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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

Six Days in China

12.Mar.2019 by Liz Guiney

Oh, the places ski racing will take you! Most recently: Beijing, China, for the 2019 edition of the China City Sprint Tour. Ida, Corey, and I decided to make the journey to China for three freestyle city sprints, which are part of China’s plan to hype up winter sports in their country before the 2022 Olympics. We were part of a US contingent which included 13 athletes from all different clubs. The races also included athletes from Sweden, Norway, Italy, Russia, and Germany, and the host country, China. If you really don’t like reading and want the highlights, here they are: dumplings, extreme jet lag, racing next to the Olympic stadium, SMOG, Great Wall of China, more dumplings, ramen, right hand turns. For everyone else, here’s the day by day!

Day Zero

We were only in China for about 3 hours on this day, so it doesn’t count in the official tally. However, travel days are always fun, right? This one starts with a 3 am wake up for Corey and me, then a 6 hour layover in Toronto, a 13 hour flight to Beijing, and 9 pm arrival at our hotel, the night before the race. Oh, and that’s actually over the course of two days, but who’s counting. Ollie and Ida have slightly more civil travel days from Boston and Munich, respectively. We have a team meeting and pass out, completely exhausted from the day.

Day One!

Our first real day on the ground in Beijing, and also, race day number one. Air quality today is…. not good. The kind that hurts your lungs when you step outside, and cuts visibility to around a quarter mile. Our race course for the day is a two lap 1.7k freestyle sprint. It’s in the plaza right next to the Bird’s Nest, the Olympic stadium from the 2008 Games. Most of the race courses we’re used to from SuperTours and World Cups wind through the woods and climb and descend steep hills, so this course is something very different for us! It’s essentially a giant rectangle with one short bridge hill. Lots of right hand turns, and a lot of flat. Speaking of flat, that pretty much describes how we feel! The snow is slow and baking in the 60F sun. Racing in a literal fog from pollution, and a figurative one from jet lag, we push through anyways.

I squeak into the rounds in 29th and finish 29th in the heats. Ida is battling some food poisoning, but still races hard and finishes 16th in the qualifier and 18th in heats. City sprints are interesting because they really limit the amount of time on course for testing and warm-up. Our wax techs get about 20 minutes to test, and we get 25 for ski testing and warm-up. It’s an extra challenge, but the techs overcome it and give us great skis nevertheless. Other fun things from the day include “Chinese style” portapotties (no seat! no toilet paper! minimalism!) and our athlete lunches, which include, of all things, Subways sandwiches, Coke, and Snickers bars. I can tell I’m really tired because somehow I only manage to take two pictures for the whole day.

Arriving at the Bird’s Nest stadium. The race course is in the plaza to the left
Smog masks for the win!

Day Two

Day two on the ground in China also happens to be our second race day! Instead of racing in downtown Beijing, our race venue is in Shougang, which is about an hour drive from our hotel, in the industrial district. It’s also where they plan to put the Olympic village for the 2022 Games, so we’re all really interested to see it. Upon arrival, we can’t decide if we’ve arrived in a run down amusement park or a post apocalyptic scene. Apparently the steel factory there shut down over 15 years ago but the buildings are still intact. They plan to keep many of the original structures in place while building the village. It will be fascinating to see what it looks like in three years!

Unfortunately, we also wake up to an air quality index of over 300. For reference, most major cities in the US hover around 50, anything over 150 is unhealthy, and 300 is deemed “hazardous”, with outdoor activity strongly discouraged. Luckily, after a day on the ground, we all seem to get our bearings and feel better in the race. The course for the day is just one lap, and includes a fast, icy start, as well as a very gradual climb with rollers. Ida qualifies in 10th, and then powers through to the A Final where she places 2nd! Corey also qualifies, and then finishes 3rd in her quarterfinal, for 16th overall. I’m happy to feel good in my qualifier and finish 26th.

The race course on day two in Shougang
The steel factory buildings, with the race course to the left
Warming up in a hazy glow with my smog mask
My quarterfinal heat
Women’s podium with Ida in 2nd!
Finding fun things on a cool-down jog with Corey

Day Three

After two races in two days, we are very happy to have an off day on day three. We’re even more excited because we get to see the Great Wall of China! On our bus ride from Beijing to the Wall, we learn all sorts of fun facts about the wall. For example, it’s 3,000 miles long, and extends from the ocean towards the interior of the country. It was intended to protect the Chinese from attacking nomadic groups from the north, including the Huns. It also has really cool watch towers where guards would light signal fires to communicate. Most of the wall was built by the Ming dynasty, which ruled in the 1300’s to 1600’s. One thing they don’t tell you is that the Great Wall is steep!! We walked from the tour bus stop in both directions had some burning calves and quads as a result.

In the afternoon, a few of us go to the venue in Yanqing to go for a very short ski and to get our bearings. We’re very excited about this particular venue because it includes both left and right turns! They also put in rollers both out of the start and into the finish, so it doesn’t lack for interesting features.

Looking out from the Wall, which extends way past the far ridge
We had good representation of current and former GRP skiers on the trip! Three out of four of our wax techs (Ollie, Pat, and Bryan) are former GRP athletes
Course preview with Felicia, Heather, and Becca

Day Four

Day four of racing brings a new location with the most exciting course yet! (including aforementioned left hand turns and rollers). It’s nice to get out of the city to Yanqing, a future site for one of the Olympic villages, and also where they will hold the luge, bobsled, and alpine skiing events. The air is also slightly clearer for our third race day, but by that point, most athletes are hacking quite a bit as a result of the other race days.

I don’t have very many photos of the day, but it was a really impressive venue with tons of spectators. The course winds around the circular building in the first photo, which is also the athlete building. Racing goes decently- Ida makes the semi’s and finishes 12th in the heats, which puts her in 9th for the overall sprint tour. I finish 30th, and after racing, the exhaustion of the past couple days really sets in! It’s crazy to think that we raced three times in four days right after flying halfway across the world. Needless to say we are all happy to be done racing, and to enjoy the banquet, which features Chinese opera, traditional dancing, and a sweet raffle.

A bit of course prep on the day before racing in Yanqing. This was looking out from the start. The organization and infrastructure that goes into city sprints is seriously impressive.
Ida cruising to 2nd in her quarterfinal (Photo Forrest Mahlen)

Day Five

With our racing behind us, day five means that we can do some exploring. Unfortunately for us, a few days into our stay, the Chinese government called their annual meeting in Beijing, so the city is pretty much closed down. We can’t go explore the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, or any of the other famous sights. However, we’re still in a pretty cool area, and the pollution is also way down so we can venture out without masks! One group checks out some caves, others use the hotel bikes, and our group goes on a long run into the mountains to see what we can find.

Our run takes us to the backside of the mountains, where we find construction for the bullet train which will go in for the 2022 Games. It will take visitors from Beijing to the mountain venue in under an hour (usually a three hour drive). The concrete pillars are massive and jarring compared to the rugged landscape.
A solid adventure crew!

Day Six

Most of the team flies out on day six, but Corey and I don’t leave Beijing until 7 pm, so we have the whole day to explore the city! After successfully navigating the Chinese subway system, we pop out into a cool shopping district called Nanluoguxiang. It’s a narrow, twisting pedestrian-only alleyway with tons of restaurants and small shops. It’s a perfect way to see a little bit of the city but avoid the craziness of downtown. We eat ramen and rice bowls, drink matcha, and practice our calligraphy then hop on the subway back to the airport for another 13 hour flight back to the States.

We were extra happy to have clean(er) air on our day in Beijing.
Apparently we flew directly over the North Pole on our way back!

Reflecting back on the trip, it was a bit of whirlwind! Usually, when we travel to races, we leave for the venue at least a few days before the first race, even more when it involves a significant time change. It was a huge challenge for me to keep up with the travel, the time change, and the jam-packed race schedule, and all of the other athletes I talked to felt the same way. With the air pollution on top of that, it was definitely one of the more interesting race experiences I’ve ever had. However, I’m really grateful that Swix China paid for all of us to fly over and covered our lodging and transportation while we were there. On the whole, it was such a cool opportunity to see a country that I normally wouldn’t while ski racing, race against some really fast people, and appreciate even more being back in Vermont to breath some clean, fresh air!

Blogroll and beyond

27.Feb.2017 by Caitlin Patterson

We GRP skiers and biathletes may not have been active on this blog platform recently, but we’ve been extremely active on the trails and results sheets around the world!

Where to even start?!?

Susan was 2nd at BIATHLON WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS!

HOCHFILZEN, AUSTRIA – FEBRUARY 19: Susan Dunklee of the United States reacts after winning the second place of women’s 12.5km mass start competition during the IBU World Championships Biathlon 2017 at the Biathlon Stadium Hochfilzen on February 19, 2017 in Hochfilzen, Austria. (Photo by Jan Hetfleisch/Bongarts/Getty Images)

Ida was 3rd in the World Cup classic sprint in Pyeongchang, South Korea, next year’s Olympic venue!

Ida Sargent scoring her first career World Cup podium with a 3rd place in the classic sprint in Pyeongchang, South Korea in early February. Photo: FIScrosscountry

Ben won the US Nationals 30k classic at Soldier Hollow!

Ben Lustgarten skiing away from the field to earn his first National title in the 30k classic in January. Photo: Fasterskier

Kait, Caitlin, and Liz swept the Supertour podium for the 5k classic in Ishpeming!

GRP podium sweep in the Ishpeming Supertour 5k classic, led by Kait Miller, with Caitlin Patterson in 2nd and Liz Guiney in 3rd! Photo: Pepa Miloucheva

Clare skied to career best results at Biathlon World Championships with a 20th place in the sprint… Emily finished 26th and 27th at the IBU Cup in Slovakia in addition to many NorAm victories back in the US… Caitlin finished 4th in the skiathlon and the team sprint in the Pyeongchang World Cup… Liz finished 13th in the skiathlon at the Pyeongchang World Cup… Hallie won the NorAm sprint race in Lake Placid, NY… Alex was 2nd in two races at the Lake Placid NorAms… Mike was 3rd and 5th at Lake Placid… Heather was 6th in the Truckee classic sprint… Ethan was top 10 in many NorAms in the past month…. Mary was 2nd in an Eastern Cup, 15th in the Ishpeming Supertour 5k classic… and that’s just the tip of the results iceberg, I’ve forgotten many notable finishes.

Several of the skiers and biathletes have been great about keeping the Craftsbury Outdoor Center website news feed updated with results, so make sure you’re checking into this page http://www.craftsbury.com/general/about-the-center/news/ for weekly racing reports from the GRP as well as the younger Craftsbury skiers.

Also we have tended to turn towards personal blogs and websites to express ourselves and document races and trips more often. Why is this? Maybe it seems like less pressure, to represent ourselves as individuals, rather than as an individual writing to represent the team. Whatever the reason, you the readers may not know of all our team members’ blogs, so here’s a list of links, in order of most recently updated.

Caitlin Patterson: https://caitlinpatterson.wordpress.com/

Clare Egan: https://clareegan.wordpress.com/blog/

Hallie Grossman: https://halliegrossmanblog.wordpress.com/

Emily Dreissigacker (Kingdom Cakery blog): http://www.kingdomcakery.com/ 

Kaitlynn Miller: http://kaitlynnmiller.blogspot.com/

Elizabeth Guiney: http://elizabethguiney.blogspot.com/

Heather Mooney: http://heatherjoymooney.com/

Ida Sargent: http://idasargent.blogspot.com/

Ben Lustgarten: http://www.benlustgarten.com/

Susan Dunklee: https://susandunklee.wordpress.com/

Enjoy reading a few of these blogs, check our Instagram (@greenracingproject) and Facebook pages for quick updates from the road.  And future blogs will be coming up soon on this page too!

Quality time in Craftsbury

3.Feb.2012 by Clare Egan

For the last two weeks or so, I’ve been holding down the fort here in Craftsbury as my teammates travel and race all over God’s white acre. In the short span between January 19th and February 2nd, the CGRP has been represented at races in Italy, Germany, Estonia, Austria, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Russia, Norway, and the western United States…AND at the Craftsbury Marathon, of course. While the adventure of travel is unbeatable, I’m happy to be staying close to home this winter. This is my first season of full-time training and racing, and that alone is plenty of excitement for me. Plus, I need all the help from Pepa I can get!

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Holding down the fort at 739 Town Highway 19. That's 9 empty bedrooms, if anyone is counting.

So, am I losing it? (REDRUM). Well, not exactly. Though in the absence of no-dust Dylan and everything-in-its-place Pat, I have seized the opportunity to overtake the entire living room and have subsequently started to lose track of my own stuff. The only saving grace is that other, less well-organized teammates are also missing and so there is no one else’s crap with which to confuse my own. Clutter aside, as the single resident of the house, my newfound sense of propriety has inspired me to higher levels of responsibility: I regularly keep the stove alit. I bring in the mail every day. I have even felt the tinglings of an urge to clean the whole place, though they are as of yet unfruitful.

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office/living room/music room/breakfast nook/napping couch/game room/fire place

Luckily, most of my time ‘alone’ here has not been spent in true solitude. For the first week, Nils Koons, our training partner and friend from the Rossignol team, kept me company in the house. Together, we forgot to get groceries every single day until we were eating questionably bygone raisin bran with unquestionably bygone yogurt for breakfast. (Raisin bran with yogurt is not good, even when both are decidedly un-rancid.) My friends Maura and Kenny drove up from Boston for a well-timed visit during the sunny and snowy weekend of January 21-22, during which we skied, shot biathlon rifles, and enlisted Lucas Schultz  to jump their completely dead car. (“Not to worry, I know someone who will be over here in 3 minutes to rescue us.”) Another well-timed visitor was my friend Dan from Burlington, who came to Craftsbury last Saturday night to celebrate my marathon win (and winnings). You may not believe this, but Parker Pie (local favorite pizza/bar establishment) was HOPPIN’… it was like a club scene in there! Not wanting to disturb Lucas a second time, I enlisted Brian Gluck when we needed to pull Dan’s car out of the ditch. (“Not to worry, I know someone who will be over here in 3 minutes to rescue us.”) Last but not least, our surrogate pet grouse, Mo (separate blog entry to follow), has been unwavering in his quest for human social interaction, in what seems to be an adamant rejection of the behaviors one would typically expect from his species.

mo

During the week I have been at least somewhat diligent about getting work done around here, ranging from helping out in the Hosmer Point camp office (who knew that a person could get sore from doing a bulk mailing?) to visiting Greensboro Elementary to give a presentation about skiing and getting outdoors. I have also entertained the possibility of doing the compost for Brian, which delights him almost as much as when I actually do it.

office

Getting in some office hours. Rhetorical question: Is it possible to get any work done if Pepa is sitting across from you?

Training has been going really well, now that I can show up 10 minutes late and have only Pepa yell at me instead of the whole team. And, we have SNOW! I’ve done some good quality interval workouts with our junior extraordinaires, Hannah and Lauren, as well our visiting South American contingent, Federico (Argentina) and Leandro (Brazil). Communcation between the Brazilian and the Bulgarian is something to behold and is one of my favorite parts of our daily workouts. And, no surprise here– hitting the gym: even less sweet when you’re alone.

gym

Lonliness is an empty gym.

I have succomb to accute, late-onset, residual hunger from the 50km. For some reason, this did not set in until Tuesday, after racing on Saturday. But it has continued full-force even into the wee hours of this morning (Friday), when I was forced out of bed at 4:30am by hunger pangs for a snack of fruit leather. The kitchen staff have been invariabely understanding of my issue, and generous in their provision of leftovers. Success: being greeted at the back door of the kitchen by a staff member who preempted by maple sausage prowl and had set some aside for me.

food steal

The staff shelf, God be praised.

The best part about staying home in Craftsbury? Getting to spend a lot of quality time with this person:

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