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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

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.

 

USBA Rollerski Trials and Musings from a Rookie Biathlete

23.Oct.2016 by Kaitlynn Miller

This past weekend all the GRP biathletes, as well as a few of us skiers who are giving biathlon a shot (pun intended), reunited in Jericho for USBA Rollerski Trials. The field was quite small with only 10 women and 13 men competing, but the competition was stiff with the best biathletes in the country toeing the line. These races, along with the trials races in August, are being used to select athletes for a pre-season USBA camp in Canmore. Both days featured a sprint race, which has two shooting stages (one prone and one standing) and is 7.5k in length for women and 10k for men. I always like rollerskiing in Jericho and it’s an added bonus to get to race there. We spend most of our summer on roads, which are not representative of ski trail topography, so it’s quite beneficial to rollerski on a paved track with steep hills and sharp corners that keep you on your toes.

This post will be written from the perspective of someone relatively new to biathlon and will focus on some of what I’ve learned from my experiences. I started doing some shooting two summers ago in preparation for competing in one of the 2015 August trials races. Since then I’ve raced one NorAm last winter and four rollerski trials races this summer and fall. The learning curve has been steep and far from linear. I’ve done countless ski races, but biathlon is really a whole different beast. For starters, there is a lot more to do and remember before you even get to the start line. You have to bring your rifle though equipment check, zero your rifle, remember to load your magazines, and make sure your rifle is actually on your back when you get to the start gate. Even once the race get’s underway there’s still quite a lot to think about. As you enter the range it’s important to make sure the wind hasn’t changed since you zeroed and if it has you must decide whether or not to adjust your sites. In a sprint race, you have to choose your shooting point, shoot, remember how many penalty laps you need to ski, and then correctly count your laps as you ski them (for every lap you neglect to ski you get a 2 minute penalty so you really want to ski the correct number of laps). Unlike in a ski race, where you usually compete on one single loop that you may ski multiple times depending on the length of the race, in biathlon you ski different loops during the same race so you also have to keep track of which loop you should be skiing. All of these things become slightly more difficult to remember when you’re in race mode and your brain doesn’t seem to be functioning at max capacity. However, it goes without saying that the more experienced you are the less you need to consciously think about all these processes and everything becomes second nature. Additionally, the more experienced you are the fewer penalty laps you usually have to ski… I remember being particularly overwhelmed last summer during my first biathlon race and I kept feeling as though I was forgetting something or was about to forget something. I’m happy to say that while shooting is by no means second nature to me and I still have a copious amount to learn, I am considerably more comfortable and confident than I was last summer and I’m continuing to enjoy the challenge of learning something new.

Some of my confidence has come from time and repetition while some has grown from experience and learning. I’m incredibly lucky to have a range in my backyard, awesome teammates who are always willing to answer questions and give advice, and a supportive shooting coach. The more times I take off and put on my rifle the easier it gets and the less I have to think about it. I’ve learned that it is worthwhile to back off a bit coming into the range if it means I have higher chance of hitting more targets. It’s always a bit of a shock to shoot with a high heart rate, but it is slowly becoming less shocking the more I do it. In fact, this past weekend was the first time I’ve felt reasonably comfortable shooting with a high heart rate. I’ve also gotten better at taking my time in the range even when my competitors are zipping in and out while I’m still on the mat. It’s certainly seems counterintuitive to relax and slow down in the middle of a race when you’re trying to get to the finish line as fast as possible, but spending a few extra seconds between shots to get a hit is worth it when each penalty lap takes about 20-30s to ski. For me, being slow in the range and slightly more accurate is better than being fast and incredibly inaccurate. Speed will come with time and practice, I hope. During my first biathlon race last summer, I skied way too hard into the range and then rushed through my shooting stages which needless to say didn’t go so well. While my results from this past weekend weren’t anything to write home about and certainly nothing an experienced biathlete would be psyched with, I was quite happy with some personal bests and that’s what matters at this point. However, my teammates certainly had some notable results which was quite exciting. Susan had a great weekend winning both races by a considerable margin. On Sunday, Emily shot clean for the first time ever and placed second which was awesome! Watching Emily’s improvement as a biathlete since she switched over from rowing has been quite inspiring. In the men’s race, Mike shot very well with only one standing miss and finished 5th. Not everyone had their best weekend of racing, but another thing I’ve learned about biathlon is that there are lots of ups and downs and persistence is a necessity. For a full run down of GRP results you can check out this news piece. And, of course, no blog post would be complete without some photos. Thanks for reading!

Ethan had the top GRP result for the men on Saturday placing 6th (photo: Caitlin Patterson)

Ethan had the top GRP result for the men on Saturday placing 6th (photo: Caitlin Patterson)

Alex sprinting towards the finish (photo: Caitlin)

Alex sprinting towards the finish line (photo: Caitlin)

Mike cleaning his prone stage on Sunday

Mike cleaning his prone stage on Sunday (photo: Deb Miller)

Mike racing along a particularly scenic section of the course. The foliage around Jericho was quite nice this past weekend!

Mike racing along a particularly scenic section of the course. The foliage around Jericho was quite spectacular this past weekend! (photo: Deb)

My standing stage on Sunday

Standing stage on Sunday (photo: Deb)

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Gunnar made lots of friends last weekend! (photo: Caitlin)

Der Dachstein 3.0

9.Oct.2016 by Kaitlynn Miller

After a productive speed camp in Slovenia, we headed to Austria for a distance block. This was our third year in a row skiing on the Dachstein glacier and I think it’s safe to say the third time was a charm. We had an incredible streak of weather with eight straight days of sun, making t-shirts a necessity even on the glacier. After skiing around in a dark concrete tunnel for a week, we had to be sure to layer on the sunscreen… While the snow did get dirtier as the week progressed, we were able to ski every day on race skis as long as we avoided some of the sketchier corners. With our primary focus being distance, we logged 2-3 hours each morning on the glacier followed by a strength session or another distance workout in the afternoon. We went on some scenic run/hikes in the mountains and utilized the hilly rollerski track, which also had a biathlon range. For strength, we got super creative in our rental house backyard… We had been doing max strength in Slovenia, but in Austria we switched to endurance strength so luckily we didn’t need massive weights.

Walking down to the glacier (photo: Caitlin)

Walking down to the ski trail from the tramhouse (photo: Caitlin Patterson)

Ants or skiers?! Also, note the helicopter above the mountain (photo: Caitlin)

Ants or skiers? Also, can you spot the helicopter? (photo: Caitlin)

Nick did an incredible job keeping our skis well waxed and cared for (photo: Caitlin)

Nick did an incredible job keeping our skis well waxed and cared for (photo: Caitlin)

Some technique coaching, some waxing, and Charlotte Kalla skating along in the background (photo: Caitlin)

Some technique coaching, some waxing, and Charlotte Kalla skating along in the background (photo: Caitlin)

Skating along in a vast expanse of snowy whiteness (photo: Caitlin)

Skiing in a vast expanse of snowy whiteness (photo: Caitlin)

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Nick and Ethan skating up one of the climbs (photo: Caitlin)

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Women’s train going left, men’s train going right (photo: Caitlin)

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We’re almost in sync! (photo: Caitlin)

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Cornering (photo: Caitlin)

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Heather enjoying some crust cruising (photo: Caitlin)

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Mike striding it out (photo: Caitlin)

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Looking down onto the section of glacier we skied on last year (photo: Kait Miller)

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Selfie from the tram roof on our way down! Don’t worry, there was a railing so we weren’t at risk of falling overboard… Note the tramhouse perched on top of the mountain in the upper right.

One of our favorite camp traditions is double poling up the “Pichl Road” which is a 1,500ft climb over 4.5 miles from Pichl to Ramsau. It’s a bit of a grind, but super good for specific strength and a satisfying workout to complete. This year we all double poled it once and then some brave souls did it a second time while the rest of us skated.

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Skating up the Pichl Road with some nice cows in the background (photo: Pepa Miloucheva)

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Looking up towards the Dachstein from the Pichl Road (photo: Pepa)

Another workout that’s quickly becoming a camp favorite is our 2x6x1 minute bounding intervals. With so many distance sessions, these intervals ensure we maintain some of our top end speed and remind us what lactic acid feels like. This year we were fortunate enough to be living on a downhill ski trail so we had a lovely, steep, grassy slope for our intervals right out the back door!

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Getting a little weird in “flood city” between our two sets of 6x1min lactic-acid inducing bounding intervals (photo: Pepa)

Home sweet home in Austria (photo: Caitlin)

Home sweet home on the ski slope (photo: Caitlin)

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This house, like many others in the area, was dripping with flowers (photo: Kait)

For one of our over distance workouts this year we took the tram up to the glacier, skied for about an hour and a half, and then ran back down to the valley. Like every other day of the camp, the weather was amazing! The trail below the glacier passes through the glacier foreland and it looked like the moon!

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Running down behind the glacier (photo: Kait)

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A chairlift over the moonscape (photo: Kait)

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Team photo in our snazzy new Craft tights! Also, thanks to Skida for the awesome custom headbands! (photo: Caitlin)

After one final run/hike through the mountains we headed back to Craftsbury just in time for peak foliage! We’ll be home for a few weeks before the biathletes and skiers head separate ways for camps in Lake Placid and Park City respectively. For now I’ll leave you with a video recap of the training camp curtesy of master videographer, Pepa. And last, but not least, thanks to Nick, Sam, and Pepa for all the coaching, waxing, and support during the camp (and always)!