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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

the GRP’s snowbirds fly south for a week

21.Feb.2019 by Wes Vear

After the women of the Rowing side of the Green Racing Project spent a week living it up out west, Cali style, the men of the team turned green with jealousy (not in the sustainability sense this time). So, the men planned a trip of their own to find some liquid water with the hopes of re-familiarizing themselves with the feel of oars in their hands for a bit.

Coach Whelpley set his eyes on Peachtree City’s Lake McIntosh in the heart of Georgia with hopes of finding glassy conditions to match those provided by Newport Beach for the women two weeks ago. But, Steve first had some fun up his sleeve for the men before they got a chance to slice through liquid water instead of on top of the frozen stuff as they’ve been doing for the past few months.

After setting south with a trailer full of the newest additions to our fleet of Hudson Super Predators, Coach Steve sent the men on a harrowing journey of self discovery during the annual rowers’ pilgrimage to the promised land of Boston for this year’s C.R.A.S.H.-B. Sprints. It was a weekend full of excitement as four of our men sat down for a 2,000m piece, including the latest addition to the Greenies, Kevin Meador. Kevin joins the GRP after a successful two years training at Riverside and representing the United States at the World Rowing Championships as the Men’s Single Sculls last year in Plovdiv, Bulgaria.

The second greenest GRP member, Andy Raitto, was the returning Champion from 2018’s C.R.A.S.H.-B. who raced this past weekend along with veteran Greenies Lucas Bellows and Wes Vear. Out of the field of 48 competitors in the Open Men’s category, Wes Vear ended up winning the hard fought 2k and the coveted hammer with a 5:59.2 over Connor Corwen’s 5:59.7. Meador rounded out the medals with a 6:02.0 to take third followed closely by Raitto in fifth with a 6:05.9, and then Bellows in seventh with a 6:09.9. It was a slightly tougher day of 2ks for the men than they had hoped, but they represented the Cedar sprig well and gave it everything they had through to the end.

Wes Vear with the all important C.R.A.S.H.-B. Hammer

After a long night of recovery from their 2ks, the men all headed down on Monday to join Steve in Georgia for the fun to really begin. They were met with a pleasant surprise of the familiar face of John Graves joining the fray as well as Mike Colella, a member of the Men’s 2- at the World Championships for the past two years who has recently swapped out his customary long oar for two shorter ones and is now learning the intricacies of wielding two blades at once. The first two days brought about plenty of rain mixed with the coldest conditions of the entire week’s forecast, and that’s not to mention the continuous wind bearing down on them from the side as the group made their way up and down the course. It was awesome. Everyone was beyond excited to get on the water. Steve ensured that we made the most of every opportunity to take a stroke with lots of team boats rowing in order to not try to bite off more than we can chew during our first few practices back on the water since November. We have had lots of technical focuses and have really emphasized making sure that all of our strokes are directed in the direction of quality instead of wandering down the endless road of quantity.

John Graves joining back up with the Greenies for the week.

Wednesday morning brought about beautiful conditions with perfectly glassy water and awe inspiring fog. The guys finally got a taste of pushing the envelope a bit with four 2,500m pieces somewhere around the neighborhood of Anaerobic Threshold level in doubles. The first three were headrace style but then finally Steve rewarded the group with some side-by-side work with three doubles across chomping at the bit. Steve then gave the guys the afternoon off from rowing in order to try to trick their blisters into thinking that they’re getting time to heal and to stop by the local Snap Fitness. Snap welcomed the group with open arms to liven things up with some bench press and deadlifting and really showed the guys the meaning of Southern hospitality.

Lucas and Wes in the double heading off into the great unknown during one of their 2,500m pieces Wednesday morning.

So far the trip has been a wild success and we couldn’t be more thankful to Peachtree City Rowing Club for so generously allowing us to train out of their facilities for the week and helping us out so much. It’s going to be a fun rest of the week of training while we fine tune our bladework and look towards Trials I down in Sarasota in April. With that in mind, it’s time to head to bed to get that full recovery in for tomorrow morning’s steady state. Stay tuned for more updates to come!

Scullers prep for USRowing Fall Speed Order

30.Oct.2018 by Jen Forbes
Scullers are heading to Princeton, NJ this weekend for their final Head Race of the fall season. Hosted by USRowing, the aptly named “Fall Speed Order” will take place over the course of two days in an effort to: first, measure athletes’ speed on the erg (all participants do a 6k erg test for time); and, second, test their speed and skills on the water- because as the old adage goes “ergs don’t float”. The fastest participants from Saturday’s 8k erg test are seeded favorably in Sundays on-the-water head race on Princeton’s Lake Carnegie.
Nothing necessarily “happens” if you win the speed order, but given that a healthy portion of the  athletes attending FSO are either on the National Team, or are highly ranked US athletes, the competition will be strong. Sometimes, if athletes perform very well at FSO, they may receive an invitation from either the Men’s or Women’s National Team coaches to train at the US Training Center. Usually, though, it’s just a great way to test one’s speed against highly ranked US scullers before the winter months settle over us. We’re all certainly looking forward to capping off the fall season with two good results, both on the erg and the water. After FSO, the four PanAm Games Trials athletes will continue preparing for their race at the end of November in Rio.

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