“Ski like an American” – reflections and definitions

If you have not already listened to our show with rising star, UVM and team USA athlete, Ben Ogden, here is the link to the podcast episode.

What’s inside the article:

  • Some key quotes and a narrative based on my discussion with Ben, including –
    • 2019 NCAA season – learning from his freshmen season
    • 2020 NCAA and World’s – growth and accomplishments
    • How mountain biking can positively impact nordic skiing
    • Ben’s overall approach to racing and competing
  • A Seder-Skier style, transcendent reflection and call for unity in defining the “American” part of ‘skiing like an American.’

“To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.”  – Pre

Steve Prefontaine, a runner idolized and idealized for his boldness, his guts, and his belief and willingness …maybe even compulsion in exercising his right to go directly at the very best in the world. More telling, he never let a race go by where the crowd – or himself – was left in doubt wondering whether there was more in the tank. Even though his best Olympic finish was a 4th place in the 5000 meters, he narrowly missed out on a medal of any color because he raced for a one of a particular color, and in the process, inspired Americans to become the best they could be and taught a generation what was possible when you are willing to give everything to satisfy the gift. 

Just as American distance running was in need of a savior in the late 60’s and early 70’s, the male skiing scene in the land of the stars and stripes is in dire need of a male presence who will thrust us back into podium relevancy on the senior World Cup level. It would be quite unfair to marginalize those who have laid the foundation; efforts of legends can’t be diminished. The Bill Koch’s, Jim Galanes’s, Peter Vordneberg’s, Carl Swenson’s, Andrew Newell’s, Simi Hamilton’s, and many others left unnamed ultimately will be partly responsible for any medals hanging around the necks of the new crop of youngsters. The third floor sunroom of Jessie Diggins’ and Kikkan Randall’s memorable night in 2018 would not have been there without years of hard workers pouring the concrete in the basement.  

But, on the surface, for the casual fan, all that we see and understand is the hero in front of us. And right now, leading the charge, are four special talents, ready to ride into the west and face the unknown with grit, toughness, and a personna that truly exemplifies the mantra, “ski like an American.” 

Luke Jager, Gus Schumacher, Johnny Hagenbuch, and Ben Ogden. Back-to-back World Junior Champs in the 4x5k relay, these four are that hope to ski fans. I was fortunate enough to chat with Ogden last week, and the competitive, spirited, gunslinger seemed to me part Brett Favre, part Pre, and part John Wayne. 

Willing to take risks. (Vikings fan know this trait in Favre all too well, right?)

Capable of pushing himself to the brink and beyond. (The essence of Pre)

Full of grit. (The man with the 18-inch neck has his picture next to ‘grit’ in Webster’s)

Ogden might be the face of our new generation of skiers – or at least one of the faces. He isn’t the type to drink in the limelight alone – his goals and focus are team oriented, and he is a member of the relay team – less 2016 Lebron James carrying the Cavs to an NBA title and more Paul McCartney or Ringo Star – this isn’t a solo show by any means. As much as all four guys bring a unique flair to the squad, all four recognize they need each other to push one another in order to fully bring their potential to fruition, just like David Shield expresses in his book, True Competition. They live out his call of working cooperatively to bring out the best in one another. 

After bursting onto the EISA and NCAA scene as a freshmen at the University of Vermont in 2019, winning his first carnival skate race in Lake Placid, Ogden would continue his winning ways through the World Junior Championships in Lahti, Finland, taking 10th in the 30k Classic, 8th in the sprint classic, and winning the 4x5k relay. Typically fresh and rearing to go in January, these early season successes were not a surprise. However, by the end of the year, he was hanging on, and an ill-timed sickness around NCAA’s was at least partly to blame for a 21st place finish in the 10k freestyle and an 8th placer in the 20k classic at Nationals, on his home course at Trapp Family Lodge. 

Neck deep in engineering classes and also balancing the carnival scene with international races and US nationals – the transition to college brought about more than just the typical challenges for freshmen. “It was definitely a lot. I wasn’t used to that where in high school my teachers were much more forgiving in missing school,” the SMS graduate remembers in reflecting on his freshmen campaign. 

As a coach and onlooker at many EISA events, I was first introduced to the talented freshmen at a time trial at Foret Montmorency, the site of fall training camps for many EISA squads, including Colby College, Bowdoin, UVM, UMPI, and a few Canadian-based clubs and teams. I was standing next to some fellow coaches at the bottom of a long and wickedly steep downhill when Ogden went by, easily approaching 50-55km/hr, with a teammate in tow, his skis underneath Ogden’s waist. I was amazed at how close they were, how fast they were going, and wondered how they would navigate the ensuing sharp right turn at the bottom. 

I witnessed firsthand Ogden’s obliteration of the early competition at the first couple of carnivals. After Foret and the first two carnivals, I felt as though my pegging him as an athletic downhill skier with at least a decent aerobic capacity was probably an accurate assessment. Looking back, as a mountain biker myself, I was curious as to what role that sport, which Ogden also enjoys in the spring, summer and fall, plays into both of those attributes in skiing. Maybe it was just my curiosity spilling over from our special on multi-sport athletes, but I asked Ogden how mountain biking contributing to his skiing. His answer shed lights on a few areas I wouldn’t have initially expected. 

“I love having mountain biking as a training tool. (It) gets me out there, helps me get some long hours,” Ogden says, championing the multi sport cause in the process. “I think it’s super cool to be a well rounded athlete. To keep my biking shape good, my running shape good, and keep my body moving in ways other than running, especially in the summer.”I’ve heard a few coaches say that mountain biking is not sport specific enough to aid in the development of nordic skiing. And while I agree on that take from a strictly physiological and biomechanic standpoint, clearly there are still benefits to gain from using it as a training tool. For some, variation in activity alone enables them to get out the door and train when they otherwise wouldn’t have. When your sport requires hundreds of hours of aerobic conditioning, staying mentally fresh and preventing burnout is a legitimate 12-month concern. It helps them train other areas (which we will mention in a minute), while recuperating from a long ski season instead of just getting right to rollerskis. 

 “If I do too much of the same thing, I get sick of it,” Ogden continues. “Whereas alot of people can be super stoked about the 3-4 hour OD’s on rollerskis every weekend. I personally like to mountain bike, road bike, whatever it might be, just to keep things interesting.”

Two of the biggest ski-specific benefits which come directly from riding a bike are the ability to read downhills and the opportunity to go long – really long – and go over the edge, aerobically, mentally, and maybe even emotionally. On skis, you are not really afforded the chance to repeatedly race for 2.5 – 4 hours, but on a bike, many gravel races and enduros operate within those timeframes, sometimes even extending upwards of 6-8 hours. For skiers, accustomed to the same exact types of workouts and race distances they’ve done for years, experienced veterans quickly understand just where their limits are…and sometimes paralyzed by the common fear of the unknown, stay dangerously within them to often. Staying in the same sport can breed comfort, preventing athletes from expanding their threshold for being uncomfortable, the ultimate catalyst for learning and growth. Ogden has appreciated the times in mountain bike races where he has gone out hard and even blown up, only to have to figure out how to hang on for another 30-40 miles. 

“Understanding where you’re limit is is huge. I know skiing so well and I’ve done it for so long. I personally think it’s important to go out there and destroy yourself every once in a while just to see how far you can go,” is how he puts it.  “In order to do so (know your limit), you’ve gotta go over every once in a while.”

His comments remind me of a recent suffer fest of a gravel grinder I undertook last fall, an enjoyable idea in principal at the start of the day, which morphed into a reality which was 60 miles of relentless climbs, battling of a changing headwind for what seemed to be the entire race, and relentless sun and heat. Just finishing the race required me to go to the well physically and mentally, and to bravely wade into uncharted waters in terms of understanding my own ability and testing my own limits. Even if churning the cranks isn’t a movement helping my V2, the other gains overwhelmingly aid in sport development as a whole, in my opinion, and I think the experience ultimately made me tougher and more self aware. My thoughts were reinforced by Ben’s insightful comments, no doubt.

 Mountain biking is not only the vehicle by which he stretches himself. It also directly trains his mind to think sharper and quicker when it comes to reading downhills.

“I actually do think that that mindset is a big thing I carry over into skiing. I definitely think about myself as being good on my skis, and good in downhills. I don’t fall very often,” Ogden accurately asserts. While he talks, my mind harkens back to that day previously mentioned at Foret. 

“Corners are sharp; if you race late, they’re icy; if you go inside soft; if you go in the middle ..and who knows what if you go on the outside. So, picking your line .. it’s huge. In mountain biking, it’s so different. It’s crazy technical. But it’s all about your line. There’s a route where you’ll make it and a route where you’ll fall. The faster you go, you can feel it on a mountain bike; if you really crank and go as fast as you can, your brain just gets going .. split second decisions like you see a rock and you gotta go over, to the right, left, whatever it’s going to be. I love practicing that on my bike and I definitely think in the heat of a ski race, you can go through those corners as many times as you want in the warm up, but you never quite know what you’re going to encounter after everybody goes over it. So i think it’s huge to train your brain to make quick decisions and adapt. If you get into that corner in a ski race and it’s icy where you didn’t expect it, you gotta know what your skis are going to do.”

Ever encounter a young person struggling with Algebra who says, “I’m never going to use this when I grow up, so why are they making me learn this?” Valid point, unless one understands that much of our academic rigor is designed to simply strengthen the muscle that is the brain. In the words above, you can hear a maturity in Ogden that understands the multi-faceted nature required to improve in sport. “I personally think that just getting those quick decision making skills are huge. It’s an area where a lot of skiers and endurance athletes can stand to improve.”

In watching him race, you see the impact.

The 2019 seasons started with a bang, but it didn’t see improvement within as the days ticked by. After those early season wins, Ogden started to fade slightly, and unfortunately, just as the NCAA season was nearing the pinnacle moments.

“I was generally tired at the end.  A factor of being a little too strung out.” Ogden recalls being stressed and worried about classes he had missed and how school work seemed to pile up as a result. ”I was worried about catching up and trying to keep it going with what was happening that day, (too).”

2019 was a season full of growth in that area. He learned how to balance. His advice for future college freshmen: don’t be afraid to communicate with teachers right away and to keep school #1. Staying on top of work reduces stress and ultimately leads to better performance in the long run. Sometimes, it means skipping out on Xbox with roommates, but mostly, it simply means prioritizing academics and being responsible.

“As a freshmen, I was really reluctant to go up and explain those things (being gone weekly for races). I was nervous they would not be supportive of it,” Ogden explained. “Going into this season, my biggest goal was to keep finding that balance.” 

2020 saw those process goals, which Ogden believes are the true vessels for improvement and success, come to fruition, and with it, some remarkable results. Even with his sights set on March races late in the seasons, and consequential shifts in training (more late fall volume and training through early races), Ogden still found himself at or near the top in many January and February events. He would win 6 of his 10 EISA races, never placing lower than 4th. The EISA classic bib leader, he was the United States Collegiate Ski Coaches Male Nordic Skier of the year. His coach, Patrick Weaver, in his 10th season, won the coach of the year award in guiding the Catamounts to their first EISA title since 2016, ushering in four All-Americans (nordic), as the UVM men were victorious in all 13 races they competed in during the season. 

The Landgrove, VT native, who grew up skiing on the Wild Wings XC trails, felt he was doing well in the early parts of the year, but knew he was capable of more. Near the end of January, he sat down with his coaches, frustrated by not feeling at full capacity nor skiing the way he had envisioned. They pointed him back to his training progression – the increased volume early, and the consequence. Those base hours had affected the beginning of the year, but he would be primed for the later races. 

Their words proved to be prophetic. 

At the Colby Carnival, a six lap race due to a low snow situation, Ogden went out hard and kept hammering. “I felt unstoppable,” he remembers. “I felt like I went up that hill faster and faster each lap.” 

Ogden rode the peak to UVM’s 68th individual NCAA title, a victory in the only race contested at the 2020 championships, a result of the Covid-19 shutdown. “I was lucky to bring that feeling out to Bozeman with me,” Ogden says in describing his stage of peak fitness. 

Like Prefontaine, Ogden made an NCAA victory seem easy; and he shares the former Oregon Duck’s demeanor on the world stage as well, employing a gutsy, ‘racing to win’ strategy. The 10k at world juniors was the race he really had his eye on. “I went out hard. Went out with the intention of being on the podium.” In the end, it wasn’t meant to be, but he had no complaints or regrets. He went out with the lead group but ended up falling off the pace, finishing in 9th. 

“A lot of people were like, Ben you gotta learn to pace yourself.’ and I’m like, ‘ yeah I probably should.’ but..realistically, I wanted to show what I could do in that race. So I started out with the intention to do just that. And maybe on a different day I could have held it…but maybe I couldn’t. Maybe I was  just dreaming …that was the speed I needed to go in order to win or to get on the podium…so I was going to try as long as I could.” 

While Ben didn’t exactly echo the Marshfield product’s “I’m going to run my last mile in 4 minutes and see if anyone goes with me,” one feels the former SMS athlete embody a similar pure guts, ‘if they’re going to beat me they’re going to have to hurt to do it,’ approach. At the very least, one can decipher the message and logical conclusion pretty clearly: Ben is not afraid to test himself and his limits. He is ok putting it out there and finding out what he can do, and that is an athlete who is easy to cheer for. In my own racing career, I always advocated and demonstrated even pacing, but in reflecting on the consequences, I admit the conservative approach may have left something out there I never knew about. Few things are as frustrating as watching an athlete on the big stage refuse to give themselves a shot at the podium, and often, if you want the podium, you need to race to win. 

. If this group finds the podium at the Olympics or the World Cup with frequency, it won’t be all on the shoulders of any one skier or any one group of boys or girls, and that should be made clear. Kikkan’s work as a 17 year old was important to what would happen in 2018 when she teamed up with Jessie. So it will be with this group, should they achieve similar monumental accomplishments. And the way they see it, as good as it feels to be back-to-back World Junior Champs, they understand how much value that has on the World Cup. “We’ve had this success as juniors, and that means nothing, as far as the senior field goes,” Ogden admits. “We’re going to have to work hard, train hard .. the training will be there, the coaches are good,” he says nearing the end of the interview, seeming to gain steam in the importance of his dialogue just as others would be expected to be fatiguing. 

As I’m recording, I’m nearing the edge of my seat, moving the phone closer to the microphone, as if this physical movement will effectively permeate the message to a wider audience. I’m not as much grateful for this refreshingly humble, grounded, and real perspective, but rather I feel almost motivated, as if going out for a nice hard interval session is what I should be doing right this second to help the US Ski team reach new heights. A similar effect was imparted onto Ben at one point by Matt Whitcomb, someone I’m starting to feel must be notorious for his ability to weld words together which stoke heated inspiration and real action in athletes. I felt moved more at a 2019 USSA coaching seminar listening to him than I have after many convicting sermons I’ve heard, not a light statement considering my high placement of Biblical theology.

While it was Ben’s experience that at many camps, coaches and athletes will get up and preach on the importance of the pipeline and appropriate training at every age — all of which he acknowledges is important – it was a particular sermon he heard from the current head coach of team USA as a freshmen in high school, when Whitcomb got up and presented the idea of 80 days of toughness, a call to do something every day that gets you out of your comfort zone, that was the most poignant. 

“You try to hang with someone that’s a little faster than you in a workout,” Ben recalls Whitcomb saying. The idea of doing something like that, of living outside of the comfort zone, from taking a cold shower to testing mental and physical capacities in an interval session, resonated with Ben. “The feeling coming out of the speech … and everybody there.. Like all the guys there went outside started wrestling!” He laughs, recalling the memory.

“I was just so stoked about Matt Whitcomb talking about getting tough.” 

Although hard to personally confess, there is a humbling truth that in every profession, in every walk of life, the ability and willingness to live in a place of discomfort, whether it is physical, mental, or emotional, is often the biggest determining factor in overall growth. I’m sure most of us can recall people in our lives who, as they age, refuse to move to new places, start new jobs, eat new things, or receive new instruction, all in the name of preserving their state of comfort on some level. The catalyst for growth, no matter how painful, truly is being in the fire and figuring out how to overcome it, and Ben clearly not only understands this, but embraces it with excitement. Maybe more importantly, he has those wrestling buddies who agree with him, and they stand ready, willing, and motivated to push him into the flames with a brotherly love, all in the name of future success. 

While I in no means intend for this reflection to make an aggressive political statement, it seems as a writer it is my duty to acknowledge the current times, analyze the various moving parts as carefully as possible, and meaningfully convey truth and spirited opinion to my audience. With a title like, “Ski like an American,” I feel obligated to define what “American,” truly is.

Why is it even a ‘good’ thing to ‘ski like an American?’

To answer that, I want you to attempt to think transcendentally for a moment. To be willing to follow me on my literary yoga stretches and potentially position yourself in a pose which is uncomfortable to hold. 

To me, being an American means standing up for the belief of fighting for equal opportunity for all.

Though race historically has determined, to a major extent, individual outcomes, when our national anthem is played and our flag is held up, I believe it is true to suggest that the heart, intent, and desire of our nation is one of relentlessly, persistently, and inventively striving for equal opportunity for all. For me, standing for the anthem or honoring the flag isn’t done so an affirmation that our country is currently where it ought to be (clearly, there is much to be improved in many sectors), but that our country desires to keep striving for something better. To achieve something much more noble than equitable outcomes for all….but instead is willing to wade through the often messy waters concurrent with the stream of equitable opportunities for all. 

It is much messier, since equal opportunity, in and of itself, can never truly be achieved, as many of the recent protests are continuing to bring to light for the majority of perhaps naive or even ignorant Americans.  However, if it is truly equal outcomes that we are protesting for, well, I have good news: that can be achieved very easily. All we need is a very powerful central government who suppresses 100% of its citizens. We will all receive an equal outcome, and it will not be good. If you don’t agree, brush up on the history of the communist and socialist governments in the world during the last century or so.  

And this, I believe, is where we can apply the sporting application for what it means to “ski like an American,’ above and beyond the performance adjectives we’ve already conjured up like ‘agile, athletic, bold, and gutsy.’

More than those traits, skiing like an American starts with where our heart is at.

An American competitor is a true competitor. They are someone who cares first and foremost for equal opportunities on the starting line. They want fairness in opportunity. They know that at the end of the race, not everyone will get a gold medal, thus devaluing the very medal itself and the motivation to do what is necessary to acquire it. They know this presents inherent risk. They are ok with that – after all, this where the true guts of a competitor is first realized, even if it is subconscious. 

Though we may be making incredible journalistic stretches for the sake of drama and for the sake of being patriotically inspiring, these are the core values of the competitor, are they not? Equal opportunity, level playing field, and within that framework, ‘true’ competition thriving and working its magic. The latin root, ‘competere’ means “to coincide; to strive in common.” When there is equality and fairness in opportunity, we are free to strive for a common goal – namely, to strive for bringing out the best version of ourselves, and everyone, possible. To try our best to be our best. 

To ‘ski like an American’ means believing there is no shortcut to get where you want to go. You’ve got to dream big, be willing to work hard, and be tough and resilient in the middle of the fight. On the big stage, you have been given an opportunity, and when you’re on the line, you fight with all you’ve got and let the results lay where they may lay. The very fact that not everyone receives equal outcome – that we don’t all get medals – is what drives individuals to vast depths and incredible heights. They are motivated to go to the well and to come up with something new. They are motivated to reach new heights in creativity, ingenuity, and sometimes, on a now perspective-wise much less important stage, even …athletically.. 

I hope when we ponder thoughtfully, critically, and hopefully not, sadly I’m afraid, ultimately soberly, on the future of our country – whether we will fight for equal opportunity or equal outcome will have massive social implications – thankfully, after spending time talking to a young, exciting, athletic talent about skiing, I feel confident I don’t need worry about where we are headed in the US Ski and Snowboard’s men’s cross country team. Instead, I can excitedly anticipate elite results. We have athletes with great vision, and they’ve bought into it. They have the “it” factor, I believe, to take us to these new heights. 

“It comes down to toughness.”  – Ben Ogden

I can watch as skier’s younger than guys like Ben eventually are freely inspired to be bold,

 to be tough,

….to stand for what is right…

 and to be great.

..

To ski like an American

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