This year’s U.S. Olympic cross-country ski team has deep roots in Alaska, with eight of its 14 members either from Alaska or skiing with Alaska-based teams.
Among them are siblings Scott and Caitlin Patterson, who grew up skiing in Anchorage and now both compete at the highest level of the sport.
As Scott describes it, he and Caitlin are on “lockdown” with their parents in Bozeman, Montana, trying to avoid COVID-19 until the Olympics next month. And, almost from the beginning, Scott says his path to making the team this year was not as straightforward as he had hoped.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Scott Patterson: In August, I had a mountain biking crash at Hillside. And so I ended up doing a couple races on the World Cup in the fall, but I wasn’t racing all that fast. So mid-December, I came back to the U.S. and then went to U.S. Nationals. And there were four races there. I only actually did two of them, focusing on the distance races, which is more my specialty. And I won the 30k and was 2nd in the 15k.
Casey Grove: Is it too much to say that that was a bit of a Hail Mary to have to kind of win that race to make it?
SP: Yeah, it definitely was. I mean, if I had been second in the 30k, and wasn’t quite as good in the classic, as well, I wouldn’t be on the team right now. It was kind of all or nothing couple of races.
CG: It strikes me as, like in any normal year, you’re trying to avoid injuries and all kinds of things. It just seems like things could just jump up and bite you at any moment. But then, on top of that, you’ve got this global pandemic and COVID. What has it been like for you trying to deal with that, trying to avoid COVID?
SP: I mean, we’re doing everything we possibly can to avoid COVID. I think in the first place, skiers are pretty paranoid about illness. I mean, we’re traveling most of the winter in Europe on the World Cup circuit where even a small cold can throw you off for several weeks and kind of ruin performances, and you feel like you’re wasting time over there. So we’re starting already from a pretty high bar, in terms of health precautions. But with everything else going around right now, everything is stepped up to a whole other level. Like, right now, as part of a U.S. Ski Team policy, I’m doing antigen tests every day, we’re doing health monitoring. As far as actually going to China, we have really strict protocols in place that, if you test positive right now for COVID, you’re probably not going to the Olympics. So it’s a thing where my sister and my parents are all here in the same house. And we’re fully locked down right now. No one’s going anywhere.
CG: I wanted to ask you about the proportion of Alaskans on the team, including your sister. What do you think that says about Anchorage or Alaska that so many of the skiers on the Olympic team come from here?
SP: I mean, I think I’ve realized it more and more spending time in Bozeman or other places, where Anchorage just has a phenomenal environment for building skiers, when we have all the trails right in town that are groomed so well during the winter. And then great opportunities in the summer, too. And I think a lot of those opportunities bring some incredible people, and then once you have a few of those incredible people, it starts to build momentum as groups, between Alaska Pacific University and the club I’m with, or my junior club with Alaska Winter Stars and UAA as well. I think there’s a lot of really strong groups. And I mean, I really can’t think of a better place for developing skiers in the U.S. right now.
CG: As somebody that came up here, it strikes me as pretty inspirational to folks that are growing up right now skiing, maybe in junior high or high school, and they have aspirations of going to the Olympics someday. I wonder what would you tell somebody like that, being in the position that you’re at now, you know, about their dreams of going to the Olympics?
SP: I mean, I come back to this a lot of times, actually, talking with people, where it’s a lot of just stick to it. If you really have the dedication and are willing to put in the hard work, I think basically anyone can make it. I mean, I was exposed to skiing at a really young age, which is beneficial, but I think there’s plenty of people who weren’t. But even for myself, I mean, I’ve had some pretty low seasons where I’ve been racing slow and haven’t felt like I could make it anywhere, but then you kind of fight through those hard spots and show that dedication. And I think anyone skiing in Junior Nordic can go to the Olympics if they want. Or anyone who’s not in Junior Nordic, or even not skiing in high school. There’s always that opportunity. I don’t think it’s ever really a closed door.