Training after college can often be a very insular lifestyle. At Craftsbury we have the benefit of spending time with a lot of great people who are focused on keeping the center running or are at Craftsbury for other reasons. However, on our training trips even this outside influence is reduced. We spend our time rowing and then doing all the activities necessary to make that happen. We spend more time together and less time outside of rowing. Like most things this is good and bad. It can be good to narrow your focus, get more rest, and really zone yourself in for a block of time. However, sometimes with this level of focus, context can be lost and rowing seems just a tad too serious for those of us that often take things too seriously.
This trip I was able to branch out a little bit in very positive ways. While training on my own in Durham, NC, I had the good fortune to row with CHaOS Rowing, a club of masters rowers on Lake Jordan who really enjoy the sport. Several of them had past national team experience for a variety of nations and some were starting or continuing club rowing careers. I would train with them on Saturday and Sunday and I was always impressed by the way that everyone would get after it and have joy in the competition. It was really great to feel the competitive energy of people who have or have had careers completely outside rowing. There was no need to be competitive like those of us who have committed to rowing more full time. Yet, it was still there and seemed more positive for its lack of necessity. It created a sense of community to share the experience of competing and the amicability and jokes between pieces only added to the way that everyone attacked the next piece.
After I left Durham I met the whole team in Deland, FL. Because I was managing some forearm tightness I was not always doing two a days on the water. As a result, I looked around for a gym. The place that seemed to make the most sense was the local YMCA. In a very different way than the club at Durham I felt that athletics were forging a community. It seemed as though it was providing a no judgement zone for people to engage with their bodies and engage with each other. People were truly at the ends of every spectrum of physical ability yet the environment felt welcoming to all levels. There were a variety of classes and I got the sense that people went there to see their friends as well as workout. As someone aiming for performance, I felt like the relaxed environment helped me work hard free of stress or overthinking the work I had to do. I can’t say that I took as specific a lesson from here as from Durham but it did make me think about the community facet of the Craftsbury mission statement and how I can add to community engagement with how I go about things.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”