When most people think about cross-country skiing venues around the world, China doesn’t come to mind. But China will be hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics for the first time. Skiers from 21 different countries got the opportunity to test the trails at a race hosted by Swix China at the start of March. Alaska Pacific University skier Forrest Mahlen was one of 13 representing the U.S. in the race. He told Alaska Public Media’s Wesley Early that the weather was in the 50s, a little different than he’s used to.
MAHLEN: It is winter in Beijing, but they don’t have natural snow there, so they were actually blowing snow, making these huge piles up in the mountains. And they were putting all the snow in trucks, driving it in to three different race venues in Beijing. The first was an 800-meter loop that we raced twice. And the other two were a 1.6 and a 1.5-kilometer loop, with about a foot deep of snow, nine meters wide, that they just rolled out and created a race course in a parking lot for us.
EARLY: That sounds a little different. What are courses normally like for you?
MAHLEN: I mean, you can go to Kincaid Park here or even up at Hillside, and we have the luxury of having tons of snow and natural hills and natural snow even.
EARLY: China doesn’t have much of a history of success in elite cross country ski racing, so Forrest, what did you see at these races from the Chinese athletes?
MAHLEN: The Chinese athletes were very impressive actually. They’re doing a huge push because they’re hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics coming up here. So there’s a huge push in China to not only create interest in the sport, but create medalists. And I think their most impressive result in the week was this young girl, I think born in ’98, but she finished second in the first day among World Cup skiers, and she had just put on skis 15 months ago, we were told.
EARLY: Fifteen months? She just learned how to ski?
MAHLEN: Yeah. They hired some professional Norwegian coach and she’s been skiing every day in Norway and on glaciers in New Zealand. And they have very high hopes for this young woman.
EARLY: That’s crazy. After spending some time in China, what do you think skiers should be ready for when Beijing hosts the Olympics?
MAHLEN: We had a bit of a shock. You always talk about the air quality; it was huge coming from Alaska. In Alaska, we have the luxury of perfect clean air all the time, and Beijing, for the first two races, was I think 250 parts per million, which is not recommended to leave your house. And we were outside ski racing. So tat was a big shock for I think most of the Alaskans, and most of the Americans, to be honest.
EARLY: I heard you had to have breath masks. Did you have to ski with the breath masks on?
MAHLEN: Most of the athletes were, especially warming up and cooling down, in the masks. But they make it a little harder to breath during the race. And since there was a considerable amount of money on the line, you sacrifice your lungs for a chance at the gold.
EARLY: How many out-of-Alaska races have you done in your experience at APU?
MAHLEN: Hundreds at this point. I’ve raced all over Europe, all over this country, tons in Canada. You just kinda go where the circuit and the snow takes you.
EARLY: One of the reasons I ask is because I know that China has a pretty high population density. There’s so many more people everywhere than most places. So I’m wondering how that compared to places you’d been before?
MAHLEN: Most ski venues in our country are kinda out in the woods, in the boonies. We’re used to ski racing where you go off on the line and you’re off by yourself in the woods for a couple hours and you come back. But in China, they claimed 10,000 live spectators. They were all televised, and they told us that 400 million people watched the televised broadcast of these three ski races, so more than the population of this country.
EARLY: I know that APU and China have been working on this partnership to get Chinese skiers to train at APU for the Olympics. Was there any sense of that partnership while you were over there?
MAHLEN: They had been coming, looking to train over here, because APU has a really unique place in the world, and we’re close to China and have our glacier facility above Girdwood. But this was all business for them. They were there to put on a really good race, and we were there to try and beat them.