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Coaching in Shungnak, AK: Where “It’s a We”

7.May.2019 by Hallie Grossman

By Jake Brown

What a privilege it is to be a ski-racer: we train year round for a sport that we love, a sport that is exciting, intimate with nature, technical, and keeps our bodies healthy. When I was in high school, our coach advertised cross-country skiing as “a lifetime sport,” a sport in which you can compete for the rest of your life. For myself, I hope that the structure and work ethic that training for cross-country ski racing instills in me will transfer when my life is centered on something other than being the fastest ski-racer or biathlete I can be. Cross-country skiing is a sport that is worth sharing, and this April I had the privilege of getting to share the sport in rural Alaska.

There are parts of the world where skiing can not only serve as an avenue for athletic or character development, but also play a more functional role in daily life. Think of the Arctic, where snow covers the landscape more often than it doesn’t, where snow-mobiles (known simply as “sno-gos” in the Arctic) pack down the snow-laden village streets, and where success or failure in silently stalking caribou on a hunt can mean a guarantee of food on the table, or not.

Skiku/NANA Nordic is an Alaskan non-profit that sends skiers and coaches to the rural Alaskan villages to teach basic skiing skills for one week each year. “Skiku” is the overarching name for the organization (the name comes from combining the Inupiaq word for ice, siku, and the word ski) while “NANA Nordic” was the original name for the organization before their reach expanded beyond the Northwest Arctic Native Association’s region. This year Skiku had 58 villages on the schedule. Between three and six coaches are sent to each village for one week. While in the village, the coaches take over the phys-ed classes during the day, provide after-school ski programming (usually games and adventure skiing) for kids after school, and offer lessons for community members as well.

This year I had the privilege of coaching with Skiku in the village of Shungnak. Shungnak is located 355 miles inland of the Kotzebue Sound, just southeast of Kobuk Valley National Park and southwest of Gates of the Arctic National Park. Shungnak has about 250 residents, 95% of whom are of Alaska Native heritage. In Shungnak I was joined by two other coaches, Harvard University assistant coach Jeff Tucker and GRP summer athlete Johanna Talihärm (during the week, Jeff received word that he would be joining the Craftsbury coaching staff for the summer!). Although I had served as a coach with Skiku in the past, each village is unique and I knew that Shungnak would be no exception.

Shungnak, Alaska

A week before traveling to the Arctic I called the Shungnak school principle, Roger, to introduce myself and make sure that the village was prepared for their “ski-week.” Roger assured me that he, the village, and the kids were ready. The kids love skiing, he had told me, and they are pretty darn good, too. He talked about previous years, about how the entire village had lined the village streets to watch the race at the end of the week. “Because in Shungnak, It’s a ‘We’,” he had said.

Fast forward to our week in the Arctic, and it didn’t take long for Johanna, Jeff, and I to learn what “It’s a We” was all about. The community made us welcome, having put up welcome signs in the school and providing us with all the resources we need, which made it a joy to share as much as we could about skiing with them. We spent our nights sleeping in the fourth and fifth grade classroom and our days on skis. After morning assembly at 8:55am, we would prep for our classes by organizing gear or setting up an obstacle course, treasure hunt, games, or the race course. When P.E. classes began, we were fortunate that Shungnak’s students were easy to work with. As long as we maintained structure and order, as was the way at Shungnak school, the kids followed along. This allowed the three of us to get all the kids, as many as thirty at a time (and nearly fifty on race day!) set up with equipment and out the door in a matter of minutes.

Bears learning to ski… photo by Debby Tzolov

Every day we took four separate PE classes out for an hour each; ages ranged from pre-kindergarten to seventh grade, and abilities ranged wider.  Each day brought a new theme (which always kept things interesting for both us and the kids): Starting and stopping games, agility course, biathlon, treasure hunt, and racing. After school we took all comers outside to play a game on skis (the most popular being run, caribou, run and capture the flag) or on an adventure ski either down the sno-go trail toward the next town, Kobuk, or through the village streets. Although we had to be on the lookout for stray dogs and speeding sno-gos, I always preferred going into the village, where interested adults would glance up from their work on a sno-go to watch kids ski by, and kids would call out, “look, Dad, watch me slide!” and then proceed to share with you all about their family as we skied along.

Found: a clue while on a treasure hunt
S’mores!
Agility Course!
The first attempts at “pizza pie”… work to be done
Scary Bear!
Laser biathlon!
It’s a showdown! Shungnak’s best vs. Johanna

It’s easy to think that we were the ones giving the kids a special experience. And in a way we did. It was evident when we saw the joy on their faces as they sprinted to the equipment line on the last day, when they zipped down a hill without falling, or when one said “I croak” (translation: I’m exhausted) with satisfaction after he crossed the finish line on race day. But the reality is that they and Shungnak as a whole gave us arguably the more valued experience, one that will change our perspectives on culture, struggle, joy, and what is really important. It’s not just a privilege to pursue ski racing, but it is also a privilege to share it.

Community lesson, photo by Debby Tzolov

Roger was really big on mottos. “It’s a We” was the big one, but there were also “Education comes first” and “Education is a job,” which were emblazoned all over the gym. At first, I thought it was a little overkill. The phrases were everywhere. But by the end of the week, I had bought in. Take “It’s a We,” for example. Roger had come up with the phrase as a school motto, but the words were transcendent. “It’s a We” represented Roger’s mission to increase the sense of community in Shungnak. It was Shungnak’s brand. And they wore it well, both figuratively, and literally. In fact, Roger had officially made the slogan a registered trademark of Shungnak School, and it appears of every article of school clothing, from teachers’ sweatshirts to basketball uniforms. Roger even outfit us ski coaches (as well as other visitors) with our own ‘It’s a We’ paraphernalia, broadcasting the Shungnak identity beyond the Kobuk Valley. But it was clear that the slogan wasn’t about sending an image to outside world, but about uniting Shungnak internally. One of Roger’s biggest goals when he arrived as principle eight years ago was to increase parent involvement in their child’s education, to have parent and student pursue education as a job together. He wanted families to stand up against domestic violence and alcohol abuse, to make Shungnak a safe and healthy environment. He wanted the students to serve their communities, for example fetching stove oil for neighbors or chopping wood for an elder. This is what “It’s a We” stood for.

During our time in Shungnak we heard jaw-dropping stories illustrating Shungnak’s transformation over the last eight years. We only got a glimpse into Shungnak, but we could see the essence of “It’s a We” in something as simple as skiing. For one, the school had bought into the ski program: they not only have established an ongoing system to take the kids skiing throughout the winter but have also purchased two laser biathlon systems, Podiumwear warmup uniforms, and a wax box filled with a brand new Swix T77 iron, waxes, brushes, and a “Swix CeraF” apron. Teachers and community members were also enjoying the sport: we had four adults attend our evening community ski lesson, including a mom who had been convinced by her first and third grade daughters to give it a try. And the biggest sign of support was when we saw the community turn out to watch the race on Friday afternoon. Family members and friends lined up in front of the village store and watched their kids race a challenging 3km in slushy conditions. For me, that alone made it worth it, to see that skiing could contribute to the mission of “It’s a We.”

Principle Roger shows off Shungnak’s Podiumwear warmups in 2018
Beautiful landscape of the NANA region

New Zealand 2.0

28.Sep.2018 by Kaitlynn Miller

This is the GRP’s second year in a row making the trek down-under for a late summer, on-snow training camp. While last year’s camp seemed hard to beat, this year’s camp was up for the task. The camp was roughly broken into four segments with a three day dryland training stint in town, a largely technique focused period on snow, a short racing period, and last but not least, a volume block. The primary goals of the camp were to transfer summer technique changes to snow and to get in some quality intensity workouts to solidify those changes. The hope is to make our second transition to snow in the fall much smoother allowing us to maximize our potential at early season races.

After nearly 30 hours of travel we walked off the plane in Queenstown and, despite some pretty extreme fatigue and jet lag, it was hard not to feel happy and excited when greeted by towering peaks and crisp mountain air. And John Alexander, a former professional rower who we met through a Craftsbury rowing camp coach, made our lives much easier by generously offering to transport our ski bags to our rental house in Wanaka. While living in town, we focused on recovering from travel and getting in some short intensity before moving up to altitude at the Snow Farm. We also threw in some adventure running, because who could resist?!

Lake Wanaka

Mountainous views from our first adventure run

View from the gym. Ski camp or tropical vacation?!

Spring in NZ = cherry blossoms (had to sneak a flower photo in here somewhere)

While we enjoyed life in town, we were all pretty excited to move up into winter at the Snow Farm. For our first week on snow we focused on making a good transition from rollerskis to skis. This meant a lot of time spent doing video review and focusing on some element of technique for each workout. While many of us were tempted to just go ski our brains out, it was important to not overdue it too early in the camp. The goal was to maintain good energy so that we could ski well and instill the right technical habits. We were lucky to overlap at the Snow Farm with Stratton and the US Ski Team so we were able to combine some workouts and train with each other.

While sometimes it’s necessary to ski on your own to focus on a personal technique change or reach a personal workout goal, there are also benefits to skiing with others. Different people have different strengths and we can learn a lot from each other.

Pepa, with her trusty iPad, keeping a close watch on us

And pricking our fingers to test lactate mid-interval workout

Corey skiing some Merino Glen switchbacks

Liz with the Snow Farm Lodge in the background

Skiers or ants?

Next up was the racing block! Racing opportunities included the famous Merino Muster as well as the New Zealand Winter Games.  These races provided a good opportunity to get in some low pressure racing and work on maintaining our technique, and newly acquired good habits, at high speed. To meet personal training goals not everyone raced every event, but competition was stiff with racers from Stratton, the US Ski Team, and the Japanese National Team toeing the line. You can read the full race reports here:

Merino Muster | NZ Winter Games

Adam (fourth skier from the left) racing the Merino Muster. Is he being caught by a pack of tutu-clad women, or did he just pass them? He placed second overall so that gives you a clue.

Ida (second skier from the right) racing in the NZ Winter Games skate sprint final

Another shot of the women’s final with the Snow Farm’s UFO towering above the skiers

Ben (third from the left) racing in the men’s sprint final

Adam and Ben (front left) in the lead pack of the men’s 15k classic mass start event

Both Adam and Ben landed themselves on the podium in second and third respectively. Apparently blue mirrored lenses were the choice of the day and directly correlated to podium finishes…

And Caitlin and Ida added to the GRP podium crew placing second and third, respectively, in the women’s 10k classic event

A big thanks to Nick for his tireless wax support, not just during the races, but throughout the whole camp

With the races behind us we turned our focus to volume, but not before a day off to recover.

Lakeside relaxing in Queenstown. We also ate some ice cream, did some chocolate shopping, and wandered through the nearby park.

We encountered a real life Merino Muster while driving back up to the Snow Farm. So many sheepies!!

We spent the last portion of the camp focusing on volume which, of course, included some crust cruising as well as some night skis. We were blessed with significantly more sun and snow than last year which meant a greater number of open trails and much tanner faces, complete with raccoon eyes. The incredible weather made the training extra enjoyable. While poor conditions can certainly be good training for mental toughness and adaptability, we do love skiing in the sun, especially when surrounded by jaw-dropping scenery.

Views in every direction

Cruising that crust!

And soaking up the sun!

A behind-the-scenes shot of getting the perfect selfie. In addition to being a great training opportunity, the trip to NZ also gives us the opportunity to rock our awesome new Skida headwear!

The geology surrounding the Snow Farm is quite unique

Zen Ben

It was a Classic Toko Glove kind of day

Summit selfie on Mount Pisa!!

The whole GRP Ski crew (minus Ida who was on a plane)

And that’s all for now! Thanks to Nick and Pepa for all their help, guidance, and logistical management throughout the camp. And thanks to the Snow Farm for the comfy accommodations, gracious hospitality, stellar grooming, and tasty food! Also, thanks to Steve, the Snow Farm manager, for bringing our ski bags to the airport! And last, but certainly not least, a big thank you to Concept 2 and the Craftsbury Outdoor Center for the support that made this camp possible.

Photo credit: Caitlin, Nick, Pepa, Corey, and Kait

Winter Olympics Recap

7.Mar.2018 by Nathan Lado

We are proud to report that the Green Racing Project had six current or affiliated athletes who raced at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. Susan Dunklee, Emily Dreissigacker, and Clare Egan competed in Biathlon. Caitlin Patterson, Ida Sargent, and Kaitlyn Miller represented Team USA in skiing.

 

As members of the GRP we were extremely excited to see our teammates compete in the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games. Seeing so many GRP skiers and biathletes competing during the games was rewarding on two levels, the personal as well as validating the approach the Green Racing Project takes towards athletic and personal development. As rowers, our training is usually separate from the skiers and biathletes, but we see how hard our ski and biathlon teammates work towards their goals and it is great to watch them succeed. The fact that so many current and former GRP athletes have been successful on the national and international stage reinforces the idea that development of the athlete and development of the person go hand in hand. Watching the GRP Olympians is a perfect reminder to build our athletic selves such that our focus and determination is built up by how we live within our community. This lesson is well timed as we are heading into our last training block before the start of spring racing.

 

With that in mind, below is a summary of the racing as well as backgrounds on each of the athletes who went.  

Susan Dunklee is a Barton, Vermont native who did much of her early skiing at the Craftsbury Outdoors Center. She attended Dartmouth College and graduated with a degree in Ecology in 2008. Although she has been skiing since she was two, she learned to shoot later in life at age  22 for a biathlon development program. Susan has competed in five World Championships between 2012 and 2017, the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, and recently at the 2018 Open European Championships. In the 2017 World Championships she placed 6th in the 15km individual race and 2nd in the mass start event.  This 2nd place in the mass start earned her a Olympic spot and made her the first American Woman to make the 2018 Olympic Team. In her first Olympic event, the 7.5k sprint Susan finished 66th with 5 misses. In the 15k individual she was the top U.S. finisher, placing 19th with two misses over four stages. Her final two events were relays. In the mixed relay Susan was the first leg of the US team. She used two spares in prone and shot clean standing. She finished her leg in 5th and the team finished in 15th. Susan scrambled in the 4x6k and finished her leg in 2nd, cleaning in prone and using one spare when standing. The team ended up in 13th.

Emily Dreissigacker is from Morrisville, Vermont and learned to ski at the Craftsbury Outdoor Center. She raced as a skier during high school but decided to row for Dartmouth College, graduating with a degree in Economics in 2011. During her summers in college, she competed as a rower for Craftsbury’s U23 program and then as a member of the GRP. Due to an injury to a tendon in her hand , she decided to make the switch to biathlon. Emily has had a great 2017/2018 season, including placing 5th and shooting clean at the IBU-Cup in Arber, Germany which earned her a spot on the 2018 Olympic Team.  In the 7.5k sprint Emily finished 51st with one miss. This qualified her for the 10k pursuit two days later in which Emily finished 47th, shooting 80% over 4 stages. In the 15k individual Emily placed 67th with 4 misses. She also was the anchor leg of the 4x6k relay, crossing the line in 13th.

 

Clare Egan began her skiing career in her hometown of Cape Elizabeth, Maine. She started skiing in middle school and was a two-time member of the New England Junior National Team. She attended Wellesley College where she created the ski team and competed as both a skier and runner. After graduating in 2011 from a masters program in linguistics at the University of New Hampshire she joined the Green Racing Project. Clare finished twice in the top-10 in American Birkebeiner 50k and had eight top-6 finishes in the Supertour. After trying Biathlon in 2013, she made the switch and now mainly trains out of Lake Placid with the US Biathlon Team. Clare placed 35th in the Biathlon Spring at the 2017 World Championships. She has represented the US at three World Championships and has been competing for the United States on the 2017/18 World Cup Circuit. She earned her Olympic spot after good performances on the IBU circuit. In the 7.5k pursuit Clare was 61st with 3 misses, barely missing out on the pursuit. In her second race, the 15k individual, Clare placed 62nd with 4 misses.  In the 4x6k, Clare was the second leg, starting in second. She cleaned without using spares in both her prone and standing stages held onto fourth place.

 

Ida Sargent is from the town of Barton, Vermont and has been skiing at the Craftsbury Outdoor Center from an early age. Ida went to Dartmouth College and was captain of the Nordic Team, graduating in 2012. Even before she was done with college, Ida was a member of the Green Racing Project, training and competing in 2009 in preparation for the 2010 U23 World Championships. She joined the US Ski Team in 2011 and competed in the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics as well as the 2011, 2013, 2015, and 2017 World Championships. At the 2014 Olympic Games Ida placed 19th in the freestyle sprint and 32nd in the 10k classic individual. In the run up to the 2018 Olympics she placed 6th in the freestyle sprint at the world cup in Davos. Pre-Olympics she was ranked 17th in the World Cup sprint rankings, meeting the top 50 criteria for Olympic qualification laid out by the US Ski Team.  During the 2018 Olympics Ida was competing on a still healing, surgically repaired thumb from a January crash. She competed in the classic sprint and placed 33rd in the sprint qualifier, narrowly missing the top 30 cutoff.

 

Kaitlynn Miller is from Elmore, Vermont and grew up spending time in the woods around Elmore as well as skiing for the Craftsbury Nordic Center. Kaitlynn went to Bowdoin College where she skied and studied Biology and Environmental Studies. After graduating in 2014, Kaitlynn joined the Green Racing Project and has raced internationally including at the World Cup Finals in 2017. In the 2017/18 season, Kaitlynn placed 2nd in the classic sprint, 2nd in the freestyle sprint, and 3rd the 20k classic at U.S. National Cross Country Ski Championships and first in the 1.4km sprint at the Super Tour in Craftsbury.  She earned her spot on the Olympic team by the 3rd place finish in the 20k.

 

Caitlin Patterson grew up in Idaho where she was introduced to skiing. She spent high school in Anchorage where she started racing more competitively. She attended the University of  Vermont at which she skied and studied Civil Engineering, graduating in 2012. She joined the Green Racing Project shortly thereafter and has enjoyed success, winning events at the U.S. Senior National Championships and the overall during the 2016 Supertour. Caitlin has had a great start to the 2017/18 season, sweeping all four races offered at the U.S. National Cross Country Ski Championships, the Women’s Classic Sprint, and the 20k classic mass start, 10k freestyle, and freestyle sprint.  This great performance earned her a Olympic spot. Caitlin’s first Olympic race was the skiathlon which is 7.5k of classic skiing followed by a transition and 7.5k of freestyle skiing. She finished the classic portion in 36th and improved on that in the freestyle to 34th. Her second race was the 30k mass start in which Caitlin finished 26th.

 

17 Photos to Close out 2017, from Caitlin

8.Jan.2018 by Caitlin Patterson

We’re only a few days into 2018, so to wrap up 2017, here are 17 photos. They offer a glimpse of what the ski team, and I personally, have seen and done from November through the end of the year.

Vibrant sunsets over the sea of clouds… incredible afternoons in Silverstar, BC! We spent a week of early December in Silverstar, which was beautiful and snowy and excellent for racing.

Team photo after the classic sprint in Silverstar, except that we were missing Adam Martin!

Stunning Silverstar

Stunning Silverstar tracks, overlooking the stadium area

Waiting for the awards ceremony in Silverstar

Classic sprint podium in Silverstar! All three of us GRP women made the A-final, where Kait took 1st, I took 2nd, and Liz took 5th.

Festive red berries in Craftsbury when we returned home in mid December

Late November skiing at Craftsbury on the snow-making loop. By December the natural snow was falling and opening a greater variety of trails.

Night ski commuting through the winter storms at Craftsbury with Adam and others.

Backcountry skiing on Jay Peak with Sheldon, Ani, and Avery. I love adventures through the snowy trees! Perfect way to get out for some exercise while getting off the beaten track. Photo from Avery Ellis.

Snowy skiing in Bozeman during a brief holiday visit to my parents’ house. Photo by Scott.

Holiday hobbies… building models in Bozeman at my parents’ house

Silly games. Oh Settlers of Catan, what a game to love and hate. Late night Settlers-induced delirium with my mom and brother

Corduroy!!
Bohart/CrossCut Ranch on a beautiful morning.

A very chilly and scenic ski at Lindley Park during my holiday visit to Bozeman. I skied at 5 different places in 5 days.

Nice treats, cinnamon rolls by Scott.

Skate ski at Lone Mountain Ranch over the holidays, with my brother Scott

 

What do I think of my 3 shiny new US National titles from Anchorage? THAT will have to wait for a future post!

Check the Outdoor Center website, such as https://www.craftsbury.com/general/about-the-center/news/detail/1942/ for news recaps, or visit our GRP or Outdoor Center Facebook pages for now.