Read an Excerpt
An excerpt from the chapter "Remember Kuusamo!"
It was the spring of 1991. Cory Custer and I embarked on the last racing series of the season across northern Finland, Sweden, and Norway called the Polar Cup. Every race in the three-week trip took place above the Arctic Circle.
This was the end of our first year out of high school, our first year as genuine ski racers. Cory had spent the fall and winter living in Norway, and I in Sweden. As a junior racing in Sweden I found some success. I won a few races and placed well in many. I fancied myself fast and on the rise. The trip to the Polar Cup wasn't that far, but it opened our eyes to the real world of elite ski racing.
We had arranged a ride on the Polar Cup bus from race site to race site, starting in Helsinki, Finland. At the airport in Helsinki a Russian man held a cardboard sign with our names misspelled on it. We hopped on the bus and sped through the endless snow and pine forest of Finland. The bus, though full of skiers, was silent except for me and Cory rattling on about our latest adventure.
Though juniors, we registered as senior racers for the Polar Cup so we could race the big boys-the very best in the world.
The first race was held in Kuusamo, Finland. It was an individual start, classic-style race. Cory Custer and I held early (rookie) seeded start positions. We warmed up on a portion of the course and could not believe the hills. There was no skiing them at an easy pace. Just to get up them we had to ski hard or walk.
The starter took his hand off my shoulder and I took off on a fifty-minute epic. Every hill was brutal. I poled hard to maintain my momentum up the bottom of a hill, and then skied a few hard strides before the steep pitch forced me into a fast run and finally to a grueling herringbone out of the tracks. Eventually, the length of the hill forced me into a quick shuffle or scamper. As I scurried up the outside of the track, the world's best poured past me skiing up the tracks with big, powerful gliding strides.
Though I was well out of his way, many-time Olympic medalist Vladimir Smirnov whacked me in the leg with his pole as he powered past. Cory reported receiving a similar blow when the huge Kazak passed him. We couldn't decide if it was meant as punishment-the Alpha wolf scolding the pups-or as encouragement. In any case it stung.
Double-poling along the flats, I was passed by skiers whose poles whipped with a deep whoop as they swung forward and then kicked up a spray of snow with each push.
But it was really the steep uphills where they buried me. They had springs in their legs. Taking springing strides, they caught and passed me and disappeared over the hill, leaving me gawking and scurrying along.
I lived many little lives in that race and thought many thoughts-too many thoughts. I marveled at the skiers flying past me. I knew I was too weak to ski as they did, but I raced as hard as I could. In the end I was beat by almost eight minutes in just fifteen kilometers.
On the train home from northern Norway, after the whole of the Polar Cup was over, I spent a long time staring out the window at the snow-covered landscape. Among the juniors I had some good races, but after Kuusamo I knew they meant little. Racing the seniors had a tremendous impact on me, but I was not disheartened.
My young age enabled me to look at the distance I had to travel with excitement. As the snowbound villages clacked past the train's window I began to plot and steel myself for the voyage. In ten years, I thought, I can win.
I determined that explosive strength was the area where I could make the biggest gains. Specifically, I had to be able to bound up those hills on legs like coiled steel. I needed to develop explosive power in my lower body and huge strength in my upper-body.
Being beat that badly in Kuusamo became an inspiration.
I flipped ahead months in my training log and wrote reminders to myself about the experience.
"Build explosive power!"
"Eight minutes in Kuusamo!"
And I set out a plan I devised myself on a train from northern Norway to middle Sweden.
Like a mountain climber at base camp, I had seen the peak and now understood what lay before me. There was no mystery in what had to be done. As in mountain climbing, where the mountain looks huge and unconquerable until the task is broken down into the details of climbing it, my plan relied on the details of training.
I thought there were many reasons that American skiers at the time weren't as good as their competitors from abroad. But the solution could be distilled down to one thing: training.