Go For The Gold: Andy Newell

Go For The Gold

BY PEGGY SHINN I JULY 2, 2013

Cross-country skier Andy Newell poses during the NBC/U.S. Olympic
Committee photo shoot in West Hollywood, Calif. in April 2013.
Andy Newell (front) and teammate Eric Packer finish their double pole
interval workout at the Ball Mountain Dam in Vermont in late June.
Andy Newell in action during the FIS Cross-Country World Cup Tour
de Ski men's sprint on Jan. 5, 2011 in Toblach, Italy.

STRATTON, Vt. — Flash floods in the forecast were not enough to keep Andy Newell inside. The two-time Olympic cross-country skier and his SMS T2 teammates, along with a group of elite juniors from the Northeast, headed to the nearby Ball Mountain Dam access road to do double pole intervals on roller skis — a workout aimed at increasing speed in the last, painful part of a cross-country sprint.

After crashing in the sprint qualifier at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, Newell has every intention of winning a medal in the sprint at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games. As the only male skier in the world to earn World Cup points in every sprint this past season, his chances are good.

So with water literally weeping from the cliff above the dam road, Newell and a crew of about 30 young Nordic skiers clicked their ski boots into roller skis, grabbed their ski poles, and pushed off to do five three-minute intervals up the paved road. Using only their arms (and backs, shoulders and torsos), they flew over a half-mile up the six- or seven-percent grade. It would have been difficult to keep up on a bicycle.

Despite the incessant rain in the Northeast this summer, Newell, 29, is happy to be home — even if his ski boots haven’t dried out yet. He will stay in Vermont until mid-August, giving him an uninterrupted two-month stint at home that’s virtually unheard of for world-class skiers. But it was a situation he knew he needed to create after his devastating results in Vancouver in 2010.

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Although cross-country’s sprint race sounds like a quick dash for the line, it’s really an all-day aerobic event. Athletes first ski a qualifying round on a course that’s 1-2 kilometers long (and takes two to four minutes to ski). The top 30 skiers in the qualifier move on to the quarterfinals. Top two in each heat, plus two “lucky losers” move on to the semis, then six make the final. Qualifiers and heats are all held the same day, so skiers who make the finals race up to 8 kilometers at top speed and ski many more kilometers to warm up and cool down during the 45 minutes between heats — though an unlucky few spend that time curled over a bucket vomiting (as Newell did between heats in the team sprint in Vancouver). First contested on the World Cup in 1996, sprints are either classic (kick and glide technique) or freestyle (skating technique).

At the 2010 Games, it was a classic sprint, and Newell was in the best shape of his life. With two World Cup podiums on his resume, he knew he was a medal contender. And he wanted to win the qualifier. Instead, on an icy course, he crashed in a tough corner. Though he picked himself up and finished, his time was only good enough for 45th. He was devastated.

“What I learned from the whole preparation process for Vancouver was that you can’t go four years without enjoying the process because you could crash out,” he said.

And for Newell, who prides himself on his Vermont roots, that meant spending more time in the state that helped fuel his career. As a kids growing up in the Bill Koch League youth skiing program near his home in Shaftsbury, Vt., he heard tales of legends like Koch and Tim Caldwell training for the 1976 and 1980 Olympic Winter Games by running six hours up mountains with no water — “all these legendary stories that probably weren’t even true to begin with,” said Newell with a quiet laugh.

“That kind of rugged Vermont style is something that as a male cross-country skier, you idolize when you’re a kid,” he said. “Now when I’m racing the Olympics, it’s cool to think about that and to think about the history of skiing in Vermont.”

Never mind that Newell is now part of the state’s skiing history — a legend himself as a two-time Olympian with three World Cup medals.

Last summer, Newell and Stratton Mountain School’s head cross-country ski coach Sverre Caldwell (Tim’s brother) started the SMS T2 team, an elite group of cross-country skiers that includes U.S. Ski Team members Simi Hamilton, Sophie Caldwell (Sverre’s daughter) and reigning team sprint world champion Jessie Diggins. Both Newell and Caldwell attended the Stratton Mountain School for high school, and they recruited Hamilton and Diggins, as well as four up-and-comers. This elite team is the final level of what Newell calls a “full club lifestyle” in the Stratton area, where skiers from ages six to 30-plus can be part of a club or team.

“It’s a model that we’ve tried to copy from the Europeans, and it’s worked really well because it’s such a cool community-based training program,” Newell added.

In addition to their own workouts, the SMS T2 athletes run clinics and train with younger skiers, like the Regional Elite Group doing the double pole workout at the Ball Mountain Dam.

The SMS T2 program is working well for Newell. The 2012-13 season was his most consistent ever on the World Cup. In addition to scoring points (by finishing top-30) in all 10 World Cup sprints, he made the finals four times. He even earned points in distance races. Newell credits this consistency to both his experience on the World Cup (10 years) and consistent training in Vermont last summer, uninterrupted by traveling to camps in other parts of the world.

He also backed off on two other favorite projects: building a cabin in Weston (north of Stratton) and producing films for X Ski Films, a company he started in the early 2000s to show that cross-country skiing is cool. With what U.S. Ski Team coach Chris Grover once described as catlike reflexes and athleticism, Newell filmed himself riding the halfpipe on his skinny cross-country skis and doing backflips off jumps, as well as surfing in Costa Rica and skateboarding. He used to say that he liked to put the X in XC skiing.

Instead, Newell now occasionally works with other videographers to make short clips, such as “Dryland,” a six-minute video by Chris Milliman showing parts of Newell’s intense off-season workouts.

“At least we’re getting cool cross-country skiing culture out there,” said Newell. “The X Ski Films spirit still lives on.”

For now, Newell is focused on winning a medal in Sochi in the sprint (skate technique in this Winter Games) and team sprint. To make the finals, Newell needs a little bit of luck and a big amount of fitness.

“You can be the fastest skier in the world, but if you don’t have the endurance and fitness to make it to that final, you’re not going to get a chance at a medal,” he said. “Once you’re in the final, it comes down to who’s the fittest and who’s the strongest and who can ski the last 200 meters of the sprint the fastest.”

SMS T2 coach Gus Kaeding is helping Newell achieve that fitness along with “speed under fatigue.”

“He can go fast right off the bat,” said Kaeding. “But we want to make sure he can go fast after he’s feeling a little tired, which he’ll be after a three- or four-minute sprint.”

The short, fast double pole intervals at the Ball Mountain Dam will help Newell and his teammates develop that tolerance for pain — a familiar feeling for someone with Newell’s experience. The young guy on the U.S. team for years, he is now the only man on the U.S. Ski Team’s A team, and he turns 30 in November.

“I’m starting to develop my old man strength,” he said, with a quiet chuckle. “So it’s going to be good.”

Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.