USA a Nordic Ski Nation

US Nordic Combined skier Bill Demong after winning gold in 2010 Olympics (photo Voice of America).

US Nordic Combined skier Bill Demong after winning gold in 2010 Olympics (photo Voice of America).

American athletes embrace and succeed in cross-country skiing and ski jumping.

By John Erik Stacy, 12 March 2010.

Nordic skiing is an American sport. As you are choking on your coffee, consider this: Bill Demong (NY) and John Spillane (CO) passed up Austrian Bernhard Gruber to add gold and silver to US spoils taken under the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Conquest. In fact, the US ski-team was on the podium for each Nordic Combined award (whereas the best Norway could offer in these events was place number five). Nordic Combined – which requires both jumping and cross-country skills – is something of a special case in the world of Nordic skiing. But US athletes participated in each of the eighteen Nordic competitions held at the 2010 games at Whistler Olympic Park. And there were solid rankings for many of our athletes, such as Kikkan Randal (AK) in 8th place for ladies classic sprint and again together with Caitlin Compton (MN) for 6th in team free sprint.

USSA “pipeline”

Team USA boasts 34 athletes that compete either in cross-country skiing or ski-jumping. Skiable regions of our country are all well represented, with scads of jumpers from the Rocky Mountain regions and skinny-ski racers from New England, the Midwest and Pacific Northwest. It should come as no surprise that there is a nationwide network that supports the sport: the United States Ski Association (USSA) has eight cross-country divisions each working a region of the country. Each year there is a USSA Cross Country Skiing Junior Olympics that draws aspiring athletes from clubs within each of the divisions. Junior skiers from age 14 can participate, happening this year between the 5th and 14th of March in Presque Isle Maine.

Team USA Bill Demong races for Nordic Gold in 2010 Olympics. (photo Roland Tangalo).

Team USA Bill Demong races for Nordic Gold in 2010 Olympics. (photo Roland Tangalo).

Local clubs support trail systems used by millions

But on their way to national and international competitions, each athlete will develop their skills near home and in local events. Each USSA division includes many individual teams and clubs. Yuriy Gusev of the USSA Central Division estimates that there are about 500 such organizations under his part of the umbrella. Teams may be part of a high-school athletic program, as in Minnesota, but in most states, juniors participate through clubs. And many (if not most) of these clubs have their roots in immigrants from Norway: “Norwegian Americans are the foundation of the energy that keeps the juniors moving” said Steve Devine of the Pacific Northwest Ski Association.

The clubs do a lot to support skiing in general. Most of the groomed trails and trailheads around the country have some club history, whether they are a commercial operation or part of the parks system. In the Seattle area we know how the Kongsbergers Ski Club established their lodge and helps to maintain the trail system through cooperation with the US Forest Service and Washington State Parks. The Sons of Norway Trollhaugen Lodge has a similar story with its Erling Stordahl trails. The Summit at Snoqualmie is an example of a commercial operation with a history of Nordic club affiliation. “Perhaps one of my best memories was when Snoqualmie Nordic Club hosted a Junior Olympic qualifier on the Upper Trail system. We had FULL sunshine and the race was spectacular!” said Holly Brooks of the Summit (she participated in five of this year’s Olympic cross-country events, including the 30 k classic). The proliferation of trails and clubs reflect the fact that there about 10 million people in the US that call themselves cross-country skiers. Norwegians should be proud that this part of their culture – with its nature friendly, health and family associated aspects – has been embraced by so many people.

Fun to do and fun to watch

But is Nordic skiing a spectator sport? Most definitely! There is a carnival atmosphere around a local ski race and that experience was writ large at Whistler Olympic Park! The venue was set up such that skiers passed through the stadium several times per lap, and when they were further out you could follow on the big screen. You could also leave the stadium and watch from various point; there were bridges over the trail and fans in mass migration to the next viewing point with clanging cow-bells to cheer the super-beings on the trail. You could feel the electricity as those in the lead came into the stadium for the final spurt to the finish against their closest competitor (and some finishes were very close!). It was fantastic! And so is a race in your area. You may not see it on American TV (although the sport is quite telegenic as demonstrated by European broadcasters). But you can certainly get out to a race near your town.

So US Nordic skiers at the 2010 Olympics are by no means a “Jamaican Bobsled Team” phenomenon but a solid part of our Olympic presence. The US took 37 medals this time around – 12 more than our previous record set in 2006 at Torino. Actually, the US has always been a winter sports nation, historically second only to (you guessed it) Norway in medals and ranking in the top ten since the inception of the winter Olympics in 1924. It should be no surprise then that Nordic skiing is a significant and positive part of our culture.

This article was originally published in the March 2, 2010 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. For more information about the Norwegian American Weekly or to subscribe, call us toll free (800) 305-0217 or email subscribe@norway.com.

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