This winter should be a “barn burner” for Nordic skiing enthusiasts here in the Northeast. By nature, skiers are more likely to participate than to spectate, and thanks to NENSA, the New England Nordic Ski Association, there are more events throughout the winter than ever before. But even devoted citizen racers will give up a day or two of training to watch the world’s best competitors if they happen to be racing in the neighborhood. This winter will provide several exciting opportunities.
The first chance to see future Olympians in our own back yard will be the World Junior Biathlon Trials, held at the Vermont National Guard’s Ethan Allen Range in Jericho, VT. During the final four days of 2010, America’s top biathletes under age 21 will be skiing and shooting for the chance to represent the USA at the World Junior Championships in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic. Our junior program has been improving, and it is likely that at least a couple of the athletes competing in Jericho will be serious contenders for the Sochi Winter Olympic Team in three years.
2011 begins with the U.S. Cross-Country National Championships at Black Mountain in Rumford, ME, January 2-8. The Chisholm Ski Club has a long and impressive history of developing world-class Nordic racers and holding first-class competitions. Recent improvements to their impressive lodge, the start/finish stadium, the team waxing rooms, and the parking area promise to make the 2011 Nationals even better than previous major events hosted at Black Mountain. The schedule will include a variety of distances and starting formats in both skating and classic techniques. Because of the relatively short race loops which frequently return to the stadium, Black Mountain is a terrific venue at which to see America’s best cross-country skiers vying for the coveted title of National Champion.
In February, the world comes to Aroostook County, ME. On the first weekend of the month, athletes from more than 20 nations will compete in the seventh World Cup of the season at the Nordic Heritage Center in Presque Isle. Many of the athletes who competed in last winter’s Vancouver Olympic Games will descend upon Northern Maine for three weeks of racing and training. Hundreds of local volunteers will conduct the events and make the international visitors feel welcome. School children throughout the region have been studying the participating nations and will be cheering for foreign athletes whom they have been following on the internet.
The third week in February, Biathlon World Cup number eight takes place in Fort Kent, ME, host of a very successful, similar event back in 2004. Biathlon is among the most popular televised sports in Europe, typically drawing audiences comparable to Monday Night Football here in America. Last winter, American Tim Burke achieved a breakthrough by garnering enough points in the early World Cup events to wear the coveted yellow jersey, a distinction awarded to the current World Cup leader. Never before in Nordic skiing had an American achieved that stature. It will be especially exciting to watch Tim and his teammates competing on their home turf.
For a change of pace from the national and international scene, during the final weekend in February, I recommend traveling to Middlebury College’s Rikert Ski Touring Center at the Breadloaf campus in Ripton, VT, for the Bill Koch League Festival. Named in honor of ’76 Olympic silver medalist Bill Koch, who grew up in Guilford, VT, the annual BKL Festival is a joyful celebration of youthful exuberance on snow. You’ll see the entire spectrum, from tiny Michelin men shuffling along in puffy snowsuits to lycra-clad middle schoolers who flash across the fields with flawless technique.
Finally, the second week in March, the University of Vermont hosts the Nordic events of the 2011 NCAA Championships at the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe. The competitions will feature a new race course that not only meets international standards, but also provides significantly better viewing opportunities for spectators, while at the same time eliminating inconveniences for recreational skiers. In recent years, athletes from eastern and mid-western colleges have shown progress against the traditionally powerful universities from the Rocky Mountains and Alaska, who recruit many of their top athletes from Europe. If you can’t make it to the Biathlon World Cups in northern Maine, you can experience a taste of the international flavor at the NCAAs in Stowe.
John Morton is a former Olympic biathlete and Nordic ski coach. He lives in Thetford Center, VT, where he designs Nordic ski trails. You can reach him through his website, www.mortontrails.com.