New Kids In Town: What Has Helped Lead To The Depth Of The New Generation of U.S. Cross Country Skiers?
by Peggy Shinn
Gus Schumacher competes during the men's cross country 15 km at the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships Oberstdorf on March 3, 2021 in Oberstdorf, Germany.
The FIS Cross-Country World Cup opens today in Ruka, Finland. Ten American women and nine men braved the long travel to this northern Finnish town for three days of racing. And only two are U.S. Ski Team veterans:
- Rosie Brennan, the first American to hold the world cup lead in the overall, sprint, and distance standings all at the same time, and
- Jessie Diggins, the defending team sprint Olympic gold medalist and 2021 overall world cup winner. She is also the defending Tour de Ski champion.
But the new generation of cross-country skiers is deep with promise. Julia Kern, 24, and Hailey Swirbul, 23, have already earned world cup podium finishes. And a quick look at past results hints that these young U.S. skiers will soon follow in their tracks.
From 2017-2020, nine young American cross-country skiers won medals at world junior and U23 championships, including Kern, Swirbul, and Katharine Ogden, and for the men, Gus Schumacher, who all won medals in individual races.
Add to the list Hannah Halvorsen who, along with Ogden, Kern, and Swirbul, won a bronze medal in the relay at 2017 world junior championships. And anchored by Schumacher, Luke Jager, Hunter Wonders, Ben Ogden, and Johnny Hagenbuch brought home three podium finishes in the world junior men’s relay from 2018-2020, including wins in 2019 and 2020.
As Diggins said in a recent media call, “They have what it takes to go all the way, I really, really believe that. And they’re definitely more talented than I was at their age.”
With these young skiers now competing full-time on the world cup tour — and aiming for their first Olympic team — the U.S. has a good chance of continued representation on the world cup and Olympic podium.
So, what helped lead to this depth?
It started about 15 years ago when Kikkan Randall — who won Olympic gold in 2018 with Diggins in the team sprint — and Andy Newell became the first American cross-country skiers to finish in the top three at world cup races in almost a quarter century. Over the next decade, others joined them, including Simi Hamilton and a slew of women (Diggins, Sophie Caldwell Hamilton, Sadie Maubet Bjornsen, Ida Sargent, Liz Stephen, and Holly Brooks).
In December 2012, the U.S. women made a world cup podium in the 4x5 km relay — a true sign of depth. Diggins, Randall, and Maubet Bjornsen also collected world championship medals — trophies that had eluded American women until this group came along.
“At first it was Kikkan who was the only one getting on the podium, and maybe she’s an outlier,” explained Kern, who grew up skiing outside Boston and earned her first world cup podium in a sprint two years ago. “But then Sophie came on the scene and Ida, then Jessie and Sadie were on the podium. It showed that it was really possible. Kikkan wasn’t just the outlier.”
Young American cross-country skiers now had homegrown idols.
“I grew up with posters of them on my wall,” said Swirbul, who started cross-country skiing at age 10 to stay in shape for mountain bike racing (then subsequently stopped bike racing).
The medal-winning veterans helped instill belief in American cross-country ski racers, who used to grow up thinking the world’s best hailed from the Scandinavian countries, Russia, and former Soviet bloc countries. If a U.S. skier finished in the top 30 of a world cup, world championship, or Olympic race, it was considered a big deal.
At the 2018 world junior championships, Swirbul won silver and bronze medals, respectively, in the 5-kilometer class and skiathlon races. Last December, in only her second full year on the world cup, she finished third in the 10K freestyle race at the Davos World Cup. She is completing her degree in civil engineering at Alaska Pacific University (APU) in December and trains with APU’s elite team (Randall and Maubet Bjornsen’s former team).
“Our ski culture has changed because of this older generation that’s now retired or soon to retire,” said Swirbul. “You see what’s attainable. When you can see what it’s like to win an Olympic medal or a world cup, it’s easier as a kid to dream of that.”
With the top finishes came more resources for the U.S. cross-country ski team. In Europe, the team now benefits from its own wax truck, physical therapists, and chefs during races, and other amenities that let the skiers focus on racing.
Improved resources have trickled down to the development pipeline, with regular junior camps and more kids attending them. JC Schoonmaker — a talented sprinter who scored four top-30 finishes on the world cup last year and made the U.S. Ski Team’s A Team this season — remembers attending a camp with Gus Schumacher when the two were 16. From Alaska, Schumacher was already making a name for himself in the ski world.
“Getting together for camps has been a huge help because you see what other people are doing,” said Schoonmaker, 21, who is finishing his degree in natural resources at the University of Alaska-Anchorage and continues to race for the UAA Seawolves. “You learn from them and gain different perspectives.”
As the young skiers traveled to world junior championships, they bonded as a group, their chemistry and their goals uniting them. Schoonmaker credits the junior women’s relay bronze medal finish in 2017 for leading the way for the guys to follow suit the next three years.
“It’s maybe luck of timing,” he added. “But eventually, you start building momentum and that continues to build on itself. I feel like that’s led us to where we are today.”
Good teamwork has long permeated the U.S. cross-country ski team, and many of the veterans will credit the support, respect, and work ethic of their teammates for helping everyone raise their game. As younger talent has emerged, the veterans have welcomed the younger skiers.
“Both the men’s and women’s teams have created a hospitable environment, an inviting environment” for the younger skiers,” pointed out head coach Matt Whitcomb. “It’s no longer an unreachable location or destination. It really seems like a place that is achievable.”
Even though many of the veterans have now retired — including Hamilton, Hamilton Caldwell, and Maubet Bjornsen who bid adieu to international racing at the end of last season — they still help anyone who has a question. The women have a group chat where the veterans (retired or not) can chime in with what worked for them, like what to pack for months of racing in Europe and what food to bring from home.
“They definitely paved the way for us and showed us the ropes in and out of racing,” said Swirbul.
At races, the veterans have been open about the tactics needed on each course, which helps the younger skiers know what to expect. The advice makes each race “feel like less of an ‘away race’ and makes us feel more at home,” said Schoonmaker, who hopes to compete at both the 2022 Olympic Games in February and the NCAA Ski Championships in March.
And when races don’t go as expected, the veterans can provide perspective.
Schumacher — who posted the best-ever finish by an American man at the Tour de Ski last January, finishing 18th and as high as eighth in one of the stages — remembers Hamilton helping him deal with disappointment at both the 2021 world championships and earlier in the season when Schumacher was struggling with results. Hamilton reminded his younger teammate to be patient, that cross-country skiing is an endurance sport and it takes time to become good. Hamilton also told him that he is better than Hamilton was as a young adult.
“It definitely sinks in,” said Schumacher, “and then I’m like, ‘Simi belongs, so I totally belong.’”
The younger athletes have in turn inspired the veterans on the team. During summer training with her home team in Vermont, Diggins likes it when the younger skiers join the elite team for practice.
“When you have a young Katharine Ogden on your heels, you know you’re going to ski with your best technique,” said Diggins. “You know that she is going to keep you honest.”
“There’s a myth that inspiration and leadership is a one directional thing,” Diggns added. “It’s not. I get just as inspired and fired up by the younger athletes as I imagine they might get from the older athletes.”
Leadership is split among everyone, with each person taking on a different role. For example, earlier this week in Finland, Swirbul led the team in a TikTok dance — the first ever for Diggins and a way to build team spirit in a land where the sun shines only four hours each day.
“Everyone shares the burden,” Diggins said. “It’s not one person pulling the team. It’s every single person showing up every day saying, ‘How can I make this team a better place?’
“And if you’re not asking that question, you need to be.”
An award-winning freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered six Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.