Would having a Visma Ski Classics team in the US improve the overall health of the sport in the country?

Part 1 of 3 – Visma Ski Classics Special: The state of marathon racing in the US, its relationship to club/community based ski programs, and how both affect you ……and Jessie Diggins.

“My vision was to have a high-level program that was community-based, that the community supported and was behind and felt part of. I thought that was really critical to long-term success, and more importantly, sustainability of the program.”

  • Jim Galanes, 2013

Considering the longevity and widespread impact of Jim Galanes’s involvement in nordic skiing in the United States – he has been either an athlete, coach, physiologist, technician, or program director for almost 50 years – he’d be a reasonable candidate for a mythical “Mount Rushmore of Nordic Skiing.” While a future Seder-Skier podcast show can perhaps settle the debate on who the founding fathers of the sport are, I’ll take my own advice and ponder his words. When someone like Jim speaks, people who care about cross country skiing ought to listen. 

I had the pleasure to have Jim on the show to discuss a myriad of topics last fall. This quote came up in our discussion on the state of skiing in our nation. I enjoyed, as I do with most of my guests, doing more listening than talking. I also enjoyed, as I do with most guests, splicing in my own thoughts between long winded questions which typically won’t be found on larger media outlets since, to be frank, I have nothing to lose. While Jim and I had great discourse back and forth regarding our ideas on training philosophies and where the best trails on the planet are located, we firmly agreed on something pretty foundational: in order to grow the sport AND have success at ALL levels, fostering community-based programming is key. You may be thinking, “What does this nugget of wisdom have to do with the Visma Classics?” 

You might also be wondering, “Why would someone make an argument for the US to enter the Visma circuit with its own team? What does that have to do with winning World Cups?

….With growing the sport?

…..With winning medals?

For Americans, the answer to all of those questions is: 

……everything. 

Back in March of 2019, I was blessed (those words don’t do the experience justice, really) to visit, ski with, eat, travel, and fellowship with members of Lyn Ski club in Oslo for two weeks. The conversations, people, and memories from the experience will remain with me forever. You can imagine the extent with which my enthusiasm was bubbling over as I witnessed firsthand just what it looks like when cross country skiing is not simply embraced or celebrated, but baked into the culture of a community. Let me illustrate with a memoir from my journal:

“It’s a ho-hum Wednesday evening, and I just finished skating around Lyn’s trail system (of course they had their own….duh! It is connected to the nationwide network, which in this case, puts you within reach of the famous Holmenkollen course and stadium) My workout started by weaving through dozens of groups of 5-8 year olds circled up around volunteer coaches – a mixture of athletes and parents. Whooshing down a hill, avoiding the Piston Bully groomer doing his rounds (because in Norway, every 12 hours, every spec of the 3000 kilometer trail system is touched up by top of the line equipment), I sped by the middle school teams and the juniors engaged in some drills. I found the 17, 18, and 19 year-olds in the middle of an interval session farther out, with the main hired coaches guiding the Visma Team members right in with the whole bunch. Inspiration for the young pups, right? 

And finally, as I wandered up a massive hill in the Nordmarka forest, I found my host and good friend, Einer, skiing along with other members of the Birken crew – the master’s skiers who had kids at all stages in the program and were part of the recently past annual club trip up to Rena to race the legendary traverse across the mountain (the Birkebeinerrennet is the full name of the race). I could spend a whole article speaking to the unique camaraderie I witnessed on that trip. Our group of about 70 ate a meal inside a monstrous dining hall in the home – mansion – of a friendly guest and later slept – all of us – in a guest house next door.”

What should you glean from that? In Norway, the “community-based” in community-based ski club, means everyone, at every age, plays a vital role to the success of …everyone else … at every other age.”

Simen and HC – two Lyn alumns, on the World Championship podium. They are cut from the same cloth as the youngsters below.

 

“The difference between our (US cross country ski) sport’s culture and Norway’s,” Galanes starts but then interrupts himself, pausing to state his point clearly on the other end of the phone. He continues, “If you read the documentation for the Norwegian Olympic committee – their mission statement is sport for all. They’re not just saying, ‘we’re about winning medals.’ … We’re about sport.’ Healthy, lifelong participation in sport. Norway doesn’t have a deficiency of medals with that outlook and that focus.”

What about the money? After all, who wouldn’t want a nordic situation like Norway, Sweden, or Finland? It seems great, but is it feasible financially?

“I’ve always had the belief that if we’re doing a good job, the money and the support will follow,” said Jim when I pressed him on this issue in the fall. “If I’m providing something of value for the community, the money and the support will follow. The 10 years I spent building the APU program proved that. The community stepped up and funded that program.”

For Jim, selling the value of a ski program to the community has to do with selling the community on the true value of sport. “The value of sports and each kid striving for their own level of individual excellence is incredibly beneficial to that person, and it will teach them lifelong skills that will benefit them in everything they do.” I could not agree more.

In essence, when this mission is championed by members of a club, a community is likely to throw money in its direction because they too feel the reverberations of its value. At APU, growth in stability allowed the program to become self sustaining. It was, as Jim puts it, “a community where we were growing skiers from a young age and they were going through a program that had continuity and consistency for 8, 10, 12 years – however long the athlete decided to pursue it.” Though APU’s primary focus was the elite program, all groups’ (including, most importantly to the bottom line of the budget, the community’s) fates were intertwined, their successes interdependent, and their benefits shared. When your valedictorians, Rhodes Scholars, food drive organizers, and future lawyers, doctors, and teachers are all coming from the ski program, wallets from community members tend to open up.

In North America, club teams have sprouted up in various places, but, according to Galanes, not enough truly embraced the idea of valuing participation in the sport from ‘the cradle to the grave.’ I believe the absence of a Visma presence is an obvious evidence. The lack of consistent performance on the World Cup stage is a more subtle side effect. And the fact that 95% of Americans have not only never been on a skinny ski but wouldn’t be able to if they wanted to, is the truly depressing side of the story. In Norway, the thing people do on Sunday afternoons is to venture into the woods as a family for a ski, NOT gather around a TV to pay taxes to the NFL, Netflix, and ABC. Think about it. Culture.

Based on my own motivation and ambition to forge and race for a US-based Visma Ski Marathon Club, I’d like to hope I’m right in claiming the following as a solution as a remedy for this situation: 

Basically, if the USA wants to get serious about elevating their game at all levels (including the World Cup but not limited to international marathon success) AND introducing more people to the sport, they need to realize those things go hand-in-hand. The local club needs to value the importance of the 44-year old guy training to get top-10 at the Birkie just as much as the 74-year old who is just proud to be out there. Why? Because those guys support the 24-year old World Cup hopeful AND pay for the lessons for the future World Cup hopeful disguised as a 4-year old slipping around because he can’t get his wax to set. 

Interestingly, it wasn’t all that long ago when we ‘almost’ had this going, in a way. How about a brief history lesson for the youngsters out there…. 

Members of the Subaru Factory Team, the most successful American Pro Ski team of all time

Check back to read Part 2 of our story – “The Subaru Factory Team” – with quotes from Ivan Babikov, 3-time Olympian and former World Cup skier, and Andrew Gerlach, director of EnjoyWinter/EnjoySummer and Endurance Enterprises

Babikov striding at the Owl Creek Chase in his Subaru Factory Team kit “back in the day.”

“The sport needs to reinvent this enthusiasm for consumer racing. The joy about gravel racing is that the fast guys are on the same course as where you’re going. They’re enduring the same thing. That’s what loppet racing is all about.” Andrew Gerlach

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