It is easy to conflate the Kikkan Randall of today with the Kikkan Randall of the early part of the last decade: to assume that the much ballyhooed Alaskan has always been a dominant force, an unbridled ski hero destined to win. Not so. While Kikkan was always good – she qualified for the Olympics at 19 in 2002, she won qualifying rounds in continental cups in Europe in 2005 – her destiny was never handed to her. In fact, the success Kikkan has wrestled away from the highest confines of the sport is purely hers. It’s been written in this space before about a coach that knew Kikkan grumbling over a beer in Silver Star that while she was “giving it her all,” she was “unlikely” to succeed at the World Cup level. That was in 2003. Two years after that and three years after Kikkan had her debut at the Olympic level, the US Ski Team cut her. That’s right. Kikkan, despite being KIKKAN was cut from the US team in 2005. Developing skiers would do well to remember that and to stay glued to the difficult path towards elite racing. Developing skiers should know that the pipeline for Kikkan got leaky right around the time Wedding Crashers was in theaters. (“We lost a lot of great men out there.”)
A lot should be made of what Kikkan did next because many women in her position being bright, well connected and capable, would leave skiing to enjoy a contented life complete with epic adventures. They would forgo this silly sport. Mercifully, Kikkan did not punt on her dreams. She doubled down, trained harder and turned into the hero of the last three seasons. Furthermore, she did this with a steadfast type of focus, a laser-type drive that we talk about in skiing, but don’t identify.
It’s useful to use examples from other sports here to talk about the type of scrutiny and pressure Kikkan over came: a major league pitcher throws upwards of 110 to 125 pitches in a game. Every time that pitcher readies a throw, it is measured by immediate success or failure. It’s either a pitch thrown to help the pitcher’s team or the batters. All the while, there might be tens of thousands of people scrutinizing that pitch, watching…waiting for success or screw up. Skiing might not have the immediacy of a baseball pitch, but it does have the scrutiny. Ask any Fasterskier commenter that’s finished a Birkie wave and they’ll give you a clear explanation of who should or shouldn’t be supported by the ski community. The fact that our community is small only amplifies the volume on opinions. Kikkan worked through doubts and anonymity. She skied through countless rollerski sessions in the 38F pissing rains of Alaska (and continues to do so.) She’s scraped out a living from sponsors and supporters and race winnings before she became KIKKAN.
In doing this, in persevering, Kikkan mapped out a path for other people to follow her if they dare. Kikkan has demonstrated a path of strength previously unseen. For this reason she has more followers than even she might realize. Her influence is very large. When the nominations for the Johnny5 (perhaps the most prestigious award given to anybody, anywhere, ever) were rolling in, the Kikkan stories were thick. Wrote one mother of a young skier, “My daughter asked me to dye her hair pink so that she could be like Kikkan. While this is not something I’d normally support for a first grader, I happily helped.”
For that type of inspiration, for persevering through the toughest time in the development culture in nordic racing, and for another impossible, amazing season, Kikkan wins a 2013 Johnny5 award.more →
It would be easy to fill every Johnny5 spot with the individual women of the US team. Yet if that happened here at time-wasting-central, we’d still need one more spot for the women that brought unbelievable results to 2012-2013 and you wouldn’t capture what the essence of where their strength lives. This award is given to the powerful sense that these individual women have created- a feeling of team so invincible, it motivates solitary athletes to do amazing things.
Take for example, the most important point of the season for US fans: when Jessie Diggins was leading the Team Sprint at the World Championships after she broke a pole. The announcers, along with countless fans of skiing, scarcely seemed to notice given the speed and movement, Diggins kept out front. Sure, Diggins had what might have been the fastest pair of skis ever seen in competition thanks to her sponsors and staff, but to break a pole in a race of that caliber and to stay calm and still leading…that’s a very different deal for the US than the last twenty five years. Diggins skied out of her mind, well. Unbelievably well. US women’s team well.
That this Johnny5 award goes to Liz Diggins is appropriate because with strong support from Holly Brooks, Ida Sargent and Sophie Caldwell, the women’s team leaders, Diggins & Stephen became an collection of success, a collection of skiers that were crushing results as a team more than as solitary racers. When one skier wasn’t going swimmingly, another stepped up, when still another had a breakthrough result, more followed suit. The culture and confidence became palpable and interchangeable.
Best of all, this is a team that clearly likes each other. They want to be around each other. Diggins effort with Kikkan was born of a powerful pride that hasn’t been seen before, all striped socks and face paint. Here’s where they have given the greatest contribution to US skiing: they have pooled their resources to create belief. The odd entry fee, the strange otherness of winning skiers was cracked first by Kikkan, and followed by her teammates. In 2001, there were NO women on the US team. In 2006 the focus was on getting as many racers into QUALIFYING for sprints as possible. Now with a season of World Cup points scored by six different women, the US is a #skiingnation (patent pending).
You can feel the energy of a #skiingnation when Liz Stephen starts to notching races up the results page in distance events. She scored a best ever fifth place in the 10k freestyle on a brutally hilly course, an amazing individual result. Yet, when asked about that performance, Liz pointed to the team, “I would have been really psyched with a top ten but to actually (meet) this top five goal – which was definitely the far-reached one – I’m pretty ecstatic. I couldn’t have done it without the team behind me. The first person that gave me a hug was Holly [Brooks] in the finish zone. The entire team was there afterwards. I’m so lucky to be a part of something so big right now.
That big something is giving hope to not just the racers on the US team currently, but to scores of junior skiers from Anchorage, AK to Caribou, ME. Skiing development has a model & that model is Liz Diggins.
For that reason, Liz Diggins wins a coveted Johnny5 award.
(photo: Tad Eliot rocking the stars & stripes. ‘Murica.)
Back when it was the NCCSEF (The Needless Collection of Consonants Substituted Entirely for Fatuity), the organization was started to be a clearinghouse for skiing support. Begun by the intrepid, Reid Lutter, of Podiumwear fame, the NCCSSSEFSSA sold calenders of mostly clothed skiers with proceeds going to support junior trips in Europe. As an organization, the NEAACPSSSEFUSSAMENSA, was more successful than anything prior to its creation, in large part, because there was, and remains, no other organization that catered to skiing development.
USSA and the US Ski Team have long held the spiritual powers to do what the NCCSEF (mercifully renamed the National Nordic Foundation or NNF, a few year’s back) has taken on as its primary directive. As the sports governing body, one might expect from USSA, team camps, support for European skiing or funding for talented juniors. While in recent years, more support has come from the US meetings (happening this week in sunny Utah) in the form of ideas like Rick Kapala’s J2 talent identification camp or the coaches education process, no further funding has come to support programs or to keep things rolling in the Olympic cycles post-Sochi. In fact, not unlike the last quarter century in nordic skiing, there is preciously little support of ANY domestic American skiing from the head offices in Park City: witness the profound mediocrity of US Nationals held in Rumford for two years since there was, frankly, no one else who would do it.
We are, for all intents and purposes, alone as a skiing community when it comes to developing athletes. This is our role.
This might cause a sport to do some soul searching, which it did over the last two decades. If you’ve seen the Liam Neeson movie, The Grey, an atheistic, desperate movie about a plane crash and survivors in the wild, there is a scene late in the film after (SPOILER ALERT) the last of Neeson’s companions have drowned. Neeson’s character has a moment laying alone in a snowbank staring up at the sky screaming at a hypothetical god and demanding a sign of support. A few minutes of silence happen (figure this is reflective of the late 90s in American ski racing) when Neeson finally looks down and mutters quietly and resolutely, “Fuck it. I’ll do it my self.”
So it’s been with the NNF. Thanks in large part to organizing efforts of Dave Knoop (with support from James Southam and Kerry Lynch, as well as a board of supporters), the organization that started with calendars has grown to thrive again with a budget of over $160,000 in the 2013 season. A large chunk of that money came from the highly successful Drive for 25 program that enlisted donations from predominantly within the ski community.
Here is, perhaps, the NNF’s most important role. Sure it gives money, without which trips like the OPA cup experience or support for the B-team racers on the US team might not happen. Bigger than that, however is the flag waved by the NNF that is our flag. This is an organization for our community, not to be shared with recreational alpine skiers, snowboarder cross, or freestyle USSA license holders. In the eyes of the NNF, nordic skiers are not the forgotten children of an unfeeling or nonexistent USSA god, rather the most important folks.
It isn’t just junior skiers or junior coaches that can feel the difference. The enthusiasm of US camps around the REG experience has sharpened thanks to a feeling of support from the NNF and support for US team staff. College programs have encouraged their skiers to partake on European trips since they are supported by the NNF. Putting these folks together is no easy feat. For that reason, the NNF, and its most critical organizers are award a prestigious Johnny5 award. (Along with the cash prize of $0.00)
Fate gives us the hand and we play the cards. – Schopenhauer
When he was still the head coach at Burke Mountain Academy, a little less than a decade ago, Matt Whitcomb gathered accolades for putting together a strong team of young ski racers. Most folks know that Liz Stephen got her nordic start from a Whitcomb-recruited Burke effort after the tiny climber began her career as an alpine racer, but there were other heavy-hitters born from the culture that Whitcomb built. Ida Sargent, Lucy Garrec, Sam Tarling (who was 46 years old when Whitcomb recruited him as a freshman at Burke and just celebrated his 50th birthday by graduating from Dartmouth) all worked with Whitcomb early on. Around this time, when asked about the pocket of success he rode from Burke to a handful of trips as a Junior Nationals Team leader to an early position as US Ski Team staff, Whitcomb explained it as fate, “I was dealt some good cards.”
Under that logic, one might look over the last two years and accuse Whitcomb of stacking the deck. The US women finished 5th this year amongst World Cup teams, led by Kikkan Randall and Jessie Diggins’ World Championship performance in Val di Fiemme. Moreover, the women were the symbol of relief for those who’ve spent a life in skiing hoping for international success. The day-to-day details are very simple to do in ski coaching: ensuring a team is supported logistically is a simple matter of time and money. The intangible pieces, what one does beyond logistics or lucky cards, are tougher to get right. In skiing, especially in the US where entropy is grinding away at training an focus, authenticity and certainty go a long way to set a foundation for emotional security, a type of steadfast support. Whitcomb has both authenticity and certainty and he deploys them well..
Moreover, he has the ability to get out of the way when things are going smoothly and is unafraid to look silly if it benefits his cause. (Witness his participation in the team-bonding activity that was the Taylor Swift parody and know that for a devout Motley Crue fan, that had to be akin to farting in church on Easter Sunday.) Finally, and this is an important deal, Whitcomb knows how to navigate the political currents and eddies of ski racing without making a lot of noise. Credit his years as a fly fisherman to inherently understand going with the natural movements of sport. (He once brought a freshly caught and frozen fish to his Middlebury College dorm in the winter months to have it thaw and begin thrashing to the horror of his less outdoor-inclined dorm-mates.) Or credit a New England upbringing that valued quiet ambition. That history combined with Whitcomb’s ability to know just which cards to play and just the right times to play them have made for higher winning margins in US skiing. For that, especially in light of his 2013 efforts, Matt Whitcomb can claim a position as a Johnny5 winner.more →
The famed literary critic, Harold Bloom, wrote, for much of his career, on the difficulty of creating something new as a poet. He called it the “anxiety of influence” and marked its presence in the history of poetry. “Lesser poets become flatterers,” Bloom wrote, “They never achieve immortality.” Bloom railed against mimicry. He decried imitation. If Harold Bloom, were to ever turn his web browser towards the most frivolous and upstart of nordic skiing websites, he would hate (if not be completely confused by) Skierssaywhat. Yet, the mimicry that #Skierssaywhat has cobbled together on a small patch of internet, with its regurgitated reality TV show gifs, nearly-satirical love of Alex Harvey, and devoted following of any tween in skiing has done more to push the culture of nordic forward than any isolated coach, any erstwhile athlete or any development pipeline poster. Here’s why:
There exists, in American Skiing, an ugly indulgence akin to a poet in a black turtleneck, furiously scribbling. It’s is the isolated identity of skiing. I am SO nordic. I am an authority on Nordic skiing. It stems from the difficulty of the sport, the consuming lifestyle of being a skier and the marginal numbers overall in the sport that allow, in many cases, for people to actually gain an odd notoriety in our larger world as a cross country skier. It is too easy to become a caricature of a skier, to put on a costume without the identity. Building the sport isn’t about the costume. It’s about what the sport does to people, how hard it is, how hard one has to work.
There are rarely costumes on #Skiersaywhat since rarely are skiers featured in posts: no heart rate monitor straps, rollerski ferrules or klister torches. The site does not traffic in the typical trappings of nordic. Rather, Skierssaywhat has mostly emotional currency. It posts feelings, the sense of something, Roland Barthe’s noeme, the shared feeling that cannot be described easily with words.
Stringing together the tiniest clips of Community and Seinfeld and Reservoir Dogs with re-appropriated contexts that only those who live in the nordic ski scene can understand creates an inter-sport camaraderie that can’t be recreated elsewhere. Not in camps. Not at the JNs dance. Not in the most earnest of REG powerpoint presentations. #Skierssaywhat is at its best when it holds a mirror up to the ski world, when it allows for small bits of reflection and insight, when it sticks to the GIFs-as-emotional-sharing posts that its followers log on to see. The posts are simultaneously asinine and bumble bee sweet. They boast the cuteness of a baby polar bear, but the straightforward tone of a Maine lobsterman.
Most importantly, and unlike much nordic skiing media that came before #Skierssaywhat, it is accessible. It can be appreciated by those just starting the sport: those who need to see what lives at the guts of nordic. Thanks largely to the potluck format of submissions and sharing, the format and accessibility allows #Skierssaywhat to avoid any anxiety of influence. Rather, it embraces meme after meme in an online ode to skiing culture and a lightning rod for the feelings of those that would call themselves cross country skiers. Hence, mimicry, repetition and flattery are #Skierssaywhat’s tools to something very original and elevating for the scene. For that reason, they are awarded a prestigious Johnny5 award and the immortality that accompanies it.
The Johnny5 is awarded annually to the 5 most instrumental persons or institutions who pushed US skiing forward.
…Until then, here’s a guy on a unicycle serving a tennis ball just to waste your fucking time.
We’re collecting some input on the Johnny5…
Add your thoughts: HERE.
“They were living in the very cold climate doing ordinary work, like cutting and packing wood and going down to the river to bring water up. It gave them the right components.” – From THIS ARTICLE.more →
We’ve all been down this road before. Send along the people you think pushed US skiing forward in 2013 and WHY to firstname.lastname@example.org. 5 Winners (carefully selected by writing their names on paper airplanes and measuring which goes the farthest) get a nice write up here and the pride of knowing they’ve been selected for an award from a website read mostly by people in dirty spandex.more →