Sadie Maubet Bjornsen competes at the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships on March 2, 2021 in Oberstdorf, Germany.
For anyone who watched the women’s 4x5km relay at the 2021 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships, the U.S. team gave an edge-of-the seat performance.
Hailey Swirbul led off for Team USA, tagging Sadie Maubet Bjornsen just 14 seconds from the lead. By the time Maubet Bjornsen tagged Rosie Brennan for the third relay leg, the U.S. was in medal contention. In her anchor leg, Jessie Diggins then did everything she could to drop her rivals. By the finish, Diggins crossed the line in fourth place, 0.80 seconds from a medal. It was the closest the U.S. had ever come to the podium a world championship relay.
The U.S. men also had their best relay finish in decades, taking eighth.
It’s a testament to the depth of the U.S. cross-country ski team. And it’s a testament to the strength of the club program in the U.S. While most of the Americans who competed at the 2021 world championships are on the U.S. Ski Team, they also compete for home club teams.
It’s a relatively new way of developing Olympic-level cross-country skiers in this country. And the top two club teams currently—the Alaska Pacific University Nordic Center (APU) in Anchorage and the Stratton Mountain School T2 Elite Team (SMS) in southern Vermont—have proven very successful in not only helping skiers reach the world cup podium but the world championship and Olympic medal stands as well.
2018 Olympic gold medalist Jessie Diggins is a long-time member of the SMS team, and Kikkan Randall came up through APU’s team. On the 2021 worlds relay team, Swirbul, Maubet Bjornsen, and Brennan are all APU skiers.
So how did a club system develop in the U.S.? And how has it helped nurture world-class skiers?
Like most endurance athletes, cross-country skiers tend to peak in their late 20s and early 30s. To sustain high-level training for well over a decade takes support.
The Scandinavian countries, where winter sports are king, have long had community sports clubs where kids begin skiing as a way of life. As talented skiers rise to the top as young adults, they continue to train with their club teams when they are home, giving them access to coaching, training facilities, teammates, etc.
To achieve success at the Olympic Games, world championships, and in world cups, many believed that the U.S. needed a similar system. In the early days of cross-country skiing in the U.S., top cross-country skiers often trained alone, gathering occasionally for training camps. In the mid-2000s, the U.S. Ski Team tried to centralize the program, bringing the nation’s top cross-country skiers to Park City.
“We are a big country and cherry-picking the top four or eight athletes and moving them from their regions and their comfort zones was discouraging development,” said Sverre Caldwell, the long-time Nordic director at the Stratton Mountain School (a top ski-racing academy in Vermont).
Caldwell had always wanted to start a community-supported club program that would serve everyone from local youth to SMS’s high-school skiers to an elite team that would focus on international competition. The elite team would be funded by club fees and sponsorships, giving the elite athletes a home base and means to train full-time.
“After college, if you were not good enough to be named to the U.S. Ski Team, there was not much available for you,” Caldwell said. “A few good skiers were centralized in Park City with a couple of U.S. Ski Team coaches, and most of the others were unsupported and on their own.”
“The idea,” he added,” was that instead of four to six skiers based in Park City, we would have four to ten clubs each with five to 20 athletes, and the top ones would occasionally hop out for U.S. Ski Team camps.”
In 2012, Sverre’s daughter, Sophie Caldwell, was one of the first SMS T2 Elite Team athletes, along with Jessie Diggins. Both made an immediate impact in world cup races. For the men, Andy Newell had long called SMS home, and as one of the top sprinters in the world, he attracted others who wanted to improve their sprinting.
Up in Alaska, a similar club was already flourishing. Started in 1995 by three-time Olympian Jim Galanes (then called Gold 2002), the APU Nordic Club had helped Kikkan Randall become a world championship medalist and world cup winner. Maubet Bjornsen joined APU in 2010 after competing for a year for a NCAA Division 1 ski team. Brennan also joined APU in 2012 after successfully skiing for Dartmouth College’s D1 team for four years. Over the past decade, both have made the world cup podium—and in Maubet Bjornsen’s case, the world championship podium as well.
Other cross-country club programs include the Craftsbury Green Racing Project (known also for its biathlon and sculling programs) and the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation’s Gold Team, to name just two.
The key to the club system was getting the U.S. Ski Team to buy into the idea, said Caldwell. The USST staff had to trust and communicate with the club coaches, with everyone on the same page of athlete development.
This season, APU and SMS skiers made up the entire U.S. Ski Team A Team and two-thirds of the B Team.
Strength In Numbers
One of the advantages of the club system is that it concentrates the nation’s top cross-country skiers in a few locations. The skiers move to those locations—Stratton, Vermont, for the SMS team, Anchorage for APU—and live there permanently. For example, Jessie Diggins, a Minnesota native, purchased a condo in Stratton and lives there in the off-season.
Training together, the nation’s top skiers can then push each other and learn from each other.
Simi Hamilton joined the SMS T2 Elite Team in 2013. From Aspen, he had graduated from Middlebury College in 2009, then trained with what was then called the Sun Valley Olympic Development Program, making his first Olympic team in 2010. By 2012, he was qualifying for the heats of world cup sprints. To take the next step—onto the podium—he knew he “had to start training with some guys who were faster than me.”
SMS grad Andy Newell, who already had three world cup sprint podium finishes on his resume, was just the guy. A few months later, Hamilton won a world cup sprint.
“We do a really good job of recognizing our strengths and weaknesses and where we can push each other and learn from each other,” said Sophie Caldwell Hamilton, who joined the SMS elite team after graduating from Dartmouth; she married Simi last year. “Everyone is a little bit competitive; we wouldn’t be here if we weren’t. But our team does a very good job of setting that aside in the summer and trying to learn from each other and push each other and grow together rather than trying to beat each other.”
“Then in the winter, we all feel like we have had a part in each other’s successes,” she added.
The club system was particularly important in 2020. When the Covid-19 pandemic canceled the U.S. cross-country team’s training camps, the skiers stayed home for the summer and trained with their club teams. At APU, Brennan and Maubet Bjornsen, now world cup veterans, could push each other, as well as up-and-comers like junior world championship medalist Hailey Swirbul.
“I really enjoy that our club has a strong training group, so even in a year like this when we can’t have camps, I don’t feel like I was at a disadvantage because I had other world cup skiers to train with,” said Brennan, who credits APU’s head coach Erik Flora with helping her become one of the best skiers in the world.
“And when I first moved to the club,” Brennan added, “I had role models and people to show me the ropes and people I could look up to and follow skiing.”
She is now serving the same role to the newer skiers in the group.
Location, Location, Location
Maubet Bjornsen came to Anchorage in the fall of 2008 to attend the University of Alaska-Anchorage. That year, she competed for the Seawolves, finishing third in the 5k classic at the NCAA championships. A month earlier, she also competed for the U.S. team at the junior world championships. She wanted to pursue her education. But balancing school and training made it tough to travel for international races.
Then Maubet Bjornsen learned about the APU team. She could still take classes, but training and racing would hold equal priority. And because APU does not compete as an NCAA Division 1 team, she would not have the same college race commitments.
“As soon as I discovered I could go to school on a scholarship and live and train with the top skiers in the nation, that was the hook for me,” she said.
Maubet Bjornsen joined APU in 2010, then had a breakthrough season in 2011, competing in her first world championships and making the U.S. Ski Team. But having access to a university was key.
Even after she graduated in 2015 with a double major in accounting and non-profit business management, she began pursuing a master’s degree. This past season, her final as a professional ski racer, she studied for the CPA exam.
“I can’t just ski,” she stated. “I took one year off to just ski, and it was the worst year I’ve ever had. I learned pretty quickly that I need to divide my interest.”
Brennan already had her college degree when she came to APU. But she liked the fact that she could live in a city and still have access to good training, including on-snow training in the summer on Alaska’s Eagle Glacier. Living in Anchorage promoted a good life balance.
While some like the city, others prefer the country. The SMS skiers live in an outdoor playground in Vermont, with access hundreds of miles of roads and trails, including the Appalachian Trail, which “basically runs through our backyard,” said Caldwell Hamilton.
“The roller skiing is amazing in Vermont,” she added. “All these back roads are paved with very little traffic and varying terrain, and the [Stratton Mountain School] gym is high quality.”
Mostly, though, it’s about team.
“Our team attitude and atmosphere is very healthy and it’s a sustainable model,” she added. “It’s made me a fast skier but also a happy well-rounded person.”