Re-Learning Nordic Skiing
In 2010 at CY Middle school in Casper, Wyoming I was introduced to cross-country or Nordic skiing. It had been about a month or so since my first season of cross-country running had ended, so when it came time to decide what to do for a winter sport cross-county skiing seemed like the most natural choice for me. Had I ever heard about Nordic skiing before? No, but I'd downhill skied so they couldn't be that much different. Little did I know I was entering a whole new world.
My young moldable mind was able to pick things up quickly, and my first few seasons flew by as I learned how to actually ski. In high school I began racing at a higher level, traveling across the country for Junior nationals to test my skills against kids from all over America. My whole life was absorbed with this culture of skiing. I trained year-round for a sport that could only actually happen a few months out of the year.
By the time I reached college my love of the sport brought me to the UW Nordic Ski Team. Here I experienced more of what skiing actually is. For me, it always revolved around physical attributes, but now I'm bringing in my mind as well. In my almost tenth year of skiing, I'm beginning to learn where the sport comes from, and how to the learning process of skiing occurs. With my new SUS teammates, I'm starting to have to analyze the sport more than I ever had. I now have knowledge of how long this sport has been a part of different cultures, the evolution of it, and how certain techniques are fairly new in the grand scheme of things. I'm having to dissect the culture in order to explain it to someone with the same knowledge of Nordic skiing as my sixth-grade self. It's been so long that I'd forgotten how I'd learned to ski, but now I'm attempting to help people learn. I know I'm still early in my journey of re-learning Nordic skiing, but I'm open to where it will lead me.
by Rachel Watson
The air is still cold but the closeness of the people in our small running pack makes me feel warm. We begin our ascent up Medicine Bow peak from Lake Marie and run as a full group around the south side of the lake. As the trail turns from paved path to dirt single track and finally to rocky tallis, the group of runners spreads from a tight group to individuals or pairs, many of the latter in deep conversation. The Nordic bodymind of the team coalesces and disperses much like a dictyostelial slime mold; sometimes we exist in close proximity as a melded fruiting body and sometimes as our individual motile forms, but we always find our way back together. I find myself running with Ella and we speak of research, learning, PhD journeys, and the earth's microbiome as we run, scramble and summit the peak together. Very near the summit, we pass by a small patch of snow. We both look at one another and wonder what our new Shanghai teammates did and said when they saw the snow for the first time? In order to accommodate the diverse experience of our group, we had separated and dropped our low-altitude-adapted-teammates at the upper lot before going to the lower lot to begin running. Thus, while every step of the run takes us closer to coalescing as an entire team, we have not yet caught our new team members.
The wind at the summit buffets our hair, eyes and hands but its presence is welcome because its cold contrasts with the warmth of the sun and reminds me that autumn is here. It forecasts the coming winter, a metaphorical score of music in which wind curls to form the first stanza and promises a second verse that stories the nucleation of the first snowflake, the arrival of the winter. We stand just briefly at the summit, long enough for me to ask Ella how many times we have summited in the last few years. My heart asks a deeper question; it inquires my strong but aging Nordic body as to how many times I have reached such peeks and whether I am closer to the last time than the first?
It has been less than six months since Christi and I met administrators from the Shanghai University of Sport in a small room in the University's Division of Kinesiology and Health. In that small room, we agreed to select 10 athletes from eighty applicants, to, in one year, teach them how to ski, ski train, race and coach. We agreed to this lofty outcome because it was clear to me, even when one might presume the pearl of authenticity to be obscured by the shell of professionalism, that the leaders in that room all prioritized and deeply valued the holistic success of the student athlete.
Unpacking what it means to teach someone to be a Nordic skier, to truly embody the soul and the solidarity for the Nordic way of knowing is now, at the top of Medicine Bow Peak, with my hand exploring the surface of a quartzite rock outcropping, what I challenge myself to be able to do. I envision the soul of Nordic culture to be so big that the words would fail to fit into any book bounded by two-dimensions. For me, Nordic culture builds layered strata of memories of the wisdom of those who were my coaches, my mentors and my role models. It is the accent of my first coach, Don Quinn ("Quinny"), an accent that he called "Scandihoovian". Like many in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, his Swedish roots were unforgotten but they were weathered by American experiences of the Upper Peninsula. They were a combination of the guarded, private Scandinavian way of being and the raw, gritty tenacity of the Yupper born of a shared history of the roughness of the lives of copper miners. Just like pasties, the Yupper is crusty on the outside but warm and wonderful on the inside.
Quinny's coaching advice was generally culturally-rooted prose such as, "Yeah, you know, you can't be up hootin' with the owls if you want to soar with the eagles." His stories about training with his twin brother Dave taught us as much about training as any textbook ever could.
"Yeah Rachel, competitors would ask us, "Hey Quinnys why are you skiing so slowly?" We would just look at them and say, "You do your training and we'll do ours and when we get to the race, we'll see what happens."
As Ella and I make our way across the scarp of the face of the peak, the wind continues to buffet my face and eyes. The culture of Nordic is one of sunglasses and Dermatone. The texture of this thick protective face cream, meant to guard surfaces that cannot be effectively covered with clothing brings memories so deep that despite being old they cause my breath to catch and my heart to stop. I remember racing in below zero temperatures in Winter Park and Durango. I remember meeting Christi for the first time. The very essence of the soul of a Nordic skier, she gave me my first pair of sunglasses with yellow lenses. They were lenses that would shield even the fiercest of blizzards. Memories of these glasses overlaid on tacit recollections of the oily feel of dermatone on my face convert Nordic from a construct to something palpable by every sense: touch, feel, smell. Nordic is body meeting soul and it is at this interface
As we begin to descend the peek, the scree gradually turns to dirt trail and Ella and others descend with the speed of youth leaving me to ponder my Nordic memories alone. The culture of Nordic is not just on the trails, it is everything that wraps the moments outdoors. It is Norwegian sweaters, glogg, dry base layers, clogs, thick wood wax benches carved from old nobly trees. Memories of teammates past cause tears to well in my eyes and I have to slow my cadence long enough to make room for the big presence of my Norwegian college coaches. Knut Nystad, now a Manager for the Norwegian National Team, taught me that Nordic is dancing on your skis. He showed me that Nordic is kindness, that in Nordic "team" means telling the raw truth every day, laying oneself bare both literally and figuratively. When I had no hat, Knut took off his own hat and gave it to me. When I needed poles, Knut cut his to fit me. When I began coaching my own team, Knut found a way to outfit us in uniforms and provide skis for those on the team who had none. Years later, those skis were paid forward again and again from earlier teammates to newer members. The Nordic culture forms a web of International connection; it is a web that buoys us and supports our professional and personal success. Nordic is solidarity.
Nordic is the feeling of hot klister turning cold on a weathered thumb that hopes to see so many more races. It is the feel of extra blue kick wax and metal on your teeth when a tube of wax that has seen hundreds of training days is nearing its end. Nordic is the feeling of putting a hand covered with klister into a glove and knowing the sweat will free your hand of the stickiness by the end of the ski in a magical way that seems to evade even wax remover. Nordic is the childlike joy we feel when we see every snowflake, just as it is the intense scientific scrutiny of each of these flakes as we interpret the language of fractal angles and shape so as to select the right wax.
As I near the end of the run and I see the team coalescing in the parking lot, I realize that our new Shanghai teammates are already becoming a part of the fruiting body of the culture of Nordic. They cuddle in lobster mits, borrowed hats and are already celebrating the warmth of down jackets ("puffies"). The culture of Nordic is one that is so deep that it transcends language and I have seen these new athletes learn first through their bodies, with every sense. Like a snowflake that crystalizes in the clouds before it is ever seen by us on the earth, their learning is confirmed in their bodies, their sensual experiences and is daily crystalizing as cognitive understanding of the science and culture of Nordic.
 This term is slang for people of the Upper Peninsula.
 For those who don't know what Dermatone is: https://kk.org/cooltools/dermatone-skin-protector/
 This is a Norwegian traditional drink. It's similar to mulled wine.
This blog is a compilation of thoughts, essays, class projects, recipes, etc. from SNOW Athletes.
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