it into a world class training center. He’s also turned the team into a powerhouse of Olympic level talent. He says the trick in the months leading up to Sochi is to keep the Olympics in mind, but not over do it.
“So what we try to focus on is skill oriented work,” Flora said. “And everyone knows the Olympics is coming so we talk about it, but we don’t get too specific about it.”
“But everyone has their countdown started.”
That countdown is 190 days. Kikkan Randall is keeping track, and in many ways she’s been working toward the 2014 Olympics since she first started skiing. But she’s trying to keep her training in business-as-usual mode:
“And I think if you put too much pressure on that one performance, when there’s things that could be outside of your control, it could ruin the joy of the journey,” Randall said. “So right now, I’m embracing every day, working towards it.”
“It’s an incredible process to get there and… if you’ve done your good work then you get out there and do what you always do and hopefully it’s a gold medal moment.”
This morning, it’s a hunk-of-glacier moment as Randall and her team win the practice relay. After they catch their breath, Flora scoops up an armload of snow and begins an impromptu awards ceremony, giving the winners a, “massive piece of Eagle Glacier Ice” as the crowd of skiers cheer.
The team doesn’t get much time to enjoy their victory though. Flora quickly has them back out on the course with instructions to put in more training time on the glacier.